1981: Doctors identify first cases of what they term "Gay-Related Immune Deficiency" (GRID). Soon the disease's name is changed to AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome).


Click icon to view clip of Common Threads, courtesy of Telling Pictures Productions, Couturie Company and the NAMES Project Foundation, 1989.

In early 1981, doctors in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco simultaneously began reporting strange symptoms in some of their gay male patients. All the patients had compromised immune function. At first the strange new disease was termed a "gay cancer," since it primarily struck gay men. The radical right and social conservatives trumpeted the illness as "God's judgement" on gay people. Government did little to further research efforts, and the medical establishment was initially baffled as to the cause, much less the cure, for the disease. Two years into the epidemic, researchers discovered the virus (Human Immunodeficiency Virus or HIV) that caused the disease, but it took yet another two years before the first test to detect HIV was licensed in the United States. By then, nearly 9,000 people had been diagnosed with the disease, and half of them had already died. Seventy percent of the recorded cases were gay and bisexual men, and the gay community was devastated by the epidemic. Once-thriving gay neighborhoods like the Castro in San Francisco or New York City's Greenwich Village became grim communities of the ill, the dying, and the powerfully afraid.

In the face of government inaction and indifference, gay men had to organize themselves to fight the disease, creating AIDS-service organizations like Gay Men's Health Crisis in New York and educating each other and the public about how to prevent infection.

Concerted and prolonged efforts to promote safer sex among gay men have managed to slow rates of HIV transmission in gay communities. Gay activism has promoted the discovery of new AIDS drugs. Today, new combination drug therapies have shown promise in prolonging the lives of people with HIV and AIDS, but they are expensive and relatively unproven. From 1985 on, it became increasingly clear that HIV and AIDS were making inroads into other populations, forcing mainstream society to take greater notice of the epidemic. There is still no cure for AIDS.

Source: Miller

1981: The Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press is founded by Barbara Smith, Cherrie Moraga, Audre Lorde, Hattie Gossett, and Myrna Bain in New York City. That same year, Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua co-edit This Bridge Called My Back: The Writings of Radical Women of Color.

Women of Color Organize

Throughout the 1970s, lesbians of color began to organize apart from white gay-rights and feminist groups. Just as lesbian feminists questioned their ties to gay men, many women of color began to seek a better understanding of their own interests and the place of their experience in the larger gay- and lesbian-rights struggle. Both with gay men of color and on their own, lesbians of color created organizations to explore and address their concerns. Groups like Salsa Soul Sisters (1974), Lesbianas Unidas (1980), and the Lesbian and Gay Asian Alliance (1979) began to force white gay men and lesbians to think about the impact of racism on gay and lesbian communities and activism.

At the same time, women writers and scholars of color began to recover aspects of their own cultures and history. Writer, editor, and historian Barbara Smith has contributed several volumes on the African-American feminist and lesbian experience, including Home Girls (1983) and All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave (1981). Moraga and Anzaldua's This Bridge Called My Back was also a groundbreaking work. The poetry and essays of Audre Lorde made both the personal and political force of this exploration clear, urged and inspired women of color to speak out, and challenged all women to engage with each other across their differences.

Source: Hogan/Hudson