Fag Hags, Divas and Moms: The Legacy of Straight Women in the AIDS Community
by Victoria Noe
An excerpt from the chapter, “Volunteers”
Nonprofit organizations, including AIDS service organizations, rely heavily on volunteers. Today’s huge nonprofits, like GMHC (formerly known as the Gay Men’s Health Crisis) and others, did not start off with paid staff and office space. They were born around kitchen tables, over coffee at a local diner, or late at night in a neighborhood bar. They were born of desperation to meet overwhelming need. Sometimes armed only with an idea and the desire to do something, the groups started with people eager to donate their time and money and energy to addressing the epidemic.
Women showed up at these new, passionate and often loosely structured organizations to help out in any way they could. Many of them were in unfamiliar territory, not just thrust into the LGBT community, but in close contact with people with AIDS. Some were close to a friend, a colleague, a family member who had AIDS, or someone who had already died. Some volunteered as a way to thank that organization for their support of that person. Others had no idea how they could help. They just wanted to.
Nothing says “straight woman volunteer” like the Junior League. While traditionally viewed as merely white-gloved, upper-class, elitist white women, the organization has a far more interesting history.
Founded in 1910 by Mary Harriman, daughter of financier Averill Harriman, the initial group was called The Junior League for the Promotion of Settlement Movements. These ten young debutantes were inspired by the work of Jane Addams at Chicago’s Hull House, instrumental in assimilating immigrants. They determined to raise money for an initiative called The College Settlement, where college students and graduates would live among immigrants to learn about their needs. Harriman believed that privileged young women like herself had the opportunity—and obligation—to leverage their exalted positions in society to improve the lives of a vulnerable population. The idea caught on—eighty more women joined The Junior League the first year.
Issues impacting women and children have always been at the forefront of The Association of Junior Leagues International (AJLI). Their current service projects focus on issues such as human trafficking, environmental advocacy, domestic violence, career development and since 1986, AIDS. Their mission is now shared by over 150,000 women in 291 Leagues in four countries. Their most famous members include Eleanor Roosevelt, Sandra Day O’Connor, Eudora Welty and Shirley Temple Black.
In 2016, Martha Strayer [Russel] was honored with the Mary Harriman Award, AJLI’s lifetime achievement award. Her Junior League experience began in Erie, Pennsylvania. An early, passionate environmentalist, she confronted Hammermill Paper Company about their waste disposal system, which had ruptured in 1968, causing a noxious black plume to seep into an abandoned gas well in Presque Isle State Park. In 1974, now in Toronto, she was asked to serve as Junior League of Toronto’s representative on the board of Planned Parenthood, helping establish a youth health clinic that disseminated birth control information, which had just become legal. In 1988, she became a founding director of Fife House.
Housing programs for people with HIV, typically found in large, old houses or apartment buildings, began to spring up around the country in 1985. Often referred to as “supportive housing,” they were structured to provide more than just physical shelter. Residents were supervised by on-site managers who coordinated staff and volunteers to ensure that their needs were met. Whether it was transportation to doctor appointments, communal meals, therapy or social outings, these houses became the most nurturing homes many HIV-infected people had ever known.
Fife House, the first housing program in Toronto, opened in 1990, serving five people with HIV/AIDS. Now operating five sites, it provides 80% of the supportive housing services in that city. Adjusting to the demands of the epidemic, its services now also address the needs of older people with HIV whose health is complicated by cognitive and other aging issues.
Russel’s accomplishments are impressive, but they represent a fraction of the organization’s involvement in the AIDS epidemic.
In every League, members sign up for projects that can be one- time only events (“Done in a Day”) or year-long commitments. Echoing the group’s original mission, many projects focused on the impact of HIV/AIDS on women and children. But they soon expanded beyond that.
In 1986, the Junior League of Los Angeles became the pioneering group committed to projects within the AIDS community, establishing the AIDS Community Education Outreach Project in partnership with AIDS Project L.A. (APLA). They staffed a hotline and began a corporate speaker’s bureau. Subsequent projects included coordinating the volunteer program for Caring for Babies with AIDS and co-sponsoring Ask Us About AIDS with Culver City Youth Center, a peer counseling program for at-risk adolescents in that city. Eventually, sixty other Leagues would establish their own AIDS projects.
