30 years later: amazed, dismayed and still angry

By Janice Thom, Director of Operations for Development, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force

The Task Force's Janice Thom.

It was my first job in the big city and sitting across from me was the biggest sissy I’d met since kindergarten. Matthew spied a young dyke from the provinces and made me his project.

In short order, I was living around the corner from him in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and spending time with him and his lover. And then they decided that I simply needed to meet more people. Which is how I found myself in a tiny, messy office space on lower Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, arguing about an indexing scheme for newspaper clippings with the staff of the then-National Gay Task Force. And meeting men who were suddenly spending lots of time at hospitals, gay men who were hemophiliacs and were frightened.

And then being the only woman on the very first toll-free hotline for information about this new disease. There was the night a news crew from one of the big New York television stations came in to film actual homosexuals with “it” and two camera-men wouldn’t come in the room and the one that did wore gloves. Regular winter gloves — latex gloves weren’t de rigueur as yet. All this while most of the people in the room hid their faces.

The Task Force was, at that frightening, confusing moment as the epidemic began to scour Christopher Street, the only gay thing around with a toll-free phone number attached. I took calls from men who wanted to know if their one-night stand was a death sentence and people wanting to know if you could get sick from kissing. But, because we did have this 800 number, I also took calls from teenagers standing in phone booths on the side of the road in rural Florida whose family had thrown them out, not for having AIDS but simply for being gay, who had no place to go. I’d find the number for an MCC or a local PFLAG and wake up some nice woman who’d take the number at this phone booth and promise to call the kid. Then there was the guy who’d call about weekly, asking if he could speak with a woman because he’d be more comfortable and, until we caught on, basically jerk off while asking me what it was women really wanted in bed “because you’d know.”

But mostly it was a bunch of us handing out what we knew; you were fine unless you were promiscuous, you might get it from spit, you couldn’t get it from a toilet seat and no, your 87-year-old father won’t get it from his Haitian day-nurse. Or even from sitting on that Haitian cotton upholstery you just spent all that money on and are thinking about throwing out. And lesbians definitely couldn’t get it. ACT UP was still to come, GMHC was just being born.

And then my friends and their friends starting getting sick. In the 1980s, they didn’t stay sick for long. I wrote obituaries and went to funerals and memorial services with my friends from Heritage of Pride. In churches where nothing was familiar, I sat and gazed at beautiful windows, wondering what I was doing there. I lent my best friend enough money to get his first six months of AZT. I know I got off light — friends just a few years older spent more time at the single funeral home here that would bury people who’d died of AIDS than they did at work and thumbed through address books filled with disconnected numbers. I know people who lost nearly everyone they knew.

Thirty years on, here I am, a little amazed at how things tie themselves together, whether you were paying attention or not. I’m also amazed that this epidemic isn’t over. A lot has been accomplished — there’s no denying it. But people are still dying in the closet — they’re dying because of the closet — and we all know there’s some queer kid standing on the side of the road who still has no place to go. Frankly, it makes me angry, it makes me miss Bill and Lester and Martron and Mike the photographer whose last name we never even learned before he died. But there is some pride in working at a place where, even when we had nearly no idea what was happening, the Task Force was among the tiny number courageous enough to do something.