Invisible Neighborhoods: Activism Within AIDS

This is a continuation of the series “Invisible Neighborhood,” which explores the historical and present spaces in which Pittsburgh’s LGBTQIA+ communities live and thrive. Read the first section here.

In the 1980s, AIDS took hold of Pittsburgh, but only increased the activism in the LGBTQIA+  community. LGBTQIA+ folks were now more visible than ever in Pittsburgh and in the rest of the world, but not of their own accord. They were in support of one another as people, and with full respect of each others’ identities.

“The AIDS crisis is a moment of trauma that stimulated belonging and reciprocity,” Apple said.

In response to the crisis, The Pitt Men’s Study in Oakland launched in 1984. The study focused (and continues to focus to this day) on medical research on the natural history of HIV/AIDS, following approximately 3,000 men to gather information on the epidemiology, virology, immunology, and pathology of the virus. August “Buzz” Pusateri, an activist and community member, was one of the first participants of the Pitt Men’s Study, where he first tested HIV positive. The year 2015 marks his 36th year as an HIV positive survivor. He was elected to the board advisory chair in 1984.

Everyone panicked at the emergence of AIDS. Donald “Donny” Thinnes, owner of Donny’s Place, was afraid to even use glass bottles in fear that the virus was being transmitted through them. 

“We just wanted to protect the customers,” Thinnes said. Donny started asking customers to donate blood for the Pitt Men’s Study and in return, they would get a free drink. This was reciprocity at the most basic level.

Out of the Pitt Men’s Study sprung the Lambda Foundation’s AIDS Task Force. Then, in the late 1980s, the Lambda Foundation started the Fairness Campaign to fight the rescinding of the anti-discrimination bill that gave lesbians and gays human rights in Pittsburgh.

Robert “Lucky” Johns became a major force in the community by the 1980s. One of Lucky’s close friends and fellow bar owners Chuck Honse managed the restaurant New York New, which became “activism central.” Currently, the 5801 Lounge stands there. They would meet on the second floor when Honse opened up the dining hall as community space on weekends.

The imagined community became very real and concrete. At the end of the 1980s, Lucky’s clubs stopped serving their purpose as central spaces. Colleges had gay and lesbian unions, counseling centers were available, picnics were hosted year-round, and more people started “coming out” at an earlier age.

“All these things combined brought about the decline, if not the demise, of Lucky’s clubs,” Co-researcher in the Pittsburgh Queer History Project Tim Haggerty said.

Honse was once told that “if you fight for the rights of gays and lesbians to go wherever they want, you’ll be left in the cold and your business will die.” He knew he could not retreat from the fight. This was something he attributed to Lucky.

“I knew it was the right thing to do and I knew my customers would always make sure I was taken care of, because I was able to give them a voice,” Honse said. “That was Lucky’s teachings. I had to do that. I always heard his voice in the background and he was right. That’s exactly what happened in this community. People are free to go where they want.”

In so many accomplishments of the Pittsburgh gay community and history, the romantic tellings cannot overlook the erasure of certain parts of the community.

“It is a disruptive truth that the phenomenon of sexual community is always contextualized by system racism,” Apple said. “There is an underside to belonging that exceeds the heterosexual/homosexual binary.”

Almost as if to confirm Harrison’s conclusions, organizations and organizers like the Garden of Peace Project and the Pittsburgh Black Pride celebration gained momentum in bringing awareness to the systemic racism and segregation of the LGBTQIA+ community. The fight to make the queer and trans POC community visible for many of these organizations stemmed from the idea that while white gays and lesbians were being recognized and supported, POC and their basic needs fell to the background of the fight.

Stay tuned for the next installment in the series, entitled “Visibility to the “T.””

This article originally appeared on QueerPgh.com. This article is preserved as a part of the Q Archives project. Please consider donating to help preserve Pittsburgh’s Queer history.