LGBTQ Pride Month: Honoring LGBTQ and Ally Activists Who Led the Fight Against AIDS

As health and government officials across the world work to manage the COVID-19 crisis, some liken the increased impact of the pandemic on the African American community to that which the LGBTQ community experienced during the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has served as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, stated in a press conference on April 7, 2020,  that “ it was only when the world realized how the gay community responded to [the HIV/AIDS] outbreak with incredible courage and dignity and strength and activism … that really changed some of the stigma against the gay community. Very much so.”

INSIGHT honors several LGBTQ individuals and allies who stepped up as public health activists to raise awareness and fight the spread of HIV/AIDS, including some who lost their lives to that disease or to the world’s latest pandemic.

Colevia Carter is a Black lesbian and HIV/AIDS activist who galvanized women in the 1980s to help fight the spread of the disease. Carter organized a major conference on the role of women in combatting HIV and AIDS in Washington, D.C., in 1984. She went on to lead a program in the city’s correctional facilities that educated incarcerated people about the illness. After 19 years of this work, Carter was appointed Washington, D.C.’s State Adolescent Health Coordinator, a role in which she directed the Synergy Adolescent Health Project that focuses on HIV/AIDS programs for children, teens, and women.

Larry Kramer is a playwright, activist, and co-founder of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), a leading organization in the fight against HIV/AIDS. In addition to his work with GMHC, Kramer sought to humanize the effects of that pandemic through theater. His play The Normal Heart, which debuted Off-Broadway in 1985 and was revived on Broadway in 2011, depicts the rise of the crisis in New York City in the early 1980s. In 1987, Kramer founded the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, a highly influential protest group that continues to push for healthcare reform. The now 84-year-old Kramer lives in New York City.

Terrence McNally, a gay man born in 1938, was a prolific playwright who used theater to expose mainstream American audiences to LGBTQ issues, including the threat of HIV/AIDS. His 1991 play Lips Together, Teeth Apart explored themes of homophobia and common reactions of straight people to AIDS. His 1994 Tony Award-winning work Love! Valour! Compassion! depicted the diversity of gay men, including one dying of AIDS and another who is HIV-positive. McNally died on March 24 as a result of complications from COVID-19.

Dr. Gita Ramjee, born in Uganda, was an LGBTQ ally and international leader in combatting the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Eastern and Southern Africa. As director of the HIV prevention unit at the South African Medical Research Council, she focused strongly on mitigating the spread of the virus in women, working to empower them in cultures and communities where men were dominant. Ramjee died of COVID-19 on March 31 at the age of 63.

Reggie Williams was an African American gay man who dedicated himself to improving HIV/AIDS prevention efforts for other men of color. Williams served as a role model by openly sharing his HIV-positive status. In the 1970s, he began his career as an X-ray technician at Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai Hospital, where he saw a growing number of patients being treated for what was then called Gay-Related Immune Disease. Williams went on to serve as head of the National Task Force on AIDS Prevention from 1988 to 1994, conducting a groundbreaking national survey that revealed the scale of the threat of HIV/AIDS to Black men and women. Williams died of the disease in 1999 at the age of 48.

Liaam Winslet is a transgender woman and peer educator for the Transgender Family Program at the Community Healthcare Network in New York City, providing health and social services to low-income residents. Winslet is originally from Ecuador; after surviving physical and verbal abuse for her transgender status, she emigrated to the U.S. in 2012. Prior to her move, she became involved in HIV prevention and education efforts after a friend was kicked out of her home for being HIV-positive. Winslet started working with young transgender sex workers to raise their awareness of the disease and prevention strategies. In 2016, she became a member of the International AIDS Society, the world’s largest association of HIV professionals.

Ginger O’Donnell is the assistant editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article ran in the May/June 2020 issue.