In May 1983, gays and lesbians in five major U.S. cities took to the streets to demand federal action in response to the growing AIDS epidemic. In Los Angeles, a larger-than-expected crowd of 5,000 demonstrators met at the Wilshire Federal Building, a coldly modern 17-story structure whose windows are shaded from the sun by white concrete fins. On this day the fins blocked a softer light.
As the western sky darkened, the demonstrators lit thousands of candles in a somber vigil to honor departed friends and lovers, and to hope against hope that the dying would soon end.
Since the mainstream media devoted few resources to AIDS in the 1980s, it’s unlikely that a full recording of the event exists. But the first 30 minutes of the demonstration, which I recorded on cassette tape for Pacifica Radio, has been preserved by the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives.
Today, we often place the beginning of AIDS activism in the late 1980s, when members of the direct-action group ACT UP launched a high-profile campaign that included occupying the New York Stock Exchange and shutting down the Food and Drug Administration. While those historic efforts gained international media coverage, they were not the first political mobilizations in response to AIDS.
The 1983 candlelight demonstrations in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Houston showed how effective the community had already been in leveraging the support of local and federal officials just two years into the epidemic.
A Weird and Wonderful Coalition
Among the speakers at the L.A. event was city council president Joel Wachs, a boisterous young attorney who managed to stay closeted despite half-jokingly floating a proposal to tax all male adults in the city based on the size of their genitals. He shared the stage with colleagues Zev Yaroslavsky, a committed Zionist who taught Hebrew at local temples, and Pat Russell, a New Age seeker of enlightenment who kept a flotation tank in her house and would later serve as the first female president of the city council.
The community’s most important supporters, congressional representatives Henry Waxman and Ed Roybal, were back in Washington pushing the Reagan administration to confront the epidemic. Despite resistance on the right, they were largely responsible for securing $12 million in research dollars that year. Aides for the men read statements of solidarity and urged the demonstrators to continue applying political pressure.
Roybal, born 100 years ago this week in New Mexico, is one of the unsung heroes in the fight against AIDS. While many in government saw the disease as God’s judgment on gay men, he understood the public health threat of the growing epidemic and work tirelessly to raise awareness and research funds. As the first Latino elected to Congress from California in the 20th century, he understood the pain of being stigmatized. Years earlier, when he opposed a measure requiring communists to register with the LAPD, Roybal and his young daughters were spat on by a mob outside city hall.
Waxman, too, understood the need to protect the rights of the unpopular. When a colleague asked him why he fought so hard for AIDS funding, he replied, “I am a Jew, and I understand what it means if your society doesn’t care if you live or die.”
Rage and Resolve
The recording of the demonstration reminds us that anger at the Reagan administration’s slow response to AIDS was forcefully expressed from the earliest days of the epidemic.
The event’s organizer and emcee, Matt Redman, tells the crowd, “Let’s put the screws to the Reagan administration.” And he blasts Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services Edward Brandt for asserting that AIDS funding was adequate. “That’s bullshit,” he declares.
Redman, a Southern California designer, was one of the founders of AIDS Project Los Angeles, a social service agency that would grow from a single telephone hotline into one of the largest and most effective AIDS programs in the nation. A longtime AIDS survivor, he is now retired. (Editor’s note: Matt died of complications of AIDS on Dec. 27, 2016. He was 67.)
For more on the early years of the AIDS epidemic, including additional audio from the candlelight vigil, listen to a one-hour documentary I produced in June 1983, which has been preserved by the Pacifica Radio Archives in Los Angeles.