The Lesbians Who Walked Through Fire

For those of us who did not live through the AIDS Crisis, it is difficult to truly fathom the terror and confusion of the tragedy – the lack of information, suffering, and inevitable death many in our community faced. In celebration of the UK’s LGBT History Month, Reddit users shared their experience of living during the, at the time, ceaseless state of fear. They also highlighted a group of people who go overlooked despite their selflessness and sacrifice:

I do want to add this. There is a group of people that to this day get little credit for all the hard work they did during the crisis and that was the lesbian community. They were not directly affected by the spread of the virus but so many of them jumped on the bandwagon right at the beginning, gave everything they had helping out wherever they could and in many cases, led the way when things got really bad in the mid- to late 80’s. We should all be eternally grateful to them for what they did.

– Reddit user VillageGuy

This perhaps doesn’t surprise you – we are after all a relatively supportive community that share similar political and social agendas. Nevertheless, in 1970s there were separatist attitudes between gay men and lesbians that harbored deep resentment between the two groups. But as the epidemic took its toll, the lesbians stepped up even in the face of death, and did the work that other people feared to help those who had been infected:

I knew a woman around that time who’d had at one point been making bank in construction. But at the outset of the AIDS crisis she had abandoned her career to pursue nursing instead, and was close to her degree when we were hanging out. She was a big, hearty drinker, and fortunately so was I. We’d been utterly thrashed at a bar once when someone whispered a fairly benign but nonetheless unwelcoming comment about her. Middle fingers were exchanged, and afterwards, furious and indignant, I asked her, Why do you do it? Why did you abandon a career to take care of these assholes who still won’t pay you any respect?

‘She cut me a surprisingly severe look, held it and said, “Honey, because no one else is going to do it.” I remember feeling ashamed after that, because my fury and indignation weren’t going to clean blood and puke off the floor; it wasn’t going to do the shit that needed to get done.

– Reddit user arocklegend

Normally, I tend to summarize the history in the hopes of that you take something away from the post even if you don’t have the initial interest in history but this time I’ve decided against that. I feel that these first hand accounts of the crisis and the lesbians are so valuable and touching that I can’t possibly do them justice. I’ve decided to copy-paste some of them so if you can, please take the time to read through them. The least we can do is acknowledge the seminal role the lesbians played:

... These women walked directly into the fire and through it, and they did not have to. And that they did it even as some of the gay men they took care of treated them with bitchiness, scorn, and contempt…

…When the AIDS crisis struck, it would be many of these same women who would go straight from their jobs during the day to acting as caregivers at night. Because most of them lacked medical degrees, they were generally relegated to the most unpleasant tasks: wiping up puke and shit, cleaning up houses and apartments neglected for weeks and months. But not being directly responsible for medical care also made them the most convenient targets for the devastating anger and rage these men felt – many who’d been abandoned by their own family and friends.

These women walked directly into the fire. They came to the aid of gay men even when it was unclear how easily the virus could be transmitted. Transmission via needlestick was still a concern, so they often wore two or three layers of latex gloves to protect themselves, but more than once I saw them, in their haste and frustration, dispense with the gloves so that they could check for fevers, or hold a hand that hung listlessly from the edge of a bed whose sheets they had just laundered.

They provided aid, comfort, and medical care to men withering away in hospices, men who’d already lost their lovers and friends to the disease and spent their last months in agony. They’d been abandoned by their own families, and were it not for lesbians – many if not most of them volunteers – they would have suffered alone. And when there was nothing more medicine could do for them and their lungs began to fill with fluid, it was often these same women who’d be left to administer enough morphine to release them, given to them by the doctor who had left the room and would return 15 minutes later to sign the certificate (a common practice at the time)…

…HIV killed my friends, took my lover from me, and tore up my life. During that time, I did what I could. But nothing I did then or have ever been called to do in my life puts me anywhere near the example set by the lesbians I knew in the 80s and 90s. I’ve felt obligated to remember what they did, and to make sure other people remember it too.

– Reddit user arocklegend

As a lesbian if this era, I echo much of what OP says. While I was not ‘at risk’ (per se, we know more these days), we all lost many good friends. It is true that there is a somewhat mystifying (to me) separatist attitude between some gay men and lesbians, especially back then, this tragic time really brought us together.Sitting at the bedside of a terminally ill friend, and just holding their hand when everyone else was just terrified, was a gift I was one of those willing to give. No one should die alone, and no one should be in the hospital on their death beds with family calling to say “this was gods punishment”. My friends and I, men and women, acted as a protective layer for ill friends, and companion to mutual friends juggling the same, difficult reality of trying to be there, and be strong when we were losing our family right and left. Difficult times, that should never be forgotten.

– Reddit user h20rabbit

Our sister lesbians took on the care of these AIDS patients because no one else would. They were angels, and gave comfort to those dying.

I have to add, that not once did I ever hear them complain. They just stepped up to the plate, and did it. I’m humbled by their compassion and generosity.

– Reddit user Griffie

I also strongly encourage you to read through the Reddit thread HERE to get an insight into the crisis that statistics and facts alone can’t provide.