As early as 1987, The Junior League of San Francisco was working with two established nonprofits organizations: The Shanti Project, founded in 1974 to support people with life-threatening diseases including AIDS through peer support programs, and Home Care & Hospice Project (a project of JLSF, Visiting Nurses and Hospice of San Francisco).
One of the new wave of Junior League members who maintained busy careers, Susan Gatten was first confronted with the epidemic when a colleague at Charles Schwab died from AIDS in 1982. She was responsible for convincing the JLSF to award a $35,000 grant to Shanti, the first large donation they’d received from a non-gay group. And while that was a good start, Gatten wanted the League to do more. “Our city,” she wrote as president to the members, “has never faced a more formidable foe. More San Franciscans have already died of AIDS than were killed in the Great Earthquake of 1906.”
Gatten understood the unique position of the women in Junior League by creating a speakers’ bureau that could influence the corporate community in ways the gay community could not. The chapter faced down community opposition to open Hope House, a halfway house for women with HIV who had been formerly incarcerated. And through their work with Shanti, helped dispel misconceptions about Junior Leaguers and change their own beliefs about the gay community.
In April 1987, Gatten used her position as president of JLSF to introduce a resolution at the Association of Junior Leagues international conference, calling on its 170,000 members to get involved in AIDS work.
In 1988, the provisional class (first year members) of the Junior League of Montclair-Newark, NJ took on a project involving infants. At that time, Newark had the highest number of pediatric AIDS cases in New Jersey. The women adopted Babyland IV, a daycare center for children with HIV, aged three months to three years. The class renovated the center, providing fundraising, caregiving and administrative support for the children and their parents.
Recognizing that volunteers needed information to fight the epidemic, AJLI began publishing the “AIDS Network” in 1989. Sent to every Junior League chapter, the newsletter shared resources, conferences, training programs and funding possibilities, along with articles that informed, educated and corrected myths.
Each individual league sends out regular correspondence to their members. AIDS was the special focus of the January 1989, issue of “Fogcutter” sent to the San Francisco league. One-third of the issue was devoted to updates on current projects, legislation and education. But perhaps most heart-breaking was an anonymous essay written by one of the JLSF sustainers (a member who has achieved a ‘retired’ status).
In it she relates the fear and shame she experienced when her husband was diagnosed with AIDS. The pain of his excruciating decline was matched only by the shame and determination to keep his secret. Most of their family and friends did not know the truth. Like many LGBT partners, she did battle with insurance companies and faced off against family members who refused to visit while her husband was alive, showing up only after his memorial service for their expected inheritance. At the end of her essay she begged for compassion and offered to speak to anyone who had questions. But even among friends, she was unwilling to identify herself.
Also, in 1989, the Junior League of Mexico City developed an AIDS education component for all of its existing projects (Project LEAD, Woman to Woman, Alcohol and Drug Awareness and the Women’s Health Clinic) that served youth, women and parents. Their involvement began when they were approached by CONASIDA (National Committee for AIDS) to partner with them and the Secretaria de Salud (Secretary of Health). The League members were trained in AIDS education and prevention and eventually created Mexico’s first AIDS information forum, working in health clinics and public schools.
That same year, the Junior League of Annapolis helped create a Teen Pregnancy/AIDS prevention project and convened the AIDS Task Force Coalition in Anne Arundel County, a coalition that included local health, education and social service offices as well as YWCA, Annapolis Gay People, Jaycees, American Red Cross and more.
Throughout the country in the early days of the epidemic, Junior Leagues provided hands-on service in a variety of ways. In addition to educating themselves, they created AIDS awareness and educational programs in communities such as Honolulu, Sarasota, North Little Rock and Tyler, TX.
Their involvement was not only defined by direct service or fundraising. The structure of AJLI and individual Junior Leagues includes an active public policy committee, identifying issues of importance to women and children on the local, state and federal level and pro-actively advocating for them.
Many ‘outside’ organizations stepped back from partnering with AIDS organizations in the late 1990s. And though their projects have dwindled now to a few, Junior Leagues continue to support the AIDS community…..
Fag Hags, Divas and Moms; The Legacy of Straight Women in the AIDS Community, by Victoria Noe (King Company Publishing, Chicago Illinois). © 2019. All rights reserved. Reprinted with persmission.