Baruch Sociologist’s New Book Looks at
Evolution of New York’s AIDS Community
New York City was at the heart of the AIDS crisis in 1980s and early 1990s America, as concerned individuals and officials struggled to help a population harboring more afflicted people than the next forty most infected cities combined. Yet the greatest public health outbreak in the city during the 20th century—in 1983, half of all reported AIDS cases in the United States were in New York—would have been more devastating without the intervention of compassionate volunteers, according to Susan Chambré, professor of sociology at the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences. In her new book Fighting for Our Lives: New York’s AIDS Community and the Politics of Disease, Chambré argues that persistent volunteers, advocates, and activists were responsible for prodding lethargic government agencies and health professionals into curbing skyrocketing rates of infection.
At the beginning of the crisis, “people were scared, overwhelmed, and also starting to lose friends, lovers, and family members,” said Chambré. “The enormous outpouring of activities led to the creation of a number of organizations in New York City.” By calling for changes in public policy and drawing mainstream attention to the plight of infected people, Chambré argues that these volunteer groups inspired a focus on the causes and treatment for the disease. “The AIDS community and its allies, consisting of people infected and affected by the disease, was very important in influencing power,” said Chambré.
The book, one of the few to chart the roles of these novice activists in shaping AIDS policy in New York City over the last twenty-five years, is divided into three sections. The first segment focuses the evolution of pioneering organizations such as Gay Men’s Health Crisis as they mobilized to bring attention to the disease, while the second recounts the human toll as the disease emerged in less-prepared communities, including African Americans, Hispanics, women, and injecting drug users. The third section examines the growth and changing priorities of AIDS advocacy as the disease began to be addressed by mainstream health policy.
Fighting for Our Lives also places the epidemic in the context of a turbulent decade for the city, as it emerged from the fiscal difficulties of the 1970s and struggled with the legacy of a “fragmented and decentralized” public policy system. “AIDS was associated with a real sense of disorder in New York. There was a sense in the 1980s that the city was really coming apart,” said Chambré. In her view, the book’s examination of AIDS in New York transcends the city and the disease, and “illuminates how American society responded to a major social problem at the end of the twentieth century.”
Professor Chambré has taught at Yeshiva University and the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and worked as a research scientist for New York City’s Human Resources Administration before coming to Baruch. She is a graduate of Queens College and the University of Pennsylvania. Fighting for Our Lives is published by Rutgers University Press, and is available at the Newman Library.
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