Do You Know How Awesome Beth Broderick Is?
Women, HIV & Creating Momentum
by Chael Needle
When popular media summons the past, it is often through the lens of nostalgia. We relive old emotions and get a thrill from recognizing what is familiar. It’s a shortcut to a bubble of happier memories, the comfort food of history. Why else would Walmart bank on Depeche Mode’s early ’80s tune, “Just Can’t Get Enough,” in one of its commercials? Why would Presidential candidate Joe Biden walk on stage to Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own,” which was also used by Barack Obama during his 2012 run, as Kit Fitzgerald of the Daily Iowan pointed out?
But even if we aren’t being explicitly sold something, the past is reassurance on repeat.
I remember first watching Stranger Things, a recent Netflix show whose first season takes place in 1983 in small-town America not unlike where I grew up, and I enjoyed seeing so many touchstones from my teen years: Barb’s cropped hair-do and owl-sized glasses; banana-seat bicycles; the synthesizer-based score and songs by post-punk bands like Echo and the Bunnymen; and the sweaters, white with candy-colored horizontal bands with a cable knit diamond pattern, that Nancy Wheeler wears during Season One. Even the font used in its title is a nod to Stephen King novels of the era.
Nostalgia as a way to connect to history is a faulty mirror because it only invites us to see what has already been made prominently visible in the past. History in this sense can become a matter of selective memory. The 1980s, as we understand them today, is a decade packaged to appeal to a certain demographic, probably white, middle-class, suburban, heterosexual, and then young enough to be watching John Hughes movies at the movie theater. We are more apt to know who Molly Ringwald and Andrew McCarthy are than what the Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament is.
One limit of sentimentalizing nostalgia is that it can obfuscate what happened. Many of us, even those of us who were teens at the time, cannot think of the early eighties with pastel fondness. Many of us look back in anger, still charred by the rage directed at a government that ignored the AIDS epidemic, healthcare workers that disowned patients, and a general public that generalized people with HIV/AIDS as victims of their own moral degradation. Or we feel dread—throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, I was convinced I would be dead by age thirty. HIV/AIDS is not—and never should be—ready-made for nostalgia.
The mistake of nostalgia is pretending that our cultural represenations are somehow comprehensive. Like a time capsule buried in the schoolyard, the artifacts of nostalgic history are shaped by whoever had been elected or selected to add something. In this way, our “official” history might have gaps in it—erasures even—that do not allow us to see the facts as clearly as possible. Often, our “official” histories in the U.S. have erased or marginalized nonwhite individuals impacted directly by HIV/AIDS, injection drug users, individuals who were living with hemophilia, and women, among others. Our histories tend to focus on (white, middle-class) gay men, who indeed were devastatingly impacted but who also had the means to produce a sustained cultural (and activist) response to HIV/AIDS. So, now we have a multitude of representation through poems, novels, short stories, films, works of art, plays, and A&U, which started off as an archive of artistic responses to the pandemic.
However, as we are still making history, we need not overlook the women who made strides in addressing the needs of people living with HIV/AIDS (and who were not Dr. Mathilde Krim or Elizabeth Taylor), some of whom we featured in our magazine’s pages from our first decade of publication: musician and artist Diamanda Galás and writers Paula Martinac and Lesléa Newman [January/February 1993]; artist Rebecca Guberman [October 1997]; actress Morgan Fairchild [December 1997]; Classical Action’s Ruth Felt [November 1998]; Sisterwoman’s Altheal Ware [December 1998]; AEGIS founder Sr. Mary Elizabeth Clark [October 1999]; Reverend Elder Alfreda Lanoix [December 1999]; Friends in Deed cofounder Cynthia O’Neal [January 2000]; national AIDS policy advisor Sandra Thurman [February 2000] writer and activist Sarah Schulman [August 2000]; and National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS founder Debra Fraser-Howze [March 2001]; and one of our most revered columnists, Patricia Nell Warren. This list represents only a fraction of the women that A&U has covered; there are many more to name and celebrate.
In the early days of the epidemic, in an effort to provide care for individuals living with AIDS on a personal and institutional level, women helped create momentum. And one early AIDS activist, in particular, actress Beth Broderick, literally helped create Momentum, a New York City-based, all-volunteer organization that provided food to some of the most vulnerable individuals living with HIV/AIDS.
The Momentum Project (in partnership with BOOM!Health since 2014) is still thriving today, twenty-six years after its launch. Its mission is “enhance food pantry, congregate meal and nutritional services for homeless New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS and other chronic medical conditions in the Bronx and Manhattan.” The organization provides communal meals and grocery bags, nutritonal services, nursing/health education, relapse prevention and harm reduction services, and housing advocacy, among other services.
When I prepared to interview Broderick for A&U’s March 2001 cover story, I had known her from Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Psycho Beach Party, and many of her other roles, but I hadn’t known the extent of her activism, which embraces not only women’s rights and empowerment but also HIV/AIDS services. Working with other founders, including Peter Avitabile, Eric Meyers, Larry O’Toole, and others, Broderick helped to set up services for individuals who were food insecure and living with HIV/AIDS, at first in the basement of St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan. Momentum had thirteen clients at the start; within eight months, 250 individuals had become clients. They were determined in part to end the isolation that many living with HIV/AIDS felt and so offered a big communal dinner, and then they quickly added a free grocery store and free clothing store to address more of their needs.
Although Broderick and the others at Momentum had doors shut in their face when asking for help, others got caught up in the momentum.
During the interview in 2001, she shared this story: “One of the things that has been my great privilege about working with people with AIDS for all these years is the number of heroes that I’ve been exposed to and met. Both in the gay community and the straight community. That has really been the great privilege of my life. I remember going into a bakery once on Ninth Avenue in New York City—it was in the days when I would literally go door to door to restaurants and other places trying to get donations of food. I would go in and ask, ‘What can you give me?’ Restaurants would give me big pots of soup. I was very hard to turn down! Pretty persistent! I walked into this bakery and I spoke to the woman and I realized she didn’t speak English, so I told her in Spanish what my story was, that I was working with these boys who were very sick, and that I need donations. And she said, ‘Could you wait here? I’m going to go talk to my husband.’
“When she went into the back, I looked around—I was running so fast, I didn’t look where I was going half the time—and I thought: ‘Oh my God, these people are so poor.’ The pastry cases had maybe a dozen pastries total and there was a fly buzzing around the room. And I thought, ‘Oh, God, why did I ask them? They don’t have anything to give.’ Then her husband came out and they literally emptied the store. They gave me everything they had. And they said, ‘You come back anytime.’ It still makes me cry when I think about it. That I’ve been exposed to that kind of magic and that kind of goodness in people—it has informed my whole life.”
So, as Beth Broderick shows, we need not document history by forgoing emotion. We just need to avoid the factual surgery that nostalgia performs to remove what doesn’t sell cars or stultifying and oppressive political ideas. The pain should remain, as should what made our hearts sing.
For a well-researched and comprehensive account of (straight) women’s contributions to the HIV/AIDS community, check out Fag Hags, Divas and Moms by Victoria Noe [A&U, July 2019]. Read our cover story interview here.
For more information about Momentum, visit: www.boomhealth.org/solutions/food-and-nutrition.
Read a powerful meditation on the early days of AIDS epidemic, “Larry 1984, by Beth Broderick: http://bit.ly/3dUKP8Z.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U. Each month, he honors thirty years of A&U’s publication in this column. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.