Before AIDS: Gay Health Politics in the 1970s traces the emergence of a vibrant and multi-faceted gay medical infrastructure during the 1970s. Many have assumed that gay health clinics grew out of the early AIDS crisis but some of the longest-lasting and impactful actually started a decade before the emergence of what we now know was HIV/AIDS. In fact, their political origins are as diverse as their geographic locations. Researching the history of these clinics and the creation of a gay medical infrastructure offers an opportunity to explore a full spectrum of forces at work during the gay liberation era.
NOTCHES: This book is about the history of sex and sexuality, but what other themes does it speak to?
Batza: The state is a major theme here, as is the cross pollination between social movements in the 1970s. The book ends with a bit of a reckoning of queer politics in the neoliberal political landscape in which gay health centers operate today.
NOTCHES: How did you research the book?
Batza: Researching this book was extremely difficult as few of the clinics kept great records in their early years, and those that were kept were often thrown away to make room for patient files in the AIDS crisis. Combined with the casualties of the AIDS crisis that decimated the ranks of early gay health organizations and activists, I had to really think creatively about sources. Oral history became incredibly important as did related personal papers. To check facts and provide context I drew upon a wide array of mainstream and gay newspapers as well as medical journal articles and conference proceedings. Now that I am well into researching my second book I can see just how much muscle went into finding sources for this book.
NOTCHES: Whose stories or what topics were left out and why? What would you include had you been able to?
Batza: LESBIANS! I tried for about two years to fit the lesbian struggle for healthcare story into this book. Ultimately, there were a few factors that made me leave them out of Before AIDS. First, lesbians were doing a ton of health activism, but only a small portion of that work was lesbian specific, namely the fight for lesbians to gain access to fertility treatments and some clamoring for research into lesbian infection modes and rates for sexually transmitted diseases and infections. The volume of activism related to gay men’s health was much greater than that for lesbian health, even though lesbians were key to the larger women’s health movements.
Second, lesbian health issues were of a different type, scope, and urgency than gay men. in the 1970s, there was not a lot of knowledge about lesbian cancer rates or other health disparities. Instead, lesbians mostly wanted access to gynecological care that did not assume the need for birth control or inevitable pregnancy. Gay men were dealing with venereal disease infections that were at epidemic proportions and were often in late stages when diagnosed.
Third, lesbians were doing most of their activism in different spaces, often as a result of sexist behavior in gay male dominated spaces and clinics. Telling a coherent story in one book of two different groups working on completely different health issues in different clinics affiliated with different political movements was more than I could figure out how to do, though I did spend two years trying. Ultimately, I wrote an article on the lesbian fight for fertility services that has been published and am currently working on a public history project that includes both lesbian and trans community reproductive justice issues.
NOTCHES: Did the book shift significantly from the time you first conceptualized it?
Batza: I had originally wanted it to be thematic, but couldn’t figure it out and so my dissertation was organized by the individual clinics. However, as I began to revise for the book, I finally understood the material in ways that made a thematic layout much easier. It was a full revamp, but one that I like much more.
NOTCHES: How did you become interested in the history of sexuality?
Batza: I know this is a bit hokey to say but I fell in love with History from my first history class in 6th grade. When things happened in the world around me and in my life, I would go learn the history. When I came out in 8th grade, history let me down; there were no books in my library on LGBTQ history. So now I try to make sure that doesn’t happen to other history nerds out there!
NOTCHES: How do you see your book being most effectively used in the classroom? What would you assign it with?
Batza: I really wrote this book to be teachable and accessible in the arguments, the writing, and the length. The thematic chapters I think make it easy to use in a wide variety of class settings whether it is a discussion about 1970s political movements, queer activism today, the state as a force in LGBTQ community creation, or LGBTQ medicine.
NOTCHES: Why does this history matter today?
Batza: My book is about people identifying their health disparities, politicizing them, and then finding ways to address them 40+ years ago. They made important institutions and laid the groundwork for that work to continue today. The sad part of the story is that health disparities still exist across the board for LGBTQ identified people for a whole host of reasons. The fight still continues and it is a fight about life and death and sickness and health. That matters.
NOTCHES: Your book is published, what next?
Batza: I am writing a book on the early AIDS epidemic in the United States heartland region called AIDS in the Heartland. I am also creating a walking tour and podcast on the reproductive justice history of Boston (inspired in part by the lesbians that got left out of my book). Finally, I am teaming with a handful of Applied Behavioral Biologists and medical doctors to study disparities in LGBTQ health and healthcare access that continues today with the hope that we can diminish those disparities on a larger scale. It is a bit of a research project juggling act, but I am loving it all.
Katie Batza is an Associate Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Kansas. Her work has been supported by the NEH, ACLS, Mellon-Schlesinger Summer Fellowship, American Philosophical Society, the University of Kansas, the Hall Center for the Humanities, and Point Foundation. She studies the intersection of health, sexuality, and politics in the late-twentieth century United States.
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