Miriam Frank Photo By Christa Orth 1

Miriam Frank, photo by Christa Orth

AIDS Changed Everything - by Christa Orth

It’s all too rare that we examine HIV/AIDS and LGBT experiences through the lens of class. Jim Hubbard, Miriam Frank and I took the opportunity to present our various works on this topic at the Labor and Working Class History Association conference in New York City last month. We highlighted the important contributions of AIDS activists fighting for justice on the front lines of ACT UP and at the AIDS service organizations where they worked.

We dubbed our panel “AIDS Changed Everything.” At a time when AIDS was devastating communities across the United States, activists came together in the streets, and in their labor unions, to save lives. And these heroes included people of all genders and socioeconomic classes, not merely affluent, gay white men.

Jim presented a clip from his film United in Anger: A History of ACT UP that showed ACT UP’s four-year campaign to redefine the CDC definition of AIDS to include women, poor people and IV drug users. Men and women from diverse ethnic and class backgrounds toiled together in the streets, in CDC boardrooms, and in the legal system to get the federal government to include serious medical conditions that affected the health of, and in many cases, killed, women and IV drug users.

ACT UP was ultimately successful in 1992, and more people with AIDS were able to access critical disability benefits. Activist Maxine Wolfe appears in the film and says, “There were gay men, there were women of color, straight women of color, lesbians of color. There were straight women. It was every possible kind of person that came together…People came together to work on that, that everybody said would not work together. They spent four years working on a campaign about changing the CDC definition for women and for poor people and for drug users, and that is something that nobody ever says about ACT UP.”

Miriam presented a chapter from her forthcoming book Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America, which offered an overview of AIDS service organization employees that organized union shops for various reasons. Her examples of Whitman Walker Clinic in Washington DC, San Francisco AIDS Foundation, Gay Men’s Health Crisis, and the Edelman Clinic in Los Angeles show that even at a time when labor organizing was declining in the U.S., HIV/AIDS workers organized to demand better working conditions, pay, and benefits for themselves and their families. Miriam writes “These were workplaces that were both ripe for unionism and collectively fabulous.”

One of Miriam’s stand-out points was that the onset of the AIDS crisis coincided with President Ronald Reagan firing over 11,000 unionized air traffic controllers for defying the no-strike ban for federal workers. This activated labor leaders across sectors. One of those leaders was United Food and Commercial Workers executive vice president Bill Olwell, a gay man who became a board member of Whitman Walker Clinic in 1992. Bill supported the workers at Whitman Walker to get a union in 1993.

I presented a piece of my master’s thesis Brothers and Sisters (and Everyone in Between): Sexuality and Class in the Pacific Northwest. I was an employee of the Northwest AIDS Foundation, which was only the second AIDS service organization to unionize in 1989. Through oral history interviews with people I worked with, I discovered the complexities of sexual and class identities at a queer workplace. As the foundation grew from a grassroots organization that employed openly LGBT people and AIDS activists, it began to professionalize. Workers felt alienated, and wanted to preserve the dignified service they provided their clients. But, when workers with union experience called in Service Employees International Union, it was difficult to get everyone on board with fighting for their rights as workers. Hazel Van Evera, one of the workers who called in the union described the sentiment as, “We’re not widget workers, we’re white collar workers.”

Many of the employees, who were educated and came from middle-class backgrounds, felt more of an affinity with their fellow LGBT managers than they did with the union. Despite this clash of sexuality and class at work, workers’ persistent desire to protect their clients and their community kept them fighting for workplace rights. The organization, which merged with Chicken Soup Brigade to form Lifelong AIDS Alliance, still holds a union contract 24 years later.

Our presentations sparked audience reflections on the enormity of AIDS in their own lives and workplaces. One woman recalled that the struggle for domestic partner benefits had been key in her union. Union activists argued that everyone should have the right to add their partner and children to health benefits, and that this was a way to include non-LGBT co-workers in the fight for LGBT rights, reminiscent of ACT UP’s effort to include people of all backgrounds in the fight for better protections for people with AIDS. The audience conversation turned to the impending same sex marriage rulings (which are now a foregone conclusion) and whether the rulings would overrule the legal status of domestic partnerships. This outcome would not be in the spirit of inclusion, which was the way these rules were dreamt up by LGBT activists.

As we continue to move through the AIDS crisis and fight for LGBT rights, we have to remember those who came before us and teach a new generation of activists about the interconnectedness of oppression. We must continue to address discrimination in a comprehensive way, and strengthen the movement by fighting for the rights of the poor, transgender people, universal healthcare, and equal rights for everyone. We must explore the ways that class impacts our experiences of HIV/AIDS, and of our queer identities, and harness the power of our different class backgrounds to make changes that empower us all.

Christa Orth is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY. She writes for the ACT UP Oral History Project, is on the board of MIX NYC: Queer Experimental Film Festival, and is a proud Lambda Literary Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @christamaeorth.