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Aug. 15, 2022

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Activist raised eyebrows at White House but also awareness of illness affect gay community

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — George Raya had a seat at the table of the historic 1977 White House meeting of the National Gay Task Force, the first time a president invited LGBTQ advocates to discuss the issues their community faced. The then-27-year-old came with an issue in mind: hepatitis.

Although little was known about the disease, hepatitis plagued the gay community in the 1970s. Gay individuals were seven times more likely to have had an active infection than their straight counterparts, according to a study reported in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 1978. The sexually transmitted disease causes an inflammation of the liver.

“I had friends diagnosed and in the hospital because it was a serious illness that just totally destroyed the liver,” Raya said. “People were dying.”

Still today, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that gay and bisexual men compose 10% of all new hepatitis A and 20% of all new hepatitis B infections in the United States. In the ‘70s, fear of judgment and discrimination prevented many gay men from seeking health care. As a result, it was an uncomfortable and stigmatized topic to discuss.

Raya remembered raising eyebrows with his proposal.

“Because I talked about sex, it was a no-no,” Raya, now 73, said.

This year marks the 45th anniversary of that White House meeting and Pride Month offers an opportunity for The Sacramento Bee to tell Raya’s story and how he, a native Sacramentan, took part in promoting gay rights.

Feminist author Charlotte Bunch, who also attended that March 26 meeting, said there was tension among the task force between those who wanted to push the envelope and those who tended to remain more mainstream about gay rights.

“It’s not surprising that some people didn’t want to touch on sexuality and the disease,” Bunch said.

Nevertheless, Margaret “Midge” Costanza, then-adviser to President Jimmy Carter, took Raya’s proposal for more hepatitis research and handed it over to the Department of Health and Human Services. The proposal ended up financing a three-year study on hepatitis in San Francisco from 1978-1980, which later helped researchers pinpoint the transmission of HIV during the AIDS epidemic. Eleven of the first 24 reported cases of AIDS in San Francisco were participants in the government-sponsored hepatitis study. The virus that can develop into AIDS, like hepatitis B and C, can be transmitted via blood. The research that Raya pushed forward proved helpful in understanding AIDS.

Although Raya said he felt like the White House meeting was intended as “a photo-op” rather than a chance to discuss real issues, he recognized that the organizers helped break media silence about LGBTQ rights at a time when discussing homosexuality was taboo.

Six years earlier, Raya had won a First Amendment challenge as a student at Sacramento State, asserting that the student association and college trustees had to recognize the Society for Homosexual Freedom, an LGBTQ student organization he had co-founded.

He had read a journal in the San Diego Law Review that declared no change would happen until gay people themselves stepped forward to argue for their civil rights. The quote drove him to lead the fight for LGBTQ rights.

Raya would then help lobby and pass the Willie Brown Consenting Adults Law, which decriminalized sex between same-sex consenting adults in California. Other states would soon follow suit, opening the door for LGBTQ communities across the nation.

“It wasn’t going to be handed to us,” he said. “That really motivated me to get involved.”

The LGBTQ experience for people of color

Growing up in a Mexican American household, Raya said he was the fourth person in his family to come out at the age of 19. The support he received from his family was a rarity for the 1960s.

“Having a supportive family really made a difference,” he said. “I had professors who told me you didn’t even tell your best friend.”

At the height of the AIDS epidemic, Raya said the State Department of Human Assistance’s neglect of communities of color were criminal.

According to a 1978 CDC report published in the Indiana Gazette, researchers had predicted that the spread of AIDS would decline among gay white men but would spread “among women and minorities.”

Black individuals were six times more likely to have AIDS than white individuals. Latinos were three times more likely, the report added.

Despite the effort to refute the misnomer of AIDS as a “gay white male’s disease,” there were little to no service for non-English speaking patients, Raya said. All of the medical staff were white and were unable to understand the needs of the community.

On occasion, the Spanish-speaking janitor at the San Francisco General Hospital had to be called in as an interpreter for patients, according to a 1988 article published in the San Francisco Examiner.

“This is for us. If you want something bilingual, organize it yourself,” the chairperson of the Golden Gate Business Association, which Raya was representing, had told him.

Raya ended up working for the Department of Public Health in San Francisco starting in late 1983 and became the bilingual services’ coordinator. He also helped form the Latino AIDS Project, which hired bilingual and bicultural people to provide information about the disease to Spanish-speaking patients.

Economic instability among the LGBTQ community

Forty-five years after the initial White House meeting, the LGBTQ community has had many successes in the courts and in law. Economic instability, however, is still one of the most pressing issues that LGBTQ people face, Raya said, particularly among the transgender community.

For many LGBTQ people in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the only jobs available were in bars or other gay-owned businesses. And for activists, a steady income was even harder to come by.

Raya said he was lucky to secure a civil service job back in ‘98. He added that a lot of gay people move to Sacramento because of the protections offered from the civil service town.

A national employment bill protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination in the workplace, Raya said, is crucial.

“You can get married in Texas and fired the next day.”

Although the Supreme Court ruled in 2020 that federal civil rights law prohibits employers from discriminating against workers based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, Texas law still does not explicitly protect LGBTQ people from workplace discrimination.

According to a 2021 study by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law, 46% of LGBTQ workers in the U.S. reported receiving unfair treatment at some point in their careers due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Some LGBTQ centers, such as the Sacramento LGBT Community Center, have begun to host job fairs to help applicants secure work without worrying about their sexuality or gender identity affecting their chances at employment.

“You can be your true self and know that you’re being looked at for your skills,” he said.

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