- Thematic Exhibtions
- Photography Collections
- Presidential Interviews
- Browse Archives
- About the Archives
FRNY and the HIV/AIDS Epidemic
The New York Times on July 3, 1981, presented a short article titled “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” This article signaled the beginning of the global HIV/AIDS crisis, which would eventually kill nearly 600,000 individuals in the United States and 2.1 million worldwide. In New York, groups like GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis) were formed to provide services like counseling, health care, and home visits, to those affected by HIV/AIDS. Beside such community response, reaction to the HIV/AIDS crisis was met with indifference, fear and often outright hostility. For example, in 1986, New York Times op-ed columnist William F. Buckley argued, “everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals.” In Washington, President Regan practiced indifference, and only mentioned HIV/AIDS twice despite the deaths of over 20,000 by 1987. The lack of action by the political establishment prompted Larry Kramer to form ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), which engaged in street activism and was highly effective in drawing attention to the crisis and seeing that demands were met.
Some of the earliest work FRNY engaged in with respect to the HIV/AIDS crisis was information sharing. For example, in the April 1983 newsletter, President Steve Gerben writes that “With over 1,100 diagnosed cases of AIDS, almost half are right here in NYC, and of these there are over 200 dead.” The second role played by early FRNY efforts is organizing and fundraising. For example, in that same newsletter president Gerben writes that:
One only had to be present at the City Council hearings for the Gay Rights Bill to know how some of our opponents regard us. To them we are all disease carriers, and AIDS is our punishment for our lifestyle. We are considered the cause, not the victims, of AIDS. If the gay community is perceived as sitting back and not caring, and of letting these ideas go unchallenged, then we are indeed going to be in deep trouble.
Gerben uses this language to rally members to attend a fundraiser for GMHC (the Ringling Brothers Circus at Madison Square Garden), where he has reserved 100 seats that are eventually sold out. On the same day as the fundraiser, he and FRNY organize the “AIDS Fund Run” to benefit GMHC. Future benefit runs opened-up fundraising to a variety of LGBT groups, not just those providing services related to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. For example, benefit runners in 1986 could pledge money to any of the following groups, which indicate the breadth of LGBT groups available at the time: American Run for the End of AIDS, Gay Men's Health Crisis, Lesbian and Gay Community Center, Senior Action in a Gay Environment, National Gay Task Force, Gay Switchboard, Institute for the Protection of Lesbian and Gay Youth and Lesbian Herstory Archives. In 1989, runners could pledge money to ACT UP, Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center, Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, Team New York and NOW-NYC.
In December 1989, the FRNY newsletter included a notice of the formation of a HIV+ support group open only to members who were positive. Despite the fundraising and information sharing function that FRNY played, some felt that it was not enough. After the passing of long-time member Guy Zelenak, Andy Curry writes in the September 1991 newsletter:
More than he loved any individual member, Guy loved the club. He lived for Front Runners. He was our heart. But he always knew that the club could not deal with AIDS. He spoke to me about this several times. And so, when he came down with AIDS he felt abandoned. Nothing we did as individuals could relieve his resultant suffering. We tried our best but it was not enough. He needed the club to care. Many of us do. I suggest, as a living memorial, we weave our individual compassion into the fabric of our club and help it to acknowledge and act on this issue.
In 1993, FRNY officially incorporated the Charitable Foundation of Front Runners New York, Inc., with the purpose to “provide goods and supplemental assistance (i.e. food, clothing and other household products) to people diagnosed with Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), HIV infection, breast cancer, other cancers and other life threating illnesses.”
In conclusion, it is important not to historicize HIV/AIDS as if it were over. HIV/AIDS continues to inflect new individuals, especially young gay men, and the long-term consequences of the necessary medical treatments are only now starting to become apparent. In the immortal words of Larry Kramer, “Act UP, Fight back, Fight AIDS.”
Michael Bronski (2011), A Queer History of the United States, Beacon Press, Boston, MA.
Steve Gerben (2011), Front Runners NY – The Early History, available at: http://archives.frny.org/items/show/3313.
Curated by Anthony Cocciolo, 2015.