A new book by Chicago author Victoria Noe pays tribute to dozens of unsung heroes of the AIDS/HIV crisis, chronicling myriad contributions from straight women who, since the early '80s, have intervened in numerous capacities to give aid and comfort to those persons impacted by the infection.
"They felt compelled to help, knowing that they'd get little to no recognition, and it's been that way since the beginning," said Noe. "It's still that way, but maybe a little less so. It was certainly that way for the first 10 or 15 years."
Fag Hags, Divas and Moms: The Legacy of Straight Women in the AIDS Community, published in late March, documents how numerous women around the world stepped up in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, even when government, media and the general public were all in the dark about AIDS' origins and its potential consequences. Among those persons Noe profiles are healthcare providers, researchers, religious personnel, mothers and celebrities.
Noe's book shatters a number of stereotypes about who was doing much of this activism work. She notes, for example, that numerous members of the Junior League were early activists on behalf of persons with AIDS, volunteering at hospices and day care centers dedicated to their care, at a time when many Americans were not willing to do so.
Noe said, "They'd been doing that since 1986. There's such a stereotype about Junior League membersit sort of blows up that stereotype."
The organization shared with her their vast records that detailed the work, not attributing to them much importance.
"The international office in New York and the [local] office in San Francisco just sent me stuff," Noe said, adding that upon actually reading the materials, she'd often end up asking Junior League officials, "Do you know what it is that you have here?"
Indeed, many of the persons she profiled did not see any significance in their accomplishments.
"It wasn't about [service] awards, or anything like that," said Noe, who said she tried to present a mix of different stories.
She was especially proud to be able to tell the story of Trudy James, an Arkansas hospital chaplain who noticed that few of the AIDS patients in her charge received visits from family or friends. James eventually coordinated a large-scale program that linked persons with AIDS and their families with pastoral volunteers, essentially developing an AIDS ministry; she was nevertheless adamant that those volunteers were not allowed to proselytize, however. She eventually moved and founded a similar program in Washington State.
"Linking these patients with church volunteers was unheard of, even here [in Chicago]," Noe said. "The relationship between those two communities was tense, to put it mildly."
Noe added that, when she contacted her, James similarly questioned why an author would be interested in her story.
Noe herself put in much time contributing energy to AIDS-related causes and activism, and did worked as a fundraiser for various organizations. She doesn't remember if any one incident or development specifically inspired her to become a active, she said.
"I think it was just the growing worry," Noe recalled. "At the beginning, it just seemed so small. Then it was like it just exploded. I was in the theater, so it was affecting people that I worked with and guys that I went to college with. I was outside the [LGBT] community, but it was reaching me."
Another reason the story Noe tells has largely been ignored is that society overall has failed to comprehend how a group of straight women could have been profoundly affected by HIV/AIDS. Noe said that her physician years ago scoffed when she first asked to be tested for HIV.
"He asked, 'Why would you need to be tested? What have you been doing?'" she recalled. "I said, 'Why shouldn't I be tested?' … That was because the narrative, at least for the first 15 years, was overwhelmingly about gay men."
The energy around this particular moment in AIDS activism died down with the advent of AZT triple-therapy in the mid-'90s, Noe said. But her book details a number of contemporary straight women who are making their voices prominent in HIV/AIDS activism.
"The Positive Women's Network is doing remarkable work, mostly with minority women," she said. "What I also love is that today's divas are women of color and are younger. The divas of the old days were mostly older and white, and there's nothing wrong with that. But now, they are women who are younger, mostly African American, and can harness social media. They are able to reach their communities in ways that someone like me could not do."