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Affection is Our Best Protection

Gay men and lesbians were the first to respond to the growing AIDS epidemic of the early 1980s, providing care for and information to those who desperately needed it. Working to counter inaction by governmental entities, activists insisted that the fight against AIDS required eliminating fear of gays and lesbians, and disseminating new ideas about sexual health.

  • Large group of people, all holding one arm up, underneath white text that reads “Fight the fear with the facts, Call 1(800) 922-AIDS.”

    “Fight the Fear with the Facts” poster, AIDS Project Los Angeles, circa 1986

    Courtesy National Library of Medicine

    Dedicated and extensive networks emerged to care for people with AIDS. Across the country, volunteers delivered food, visited the homebound, and staffed hotlines to answer questions. Their efforts existed in direct opposition to the profound societal abandonment many people with AIDS had experienced.

  • Callen on right seated in front of typewrite, Berkowitz on left leaning on desk.

    Michael Callen (at typewriter) and Richard Berkowitz, 1984

    Courtesy Richard Dworkin

    In 1982, Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz, two gay men with AIDS living in New York, invented the practice of safer sex, forever changing the way people dealt with and prevented AIDS.

  • Cover of report, which is white with smaller black text at top in a box, and larger text near middle of cover.

    How to Have Sex in an Epidemic: One Approach, Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz, 1982

    Courtesy Richard Berkowitz, Richard Dworkin, and Joseph Sonnabend, MD

    Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz’s short manifesto described ways for men to be affectionate and sexual while dramatically lessening the risk of spreading and contracting AIDS. This booklet was one of the first times men were told to use condoms when having sex with other men.

  • Two shirtless men. One man is behind the other, leaning on the other man’s shoulder.

    “If you really love him…Rubbers—Every Time!” poster, Black Gay and Lesbian Leadership Forum, Los Angeles, 1985

    Courtesy National Library of Medicine

    In response to a pervasive myth that AIDS was a white gay disease, black gay and lesbian organizations created campaigns targeting black men who had sex with men. They encouraged men to protect one another, insisting that love—although not in the form of marriage or even commitment—and condoms were critical for AIDS prevention.

  • Pink covers of a book, one in English, the other in Spanish. Drawing in middle of cover shows group of four women talking, surrounded by text on top and bottom including title.

    Making It: A Woman’s Guide to Sex in the Age of AIDS/Haciéndolo: Guía Sexual para Mujeres en la Era del SIDA, Cindy Patton and Janice Kelly, 1987

    Courtesy Jennifer Brier, PhD and Firebrand Books

    As the 1980s progressed, it became increasingly clear that women could contract and die from AIDS. In 1987, Making It, a guide in English and Spanish, gave women easy-to-follow AIDS prevention methods, including negotiating condom use with male partners, keeping needles clean, and using safer sex practices between women.