Tag Archives: San Francisco

Social Distancing in 1985

{As part of a new series, the Calgary Gay History Project is writing about AIDS to explore how Calgarians and Canadians reacted to this earlier pandemic.}

In the early years of the AIDS pandemic, people didn’t know how it spread. The gay community was particularly fearful and reactions varied. In 1985, Brian Chittock of the AIDS Committee of Montreal reported that the friends of one person with AIDS summoned a police car when he fell sick in their house, sent him away and then discarded all his clothes and everything he touched. Social distancing made pariahs of many AIDS victims. A mobilizing fact for journalist June Callwood, who founded the first AIDS hospice in the world, Toronto’s Casey House.

By the mid-80s however, scientists had determined that casual touching was not transmitting the virus; it could only be transmitted by an exchange of bodily fluids.

Nonetheless, some gay and bisexual men were so terrified of contracting AIDS they became celibate and had physical intimacy problems ever after – call it “sexual distancing” or “sexual self-isolation” perhaps. Allan Pletcher, a Vancouver community college teacher who had tested positive, participated in a three-part panel show on CBC television that was watched by more than a million people each day. He declared: “I am chaste, and I will remain so until I am cured or I die. I assume that responsibility.”

The Body Politic, Canada’s gay newspaper founded on gay liberation principles, had an editorial approach to AIDS coverage that was skeptical of scientific and media authority. They wrote about: “the need to resist panic and hysteria both within and beyond the gay community; the need to seek information on which we can make informed judgments about sexual practices; and, most recently, the need to preserve what is best and most distinctive about gay erotic culture in the face of a disease which apparently threatens its very roots.”

A telephone survey of 500 San Francisco gay and bisexual men in June 1985, found that eight out of 10 respondents said they had made dramatic changes in their sexual behaviour. Later that summer, celebrity actor Rock Hudson revealed he had AIDS; he was dead by October. Hudson’s plight had an immediate impact on the public profile of AIDS.


Rock Hudson with Nancy & Ronald Reagan in 1984: source, Wikipedia.

In Calgary, there was a “social coming together” of people concerned about AIDS and the deaths that were happening in the city. The first meeting for what was to become AIDS Calgary happened in September 1985.


The Ladder

The Ladder was a monthly publication from 1956-1972 of the Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the first Lesbian civil rights organization in the United States.


Calgary’s Dr. Carolyn Anderson in 2001 did her PhD social work thesis on The Voices of Older Lesbian Women: An Oral History (you can find it online at Library and Archives Canada: here).

Sue, one of the local lesbian voices featured in the thesis, recalls the publication:

“I did find out about the Ladder and subscribed to it. The Ladder was a lesbian newsletter that originated out of San Francisco and it came in a brown paper wrapper. When it came I devoured it and then hid it cause you know it was a lesbian magazine and you couldn’t just leave it lying out. I don’t know how I found about the Ladder but it became my lifeline. It meant that there were lesbians out there.”

In the 1950s and 1960s publications like The Ladder created the early foundations for gay liberation, through the development of a network of LGBTQ people who had previously been isolated.

The DOB was founded in San Francisco in 1955, by lovers Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin, they initially started the organization as a social group to meet more lesbian couples.  It grew quickly, became more political over time, and developed chapters in many cities.  The Ladders’s very secret membership list had 3800 subscribers by 1970.

phyllis and del.jpg

Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin in the 1950s


Every issue of The Ladder stated the DOB Mission Statement in its inside cover:

  1. Education of the variant…to enable her to understand herself and make her adjustment to society…this to be accomplished by establishing…a library…on the sex deviant theme; by sponsoring public discussions…to be conducted by leading members of the legal psychiatric, religious and other professions; by advocating a mode of behavior and dress acceptable to society.
  2. Education of the public…leading to an eventual breakdown of erroneous taboos and prejudices…
  3. Participation in research projects by duly authorized and responsible psychologists, sociologists, and other such experts directed towards further knowledge of the homosexual.
  4. Investigation of the penal code as it pertain to the homosexual, proposal of changes,…and promotion of these changes through the due process of law in the state legislatures.

This past Sunday, The GLBT Historical Society of San Francisco marked the 60th anniversary of the DOB with a private reception.  The guest of honour was 91-year-old Phyllis Lyon, the surviving cofounder of the organization.  The Society’s Facebook page has posted some heartwarming photos of the celebration.