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The 1980s were a time of backlash and fear, much like the times we're experiencing today. They were also a time of personal growth and technological advancement.
The 1980s were a scary time for liberals. Reaganomics and the rise of the New Right, a conservative populist movement, became the overarching political force of the day. Not all that dissimilar to today’s right-wing populist movement—anti-tax, anti-regulation, small government, pro-gun, and anti-abortion— the New Right of the 1980s differed in a couple important ways. First, it called for a more powerful American presence abroad rather than today’s America First isolationist rhetoric. Secondly, although inherently racist and homophobic, it was generally more covert about it. Until, that is, the rise of a deadly new virus which devastated the gay men’s community.
“AIDS was sent by God as retribution for the gay lifestyle,” the religious right would scream from their pulpits. It took then President Ronald Reagan almost five years after the crisis was first identified to even acknowledge that AIDS existed. By that time, it was a full-blown epidemic. It was another couple of years after that, 1987, before the country sponsored its first AIDS awareness month. According to the far-right Evangelicals, the more sin-filled, evil gays that died the better.
HIV/AIDS was a big deal in what was known then as the Gay Rights Movement. Gay men were dying, bars and bath houses had to shut down, sex, especially indiscriminate sex with strangers, became dangerous, even deadly. Fear, sadness, grief, and trauma became everyday components of the gay experience. Many lesbians took on roles as caregivers to their gay friends and groups such as ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) gave people such as Rachel Maddow their start in political activism.
The early 1980s included completing my graduate social work degree at Boston University, developing a new relationship with Anne, a woman who would become my life partner for the next thirteen years, and encouraging her to move to Michigan with me so I could work with my friend and mentor Bonnie. Anne agreed to the move, but one of her unspoken expectations was that we live in the closet. For us that meant that rather than joining ACT UP or becoming involved in other parts of the gay rights movement, we became, for all practical purposes, lesbian separatists.
The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, an annual gathering of up to 12,000 (mostly) lesbians camping for a week in the Michigan woods in a world built, staffed, run, and attended exclusively by women, turned out to be our salvation. For one week each August we could be ourselves, protected from the onslaught of hate-filled news, safe from men who wanted to show us that all we needed was a real man, and free to express our love openly without worry or fear of discovery. Anne and I soaked up all the healing we could at the festival each year and left fortified to survive in what was jokingly referred to as Area 51, the 51 weeks of the year in the world beyond the safety of “The Land.”
After a forty-year run, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival held its final event in 2015. Its stated intention of being a festival for “womyn-born-womyn” caused controversy that started in the early 90s when a trans woman was asked to leave the festival. As the years went on and support for transgender equality grew, the controversy at MichFest grew stronger and more vocal. Lisa Vogel, Festival co-founder and organizer for all forty of those years, made the decision to close the Festival and let something new rise up in this time. Although MichFest is no more, and I understand and regret the pain it caused to my transgender siblings, I’m not sure how Anne and I would have survived the 1980s without it.
In 1983, I moved from what had been a decade of work in volunteer and professional capacities with small nonprofits organizations to the behemoth that was Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. I continued my work in the substance abuse field but in a much larger capacity, as I became the director of several inpatient and outpatient clinics throughout the metro Detroit area. It is here that I learned to manage large budgets and dozens of staff people from clerks to therapists and nurses. I developed skills there that served me well in my future professional roles.
One of the most valued material additions to my life in the 1980s came with my introduction to the world of computers. PCs would have a major impact on my life, especially in the late 1990s and into the early 2000s. I started with a Radio Shack TRS80 in the early 80s and then, by the end of the decade, graduated to an Apple IIGS, which had a color monitor and printer. What an advancement! Not only did it have a 5.25 and a 3.5-inch floppy drive, but it also had sound and a dizzying palette of 16 colors! My world would never be the same.
Unlike the 70s, I would not like to relive the 1980s. It was difficult to navigate the renewed political and social repression that would set the stage for even more to come. And yet, I can’t complain. I cherished my time with Anne and with so many other women who challenged me to grow both personally and professionally. Over the next week, I’ll share some of their stories, starting with Anne. I hope you’ll join me.
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