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“How Many Thousands?” Bruce Priebe on AIDS Activism

When AIDS struck the gay community during the early 1980ís, many who had not previously consider themselves activists, like Bruce Priebe, became politically active. Militancy, political action, and demands for rights and recognition within the gay and lesbian community had been building throughout the post-war period. While many homosexual men and women first expressed their sexuality during World War II, a period of relative, albeit silent, tolerance, the movement for gay rights became more assertive following the 1969 Stonewall Riot, when New York City police raided a gay club. The burst of community health activism in response to the AIDS epidemic built on these earlier expressions of “gay pride” and activism.

Listen to Audio:

PRIEBE: I was a nurse for eight years before I found out that I was HIV+. And I like to think that I was delivering healthcare in a caring, compassionate way and a way that did not bring any harm to anyone. And I didn’t have a personality change after I found out I was HIV+. I still feel that way. There are a lot of healthcare workers that are HIV+, including physicians. But we do not allow them to tell us that because when they do we hit them over the head with a hammer. So I can understand why people chose not to do it. Unfortunately, because again, that creates the illusion that there aren’t, that there’s just this isolated little group.

I don’t really consider myself a political activist, but you’d be amazed at how active you can become when this is happening to you and to your friends and your family. I think it’s called a lot of us into a type of activism that we might not have imagined seeing ourselves doing. We formed a civil disobedience group called the Forget-Me-Nots and we had t-shirts with pictures of people close to us who had died with their names and the dates of their birth and death. And we went to the Supreme Court and were arrested. And when we were at the FDA in 1988, we were chanting 40,000 died and I remember thinking, what a horrendous number of people — 40,000 people. And yesterday I read there were 153,000 people and God only knows how many thousands of people will have died by the time this film is seen.

Source: Interviewed by Tami Gold and Robert Rosenberg for the film “Facing AIDS: Stories of Healthcare Workers,” A Bread and Roses Production
Courtesy of Labor at the Crossroads