AIDS Crisis and Response

From the start, the AIDS epidemic disproportionately affected poor communities and people of color, both heavily represented in Newark. By 1989, the city ranked fifth in the nation in total number of AIDS cases [1]. While the epidemic’s devastation affected men, women, and children of all sexualities, gay men of color found themselves without access to many of the social institutions, such as church and family, that heterosexuals often took for granted. The ballroom scene provided crucial emotional sustenance, community, and support during the 1980s and 90s. Anthropologist Karen McCarthy Brown, who studied the Houses of Newark during the 1990s, described voguing as a form of ritualized “performative anger,” as when thirty-year-old Angel Vizcaya unleashed several white doves from a skirt while walking a runway in 1998 -- a powerful performance delivered a week after his brother had died from AIDS-related complications. She also noted that in the ballroom scene, Latinos (the fastest growing local demographic) “count as blacks" [2].

1987 Task Force Report.png

1987 Task Force Report

Throughout these years, support for LGBT rights emerged occasionally from dominant social institutions. For a brief moment in May 1974, the New York Times reported that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Newark would support a proposed New York City antidiscrimination ordinance covering lesbians and gay men—though the Archdiocese backed away three days later, explaining that an editorial had not been properly vetted [3]. Local Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong proved one significant voice, leading a church Task Force on Changing Patterns of Sexuality and Family Life whose bold 1987 report advocating church recognition of same-sex couples drew national media coverage. A prolific author, Spong consistently supported LGBT rights in such books as Living in Sin? A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality (1988) [4].

Meanwhile, grassroots activists strained to fill the growing gaps in service provision brought about by the loss of manufacturing jobs, the Reagan administration’s budget cuts to cities and social services, and the growing number of uninsured Americans concentrated in urban areas. The Newark Community Project for People with AIDS was incorporated in 1988, and other important organizations followed. ASPIRA, a long-running Latino youth group, began to sponsor HIV/AIDS prevention education workshops, and in 2001, Gary Paul Wright founded the Office of African American Gay Concerns, a community organization with a focus on HIV/AIDS prevention work.



[1] Lena Williams, “Inner City Under Siege: Fighting AIDS in Newark,” New York Times, February 6, 1989.

[2] Karen McCarthy Brown, "Mimesis in the Face of Fear: Femme Queens, Butch Queens, and Gender Play in the Houses of Greater Newark," in Passing: Identity and Interpretation in Sexuality, Race, and Religion, eds. Maria Carla Sanchez and Linda S. Schlossberg (New York: NYU Press, 2001), 209, 222, 211.

[3] George Dugan, "A Diocese Backs Homosexual Bill," New York Times, May 18, 1974; "Archdiocese Spurns Its Paper's Policies," New York Times, May 22, 1974.

[4] Ari Goldman, "Newark Bishop Seeking to Bless Unwed Couples," New York Times, Jan. 30, 1987; John Shelby Spong, Living in Sin? A Bishop Rethinks Human Sexuality (New York: HarperCollins, 1988).