St. Vincent's Remembered

8.17.2010

By Out.com Editors

Walter Armstrong's moving oral history of the Catholic hospital that was ground zero for AIDS in the '80s. It may have closed its doors for good -- but the people who were there won't soon forget it.

Gay rage at the indifference of the government to the crisis in its midst took on muscular, media-smart form with the start of ACT UP in New York City’s gay center -- conveniently located one block north of St. Vincent’s. The hospital quickly became acquainted with both the hard edge and the soft side of its neighbor. And through the years, many members of ACT UP would spend their last days on the AIDS ward.

Gerri Wells, Activist
It was brought to an ACT UP meeting that a gay man was kicked out of the ER by a security guard because he had dared to kiss his lover. We all got to yelling and screaming in one of those heated conversations, and the whole room just got up, walked around the corner, and took over the waiting room in the ER. It really brought a lot of bad press: Here it was in the middle of Greenwich Village and gay lovers weren’t considered family.

About five or six of us held meetings with the president of the hospital, the executive board, and a bunch of nuns. It took months to get the rule changed because Cardinal O’Connor lobbied against it. But we ended up getting all their employees to have sensitivity training.

Mark Aurigemma, former Gay Men’s Health Crisis staffer
It was a very homophobic time because of AIDS. Public displays of affection that had started to catch on in the ’70s had shut down completely. Touching or kissing your partner on the street was a very uncomfortable thing for many gay men to do. During the negotiations, we did a kiss-in -- a big demonstration of kissing that blocked 7th Avenue traffic in front of St. Vincent’s for 45 minutes and allowed for a lot of pleasurable partner swapping. I think that was a real turning point at the hospital.

Gerri Wells
The ACT UP Christmas visits started because I had been going up to visit my brother on the AIDS ward and I saw that a lot of people had nobody, no family. I wore the Santa Claus outfit and Neil Broome wore the Mrs. Claus outfit and high heels. Rollerena would come in Rollerena drag. There were 10 or 15 people, and everybody wore different outfits. All the stores in the West Village would donate beautiful things as gifts.

So Neil and I would put on our little show: I’d knock him down on the ground and make everybody laugh. They liked it, unless they were very sick. Some would just give the look: “Leave something nice and get out of here, you wench. I know you’re a girl under that beard. Get out!”

Sister Patricia, the nun who oversaw the unit, would quietly walk behind us. She said it was her favorite time of year, when we came.

Mark Aurigemma
The AIDS ward at St. Vincent’s was a regular stop on many people’s daily routine. Sometimes I would do multiple visits at once. I remember going to see Richard Dunne, the executive director of GMHC, who had kept his HIV secret for many years and when he got sick, he got PML [a brain infection] and declined very quickly. I also visited another friend down the hall named Montana Silkwood, a scrappy, lovely activist–restaurant worker–junk collector. Now Richard was a very regal person, and Montana was very, uh, eclectic, but I introduced them to each other, and they became friends up there. The AIDS ward was a great equalizer.

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