AIDS Consumes the Community

While many political activities continued, the AIDS Crisis had an incredibly strong, at times debilitating, influence over the actions of the LGBTQ community during the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s. Every gay and lesbian publication had multiple articles every month, and several AIDS service/care organizations sprang up in Richmond; in addition, Fan Free Clinic which had started out as a general clinic with outreach in regards to sexually transmissible diseases, began to see more and more patients infected with HIV and their services were more focused in that area. In addition, in 1986 MCV/VCU’s School of Medicine established a department to deal with the study of the disease and to help those infected with the virus. Local physician, Dr. Lisa Kaplowitz was the main force in starting the department and in the forefront of the AIDS fight in Richmond and in Virginia throughout the late 80s and early '90s. In 1989, she was appointed to the AIDS Legislative Subcommittee of the Virginia General Subcommittee and had a hand in creating legislature relating to the treatment of AIDS and the care of Persons with AIDS over the next decade.

One of the early references to AIDS in Our Own Community Press was in June 1982; the article talked about the new “gay diseases” affecting men including immunological suppression diseases and opportunistic infections, including several rare typed of pneumonia, and the “gay cancer,” Kaposi's Sarcoma.[1]

Over a decade passed before AIDS wasn’t close to the top of the page, literally and figuratively speaking, in local LGBTQ publications. In almost every edition of both The Richmond Pride and especially Our Own Community Press, from the early 80s, there was at least one article about AIDS. Our Own also included obituaries in most editions and it was not unusual to have several deaths reported due to AIDS-related illnesses; most of these deaths were young men between the age of 25 to 35. The illness consumed the communities' attention and resources (people and money) for most of the 1980s and early 1990s.

Fan Free Clinic created the RAIN program in 1983 to attempt to meet the needs felt by the community caused by the AIDS epidemic. RAIN was primarily staffed by volunteers, both lay and professional. Services included: an AIDS hotline, the advocate “buddy system” support groups for PWAs, HIV positives, significant others and a bereavement group as well as presenting workshops, speakers and technical support for human service workers.[2]The Richmond Pride reported that the Fan Free Clinic/RAIN operations also started staffing a volunteer attorney on Mondays by 1987.

In the June 1987 of The Richmond Pride is a report on a study on the transmission of AIDS; at the time, the true risk of acquiring AIDS and how it was transmitted were still somewhat uncertain. This major study iterated that “(1) that receptive anal intercourse is the major mode for acquisition of AIDS and (2) that subjects that engaged only in oral intercourse were free from AIDS at the conclusion of the 12 month period covered by the story.” These were important findings that with time would help tamp down the fear and paranoia and hysteria surrounding AIDS.

There was a massive White House demonstration to protest President Reagons lack of leadership, perhaps signaling a new era in AIDS activism according to Vic Basile , ED of the Human Rights Campaign Fund (now just Human Rights Campaign or HRC). Over 500 AIDS and gay and lesbian civil rights leaders, PWAs and their supporters staged an act of civil disobedience in front of the White House and 64 were arrested.[3]

Richmond AIDS Ministry (RAM) was formed in the late 1980s by a joint committee of the Catholic Diocese of Richmnond's AIDS Ministry Task Force and the Episcopal Commission on AIDS Ministry, to coordinate the efforts of the religious community to help in the fight against AIDS. Several needs were identified at the time: housing, practical support teams, the special needs of women, children and teens with AIDS, legal issues and fundraising. RAM held its first Practical Support Team Training on January 21, 1989 to give support to persons with AIDS and their caregivers. In addition a medication fund is being established to help buy medications for uninsured or under-insured AIDS patients. Both the executive director, Betsy Brinson, and deputy director, Steve Williams, volunteer their time because they feel the money is best utilized providing direct services.[4]

RAM subsequently opened several guesthouses in rented spaces in 1989. On May 23, 1994, RAM opened a new guest house for PWA in Forest Hill Neighborhood despite protest from neighbors. The new house “Steve’s House” was one of two identical 8 bedroom homes built at the time to provide residential care for people in the latter stages of AIDS who could not otherwise afford housing. The second house “Iris’ House” was scheduled to open in June of 1994. The new houses were built with a $1.4 million grant from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. RAM has filed applications with the Virginia Department of Social Services so that the two homes can be licensed as adult care facilities; until they receive that licensure no more than 3 people could be housed in each facility even though they were designed for up to 8 people.[5]

When RAM was still renting the space, the bars banded together to raise money for AIDS organizaitons. Our Own Community Press reported that Richmond clubs (Fieldens, Christophers, Pyramid and Babes) banded together to raise $7,000 for RAM on August 19, 1991. John Baumann, RAM executive director, said the money will be especially helpful since RAM opened and second guest house for PWAs. This house was designed for PWA in financial need and who don’t require nursing personal care. At the time many of the residents were waiting for approval of disability and/or medicaid. There was a second RAM house at the time that served PWAs who needed direct nursing care.

RAMs services also included a free monthly legal clinic, a clinic that provided free pentamidine (a drug that helped treat and prevent PCP, one of the major complications of AIDS) and a volunteer care team which helped PWAs in their homes.[6]Several people have indicated that the bars had an annual fundraiser that helped AIDS service agencies in the late 1980s and early 1990s and recently have started doing it again, the Second Annual Fun For a Cause, raising money for Fan Free Clinic, was held on Tuesday, March 30, 2010.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a lot of support for the AIDS service organizations, including RAIN and RAM. People volunteered and gave money as they were able. There were several high visibility fundraisers that mobilized the entire arts community in Richmond. The Artists for Life AIDS benefits held included performances by the Richmond Ballett, TheaterVirginia, Theater IV, The Virginia Opera, The Ezibu Muntu African Dancers, the Ululating Mummies, Melanie Snyder, Zoot, The Psychic Bricks and the Chris Burnside Dancers. Organized by Chris Burnside, Lisa Chumbly, Rob Gabriele, Des Kelly and Julie Lapham. The event raised money for the MCV AIDS Research Fund. Silent Auction in historic Richmond Dairy Building, featuring artists: Richard Carlyon, Diana Datamore, Gerald Donato, Joan Gaustad, Elizabeth King, Gail Nathan and Eleanor Rufty. The first event raised about $20,000 with an additional $10,000 for the auction. The event tapped into the community’s desire to help tackle monumental task of confronting the AIDS crisis.[7],[8]This event was an annual event for several years in Richmond, displaying the talents of some of the best of the Arts Community in Richmond.


  1. ”New Gay Diseases” Our Own Community Press, June 1982
  2. Beth Marschak and Alex Lorch, Lesbian and Gay Richmond, Charleston SC: Arcadia Publishers, 2008. p. 72
  3. "White House protest signals new era in AIDS activism" The Richmond Pride, June 1987
  4. "Organizational Profile: Richmond AIDS Ministry" The Richmond Pride, February 1989
  5. "RAM Opens new House despite protests" Our Own Community Press, June 1994
  6. Our Own Community Press, September 1991
  7. "Artist for Life AIDS Benefit to be Held May 20 & 21" The Richmond Pride, May 1988
  8. "Artists for Life - Benefit for MCV AIDS Research" The Richmond Pride, June 1988