May 3, 2010
Amber Hollibaugh: Speaking for an Invisible Population
by Lauren Tuck
Amber Hollibaugh wants you to know that lesbians do get HIV—and they deserve attention.
Amber Hollibaugh lived the first year of her life in a converted chicken coop in back of her grandmother’s trailer. From there she moved to Las Vegas, became a prostitute and witnessed injustices that fueled her HIV advocacy. Back on the East Coast, she helped found the groundbreaking Lesbian AIDS Project (LAP) in 1990. Now 64, after years of championing the rights of the invisible demographic of lesbians with HIV/AIDS, she has an even bigger vision for the future of civilization.
You have said yourself that lesbians with AIDS are virtually an invisible population. How have you tried to change that?
When LAP started up, it was unusual to have a women’s HIV/AIDS project. A group of dykes asked GMHC [New York City–based Gay Men’s Health Crisis] to fund the project. We knew lesbians were getting HIV, but they were invisible because woman-to-woman sex is not the primary way lesbians contract the virus. Drug use, poverty and sex work were only just becoming part of the conversation. LAP did outreach at the detox centers, outpatient clinics, community centers and alternatives-to-prison programs they had used themselves. Through this, we found tons of dykes who were HIV positive but had never been reached. Women who have sex with women fall into categories where there is increased risk. They are often women of color; they may share needles, have sex with men in exchange for housing and food in order to care for their children or to satisfy a drug addiction. Women who have sex with women are unseen—invisible. And as a result it’s still considered appropriate to question whether lesbians can get HIV. It does really matter, even if people don’t think that it is a critical issue. For all the women that sleep with each other and are infected, it’s life and death.
Why did you choose activism and organizing, a life of advocating mostly for others, since you don’t have HIV yourself?
I wanted to show that my politics come from my own experiences, from being raised in trailer parks with little hope for a middle-class future, to becoming a femme lesbian, an AIDS activist and a writer. From my perspective as an uneasy member of many movements, I wanted to help people feel that the women’s, queer and community-of-color movements aren’t mutually exclusive—they can deal with one another’s issues.
How did you get out of the trailer park and to your current level of activism?
I was poor, I was mixed race, I was queer, and I had no hope. If I hadn’t been lucky enough to be of an age when political movement exploded then I would be dead by now. I stumbled into union activism at the early point of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s. Although I wasn’t very articulate, and in the beginning unclear about why I was doing what I was doing, for personal reasons I felt very strongly about things like racial justice. Both my father and grandmother were branded by the Ku Klux Klan, and [racism] wasn’t abstract in my life. For that reason I became a part of the opening of social justice movements. They gave me a place to grow, find books, have an intellectual life, be an activist and learn how to do organizing. I consider myself lucky that I was at a historical moment when something burst into view and I could be a part of it. Organizing gave me a world that educated me in a way that otherwise I never would have had any access to. If you don’t know something exists, it’s hard to find it.
Coming from where I came from, I had no idea how big the world was. I was hungry, but I had no idea how to find what I was hungry for, and joining the civil rights movement, women’s movement, the queer movement, the anti-war movement, gave me access to poetry and dreams. Anger—that I had plenty of. But I didn’t have much direction. If I hadn’t had a political movement that I could join, I wouldn’t have a voice, I wouldn’t have written a book, I wouldn’t have led programs, I wouldn’t have made films, because I would’ve been in the same trailer park where I grew up. So I want to try and change the world so people don’t have to escape it in order to be safe.
What advice would you give to the people in your childhood situation—in the trailer parks—today?
People who come from complex and often unrecognized backgrounds, identities, circumstances and places where they feel real shame about their lives [can] move on. What’s happened to them is not what their future has to be. There are ways to find possibility.
I’m an activist. I’m a public intellectual and a thinker but not in an academic way. I only went to high school. I’m high femme, I’m a mixed race, white trash girl, and I have never ever moved away from a radical vision of social change. I want a different world, and the work I do is to try and build that world, not to put a Band-Aid on it.
Click here to read a 1994 profile of Hollibaugh in POZ.
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