June is Pride Month, celebrating victories in the LGBTQ rights movement. This June also marks 40 years since the CDC reported the first cases of HIV and AIDS in the United States.
It was one of the LGBT community’s darkest times, as many who fell ill found themselves alone and in the dark.
In the latest installment in Local 10′s Pride series, Christian De La Rosa shines a light on an unsung hero, a local woman who turned to the sick when many turned away.
“This pandemic that we are in now, was very reactivating because it was in many ways similar because you know, a couple people were sick and then all the sudden thousands of people were sick,” Joan Schaeffer says.
Schaeffer, who worked at Jackson as assistant administrator of the South Florida AIDS Network, moved to Miami in the late 1970s, shortly before the epidemic hit.
“There were funerals like every week,” she recalls. “I, of course, had many friends who were sick. … It was a horrible, horrible horrible time.
“Government was not willing to step in. ... A lot of women’s groups stepped in because they weren’t getting it so much, especially lesbians. ... It was so overwhelming, the amount of sickness, and I think one of the things you always feel is that if you’re sick, your family will be there for you.”
They were faced with the largely unknown disease at the time, which some called the gay plague.
Volunteers like Schaeffer tended to the sick when many chose not to.
She volunteered for Health Crisis Network, an AIDS service organization, visiting the sick, often on her own time.
“[People would think], ‘If they’re gay I am not going to get involved with that or if they’re poor I’m not going to get involved with that or if they’re Black I’m not going to get involved with that,’” Schaeffer says. “But people are people, and if they’re sick, you gotta help them.”
Some of the darkest days for the LGBT community also became a wake-up call in the battle against HIV, AIDS and equal rights.
“We all came to realize that we had to do something,” Schaeffer says. “That the future was in our hands, and if we did nothing, it was not going to be a good thing. So, I think the gay rights movement was definitely propelled by that time.”
Schaeffer, a former president of Temple Israel of Greater Miami, has gone on to be an advocate of promoting acceptance of the LGBTQ community within the Jewish faith.