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AIDS: History panel looks at healthcare and identity issues
by Erica Demarest, Windy City Times

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The American Historical Association ( AHA ) 's Committee on LGBT History continued its conference programming Jan. 7 with a panel discussion on the relationship between identity and LGBT-related healthcare.

Judith Houck ( University of Wisconsin-Madison ) kicked things off with a look back at Lyon-Martin's complicated history. Founded in San Francisco in 1979 "by lesbians, for lesbians," and named after Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, feminists and well-known lesbian-rights activists, the famed healthcare clinic was originally designed to cater solely to needs of queer women. But as cultural dynamics shifted and the AIDS epidemic hit, Lyon-Martin's clientele changed dramatically.

"By donating their time and money to the clinic, lesbians believed they were taking care of their own," Houck said. "As AIDS hit, however, a new set of women desperately needed affordable and culturally sensitive healthcare. Many people associated with Lyon-Martin eagerly shifted their focus … . Others, however, resented and resisted the turn away from lesbian services."

Fairly rapidly, Lyon-Martin moved from serving predominantly white lesbians to splitting its attention with lower-income, straight women of color. Many traditional donors felt isolated, and fundraising suffered.

"They did not embrace HIV/AIDS treatment as their own cause," Houck said. "Women who had thought they'd built [ a space ] for their own community found 12 years a later a facility they no longer felt connected to or responsible for."

Ironically enough, that very shift helped Lyon-Martin expand its operations. HIV grants paid for the clinic's first full-time doctor, and today, HIV/AIDS and homelessness grants account for half the organization's budget.

The question of identity continues to be problematic for Lyon-Martin, which has faced possible closure several times. But for one reason or another, Houck said, the queer community continually mobilizes to keep the clinic, now known as Lyon-Martin Health Services, afloat.

While identity politics have been a source of strife for Lyon-Martin in San Francisco, they helped bring together Chicago's Howard Brown Health Center in the 1970s.

Catherine Batza from the University of Illinois at Chicago presented a paper titled "'I Want You for a Free VD Test': Making Sexual Health Part of Gay Identity in Chicago, 1974-81." Batza illustrated how identity served as a catalyst for positive sexual health practices among Chicago's LGBT community.

In 1973, then-medical student David Ostrow founded the Gay Medical Students Group as a response to the largely insensitive, overcrowded and incompetent care people were often subjected to in clinics. Ostrow realized many LGBT Chicagoans weren't visiting clinics, so he brought clinical care to the community.

With the help of social services organization Gay Horizons, the fledgling group provided HIV testing and other medical services in a local coffee shop. Ostrow and his team also partnered with local bars and bathhouses to disseminate information and provide testing.

"Howard Brown Memorial Clinic's interest in outreach contributed to the bars and baths of Chicago becoming visible, if somewhat improbable, venues for gay sexual health in the 1970s," Batza said.

Howard Brown soon started a 'VD van' that traveled to LGBT hot spots and offered free testing. But on its first run, only four people agreed to be tested.

"The lackluster turnout reflected the distrust that the gay community had for mainstream medicine based on decades of persecution and mistreatment," Batza said.

Realizing that looking like mainstream medical providers would continue to be a detriment, Howard Brown hired popular local drag queen Wanda Lust as a spokesperson. Armed with campy humor and an Uncle Sam-inspired "I Want You … for a Free VD Test" poster, Wanda Lust enticed record numbers of people to the van.

"She really symbolizes gay liberation," Batza said. "There is no shame here: I am out here doing what I'm doing, having a great time … . It's a fun thing. We're all going to acknowledge that this is a problem within our community."

As participation increased, VD rates in the city dropped, illustrating how effective a tool identity can be in addressing medical issues.

John Goins from the University of Houston also presented his paper "Politiking the Gay Cancer: Electoral Intransigence and the AIDS Response in Houston." Goins detailed gay activism in Houston during Louie Welch's reign as mayor. Welch famously suggested that one way to curb the AIDS epidemic would be to "shoot the queers."

Leisa Meyer from the College of William and Mary emceed the panel and presented commentary. Houck's paper was titled "Treating Men at a Lesbian Clinic: Identity Politics, Feminist Organizing, and Health Care Provision, 1979 to the Present."

The 126th meeting of the American Historical Conference convened Jan. 5-8 in the Chicago Marriott Downtown, 540 N. Michigan Ave.

This story is part of the Local Reporting Initiative, supported in part by The Chicago Community Trust.

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