June is Pride Month, a time when we celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community, honor our history, and reflect on the progress we’ve made toward equality. For our organization, this month holds special significance. Our roots are deeply intertwined with the AIDS response movement and lesbian feminism thanks to our founder Jackie Winnow. And we recognize and celebrate the vital role lesbians have played in both the gay community and in broader efforts for social justice and health equity.

In 1989, Jackie delivered the keynote address at the Lesbian Care Givers and AIDS Epidemic Conference titled “Lesbians Evolving Health Care,” a speech that was later revised and became the foundation for many of her subsequent speeches and articles. In honor of Jackie and Pride Month, we share an abbreviated version of Jackie’s seminal speech:

I am both a cancer activist and an AIDS activist. As a lesbian feminist, I have been involved with the AIDS crisis since the early 1980s. In 1985 I was diagnosed with breast cancer, founded the Women’s Cancer Resource Center in Berkeley, California in 1986, and was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in my lungs and bones in 1988. I have lost friends, acquaintances and colleagues to cancer and to AIDS. Both of these diseases are life-threatening, and yet I have seen my community rally around one and overlook the other.

 

As a feminist, I know the importance of putting discussion in a historical perspective. Without that perspective, we cannot remember our intent or hold on to our vision. Without it, we cannot remember where we’ve been or where we’re going.

 

I began to work on the AIDS crisis in 1982 when AIDS hysteria endangered our civil rights, increased anti-lesbian/gay violence, divided our community over the bathhouse and sexuality issues, and increased discrimination, particularly in the area of employment. AIDS hysteria and misinformation caused great numbers of men—in a community of people already considered to be pariahs—to question their gayness, their sexuality and their self-esteem. While little was firmly known about the cause or transmission of AIDS, it was clear that large numbers of gay men were getting it, and that our survival as a people depended on our response. And we, the lesbian/gay community, reacted admirably—with vigor, courage and caring.

 

I took some of what I learned in AIDS work and much of what I learned from feminist organizing and Women’s Liberation, and together with other women created the Women’s Cancer Resource Center. We desperately needed a resource, support and advocacy center where women with cancer could be empowered to make their own choices and be supported by other women—a center controlled by women with cancer. I knew this vision was possible because the models had already been built for AIDS, as well as in the women’s community.

 

As a woman with cancer, I have had to come face to face with how serious the situation is for women with cancer in our community; I have had to learn about what we need and what we don’t have—the hard way. When I was waiting for my first biopsy result in May of 1985, I remember sitting in a Lesbian/Gay Advisory Committee meeting of the San Francisco Human Rights Commission. Our meeting focused on AIDS, and I remember thinking—screaming internally, really—what about me?

 

I had a lumpectomy followed by radiation. I survived, and was expected to go back to my life and my work, to work on AIDS. If you have AIDS, you can go to the AIDS Foundation for food and social services advocacy; you can receive emergency funding through the AIDS Emergency Fund; you can get excellent meals through Project Open Hand. Your animals are taken care of should you land in the hospital or become too sick to care for them yourself. There are clinics, alternative centers, and organizations fighting for drugs and research and mental health needs of people with AIDS.

 

But if you have cancer, you wait endlessly for a support group. And if you are a lesbian, a woman of color, working class, and/or believe in alternative approaches to treating cancer, you don’t fit into the few groups that are available. No organization shepherds you through the social-service maze. No group brings you luscious meals or sends support people to clean your house or hold your hand.

 

Ignoring the needs of people with cancer is more typical of our culture. We live in a society which by and large does not take care of its sick. When people in our community suffer pain and deprivation, hardly anyone seems to give a damn. In the case of AIDS, however, we have—as a community—built a model of social response to a crisis, but a model which has not been replicated outside of AIDS.

 

Cancer, like AIDS, is about living. It’s about living with a life-threatening disease, in whatever state, in whatever condition. As an activist, I have learned that action and change take place through collective support. My own cancer experience has strengthened my belief that all disease and illness are not only physiological, but also political.

 

When lesbians get sick, we also get poor. Women are on a low rung of the financial ladder, and when we become ill, the bottom falls out much quicker because we are closer to it. We lose our health insurance and can’t get more. If we are lucky enough to have a job, we have to stay in it. Many women I know work in situations where working feels almost physically unbearable because they can’t afford to do anything else. Some of us who are unemployed would love to work, but no one will hire us. Some of us who are sick receive SSI payments but are hardly making it since, cruelly, the amount is so low.

 

Society must change and redirect itself to be life-affirming, where welfare and health care are respected, where profits don’t count more than people, where we are free of chemical and radiation hazards, where good food is available, where each person is recognized as significant and worthy of life.

 

As women, we need to see ourselves again as healers. We need to see the interconnections of all these issues, to take the skills we have learned as feminists and apply them to our work in AIDS and our work with women. And then take the skills we have gotten from working in AIDS and apply them to women’s health care. Let’s bring it back home.

 

I have wondered whether the urgency I feel comes from the fact that I have cancer. But I think that my cancer has only served to bring my sense of urgency closer to me. I firmly believe that we are on the brink of disaster, and that we must be very forceful if we are to stop the destruction before there is no ‘us’. We have to stop being nice girls and start fighting as though our lives depended on it. Because they do.

Interested readers can find the entirety of Jackie’s speech/article on JSTOR (which can be accessed for free with a public library card).