1980’s – “A Decade of Challenge and Change”

The last article of this column recounted the 1970’s, from the Presidential campaign of George McGovern through the time of Harvey Milk. This article will review the 1980’s, a time of enormous challenge and change for the community.

Alice Reports, May 1987

In the 1970’s, Alice had played a significant role in many great successes for the community. Alice was the first Democratic organization in America to champion LGBT rights. Alice’s first goal, decriminalizing homosexuality, had been significantly achieved in California with the passage of Willie Brown’s AB 489 to decriminalize sodomy. As Alice became a success, other Democratic organizations began to appear throughout America following Alice’s model. With the successful election of gay elected officials in San Francisco, it would seem that the 1980’s would be the start of a new era of positive changes for the community. But as we all know, with the onset of AIDS, this was a decade of enormous challenge.

In 1980 Alice worked successfully to help accomplish one if its founding goals, by establishing the first lesbian and gay rights platform within the Democratic National Party (adding “sexual orientation” to the civil rights section). San Francisco delegates Jim Foster, Bill Kraus, Anne Kronenberg, Larry Eppinette, Gwen Craig and Harry Britt and others successfully lobbied Jimmy Carter to include gay rights within the national party platform, eight years after Jim Foster gave the first speech before the party demanding this change. From this point forward, the Democratic Party would publicly state its goal of attaining civil rights for gay and lesbian people. It was a great victory for the trajectory of our movement, but the loss of the Carter Presidency to Ronald Reagan, coupled with the onset of AIDS shortly after, would be a devastating combination that would prove catastrophic.

The ‘Reagan Revolution’ was significantly fueled by opposition to the Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade in 1978 and the growing visibility of the gay community through wins like AB 489. This was the period that the ‘culture wars’ really began to take off in America. Reactionary politics began to emerge with groups like Jerry Fallwell’s “Moral Majority”, Don Wildmon’s “American Family Association” Phyllis Schlafly’s “Eagle Forum” which were formed with the specific purpose of demonizing LGBT people as ‘anti-family’. It was in this context that the first cases of AIDS emerged, and the disease was cast immediately by American conservatives within their culture war against LGBT people. Where other illnesses might illicit a national health campaign, the religious right took this opportunity to use tragedy as a way to moralize about homosexuality. The Federal Government was entirely unresponsive to this epidemic at first, and it took several years and thousands of lives lost, and his friend Rock Hudson became ill, before finally Ronald Reagan even mentioned the word AIDS.

In this ugly context, Alice became active in several ways. First, Alice President Connie O’Conner changed the club’s name to be a “Gay and Lesbian” Democratic Club. The first and most important action of the community was to encourage everyone to ‘come out’. In the face of crisis, it was critical that voices be heard and people stand up and be counted for change.

Second, Alice worked closely with Federal representatives Phillip Burton and Nancy Pelosi to take the lead in fighting for research funding to fight the disease. This fight also was fought on the grounds of the American Culture Wars, and it took a boy named Ryan White to be the face of this illness, for Congress to pass an act that finally began to fund the fight more appropriately. Alice and San Francisco representatives fought at the forefront of this battle, as San Francisco had been disproportionately impacted by the disease.

Third, Alice worked with friends in the local community to help those who were sick. The disease was impacting everyone in the community, and this was a time when everyone came together to help their friends.

Fourth, Alice fought with the community to support people with AIDS, particularly in fighting against California’s LaRouche Initiative, (Proposition 64, 1986), which proposed to quarantine people with AIDS. Like the Briggs Initiative a decade earlier, the LaRouche Initiative was an attack on our community that failed, and also became an organizing point for our community to rally together. Alice was a veteran organization that helped organize politically to stop that attack.
An important role Alice also played as a veteran community organization was to help fill the gaps for services that were not yet established by the community. A great example of this was the public relations campaign to stop media exploitation of people with AIDS. In this decade, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation was just getting started and needed the support of already established organizations to help fight the media response to AIDS, which was either silent in the face of the epidemic, or reported with homophobic/AIDS-phobic narratives.

In 1986, San Francisco local TV station KQED ran a PBS Frontline news story on a man with AIDS named Fabian Bridges, who they represented as a ‘Typhoid Mary’. The reporters described Bridges as an HIV positive homosexual who had six partners a night and implied that he was a prototypical man with AIDS. The reporters didn’t mention that Bridges was financially in dire straits and was working as a prostitute, and that they paid Bridges for the exploitative interview. Alice joined the Milk Club and others in the community to fight this type of exploitative reporting, and after that, KQED appointed a gay man for the first time to their Board to help maintain greater balance in their reporting. This was just one example of many in the fight for fair media reporting on this issue.

By the end of the decade, Alice played an important role in helping the community deal with a devastating crisis, but it took a great toll on the people of our club. By 1990 so many of Alice’s members had died that the future of the club remained in question. The Reagan Revolution stalled the discovery of treatments for AIDS, and the future continued to look frightening. It was in the 1990’s, with the discovery of Protease Inhibitors, that the community finally began to see progress in the fight against AIDS. It was also in the 1990’s that Alice and the San Francisco LGBT Community began to breakout as a powerhouse in local politics.

Next Month, this column will continue as we move forward into the 1990’s, a time when the San Francisco LGBT Community began to establish itself as a formidable force in local politics.

Nathan Purkiss, Emeritus Board
Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club

Follow this link for other articles in this series and for events marking the 40th Anniversary

Download the old Alice reports here:


Note to Editors:

Here are some links that would be great to use for above, wherever you think they fit:

Link to the 1980 Democratic Party Platform: http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=29607#axzz1Ze1S9XQO
Link for “The Reagan Revolution”: http://emayzine.com/lectures/1980S.htm

Here is a link on Reagan’s legacy on AIDS that would be good to put somewhere: http://articles.sfgate.com/2004-06-08/opinion/17428849_1_aids-in-san-francisco-aids-research-education-cases
Link for “Culture Wars”: http://www.enotes.com/culture-wars-article
Link for Jerry Fallwell: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerry_Falwell
Link for “American Family Association”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Family_Association
Link for Phyllis Schlafly: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phyllis_Schlafly
“The first cases of AIDS Emerged…” here is an interesting link on AIDS History: http://www.avert.org/hiv-aids-history.htm
Link for Ryan White: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ryan_White
Link for Ryan White Care Act: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ryan_White_Care_Act
Link for Rock Hudson: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rock_Hudson
Link for the LaRouche Initiative: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Proposition_64_(1986)
Link for the Briggs Initiative: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Briggs_Initiative
Link for Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation: http://www.glaad.org/
Link to 1986 LA Times story on Fabian Bridges: http://articles.latimes.com/1986-03-27/entertainment/ca-1098_1_aids-victims
“So many Alice members had died” – link to Jim Foster Alice Reports Obituary: http://www.outhistory.org/wiki/images/5/55/1990_11_Alice_Reports.pdf
Link to “Protease Inhibitors”: http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/bl_protease_inhibitors.htm

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