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Historian Batza talks gay clinics' origins at book launch
by Lauren Emily Whalen
2019-01-06

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On Jan. 4, Women & Children First welcomed a standing-room-only crowd for the launch of Before AIDS, historian Katie Batza's book about gay health clinics in the early 1970s.

Singles, couples and even children hung on to Batza's every word as she discussed Boston's Fenway Clinic, Los Angeles' The Center and Chicago's Howard Brown Health.

Batza—an associate professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Kansas—addressed the misconception that clinics originated during the AIDS crisis, when they were actually in full swing by then. She talked about her initial fascination with Howard Brown, when she was a PhD student at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

"The Howard Brown building was an important windshield at the end of a very cold commute," Batza said, laughing. "I started imagining how the clinic took shape: a movement of people coming together and fighting an epidemic. Turns out, I was wrong."

Batza also spoke of the "VD van" that pre-dated the clinic. She described the Winnebago that would tour gay bars and offer free STI testing to patrons, funded by the late Chuck Renslow, owner of Chicago's then-largest bathhouse Man's Country.

"Chuck did a really good job paying off the Chicago police," Batza said, when asked if cop harassment was an issue. "He was definitely in the machine."

The highlight of the launch was Batza's colorful description of Wanda Lust, the drag queen who is featured on Before AIDS' cover. Lust would stand outside the "VD van" wearing six-inch heels and say, "Come on, sweetheart. Get tested or I won't let you screw me tonight!"

When asked who would play Lust and Renslow in the movie of Before AIDS, Batza was ready: "Dolly Parton and a young Burt Reynolds."

A woman piped up with her two cents: "I think Brad Pitt!"

Before AIDS is available online and at Women & Children First, 5233 N. Clark St.


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