Bearing Witness:
Gay Men's Health Crisis and the Politics of AIDS

Philip M. Kayal, Ph.D.


As the title suggests, this text examines the rise of "volunteerism" at a gay community organization as a political response to the social isolation and desertion of People with AIDS (PWAs). The mobilization of gay people in a community based initiative like New York's Gay Men's Health Crisis is the untold story in AIDS. The topic is ignored perhaps because GMHC is a gay/AIDS agency or because the topic is discomforting. In attempting to contain the social and civil problems associated with HIV infection, GMHC became the largest and most successful AIDS service agency in the world! Not surprisingly, gay people are the bulk of AIDS volunteers both nationally and at GMHC while being those most at-risk of infection and annihilation. This infolding of the community needs to be told now, by an insider, while the memories and experiences are still fresh. This is what Bearing Witness is about. Yet the nonprofit sector has paid this little mind!

Bearing Witness reports on why and how gays mobilized during AIDS and what this response means politically, socially, and psychologically. It is a study of how AIDS volunteerism undermined homophobia through the act of bearing witness -- taking on the suffering of others as if it were one's own, but in a way that transforms relationships, that is, empowers. Carepartnering PWAs is the essence of both communalization and politicalization and these two forces are the root solution to all social problems like AIDS.

AIDS is addressed herein as a social problem because it is rooted as much in social arrangements as it is biology. The perspective of the book is taken from my experience as a volunteer and from data I collected in a 1986 random sample of volunteers at GMHC designed to measure their political attitudes, social characteristics, feelings, and beliefs about AIDS. I interpret gay/AIDS volunteerism in the context of both political sociology and liberation theology because AIDS was originally framed as a "moral" problem. At first, I wondered why people choose to identify with such a feared and stigmatized illness. In search of the answer, I learned what volunteerism in AIDS actually means and what it implies for the larger community and society. Bearing witness in AIDS by gays illustrates American ideological beliefs about problem solving on the local community level. The evolution and consequences of this development for the gay community is the story being outlined. It fill a gap in the literature on AIDS and minority volunteerism and sheds light on the politicization process among "outsiders." The main focus, however, is how volunteerism heals homophobia and politicizes by uniting the self interest with that of the community. AIDS is seen as central to the communalization process.

Because of homophobia (the salient issue in AIDS), the nature and function of volunteerism is radically redefined and given new meaning. To understand this phenomenon, a socio-theological political analysis of personal and collective transformation is introduced. This drama of self discovery and politicization through volunteerism allowed me to use an emotive language to capture the experience of gays, AIDS volunteers, and PWAs. AIDS cannot be understood either from the outside or in typical social science paradigms. This book is unique in that it creates a language of inquiry that clearly reflects what the people at-risk of AIDS daily experience as real. It is written by an insider. This text is written as an ethnographic piece representative of the larger gay community as experienced at GMHC. As such, it challenges the recent and popular works of both Robert Bellah in Habits of the Heart and Larry Kramer in Report from the Holocaust.

I concentrate on one organization because a case study approach in AIDS volunteerism has never been done before. GMHC is the premier gay/AIDS agency of all time. It sets the standard and tone for all voluntary agencies nationwide. I also had direct access to GMHC staff, personnel, volunteers, and PWAs and that generation of gay men who have both lost and given the most to AIDS. For a long time, GMHC, AIDS, and the gay community were synonymous with one another. While current, the book is about the early years in AIDS, the drama of fear and loss, the rediscovery and death of homophobia, and the process of empowerment in a beleaguered population, before the AIDS-industry was born and "outsiders" layed claim to the field. Bearing Witness is living history. As such, it allows the reader to feel what is going on in the life of the gay community from 1981 to 1991.

Book Plan

AIDS is first identified as a unique social issue with moral, hence, political meanings. This explains how and why the gay mobilization took the form of "bearing witness." The response is examined in the context of homophobia and discriminatory religious ideas about homosexuality and gay people. Volunteerism, as "the new altruism" is then examined as an American phenomenon with moral meanings, just like AIDS. I look at its functions, examine the literature on why people volunteer, and assess GMHC volunteers in this light. Finally, I look at what it means politically to voluntarily embrace AIDS through carepartnering PWAs - the illness of the stigmatized, deviant, and sinful "other" - the way AIDS' volunteers do. A reinterpretation of the significance and meaning of volunteerism is given. There are now thousands of AIDS deaths, hundreds of thousands of people who have lost a friend and loved one to the illness. They were carepartners and now someone is finally telling their story. My socio-theological approach to AIDS' volunteerism will raise debate and discussion in both sociological and theological circles about the meaning of community, illness, politicization, and the location of the "sacred." Historians will find material here not readily available to outsiders. Workers and teachers in "the third or volunteer sector" will find a rich review of the literature on volunteerism and its application to the experience of gay volunteers during and epidemic. Likewise, social workers and community based organizations could use the text to better understand caring for PWAS, the gay community, and the unique emotional, administrative, and morale problems involved in the delivery of organized services to them.

Bearing Witness: Gay Men's Health Crisis and the Politics of AIDS can be ordered from Westview Press, 500 Central Avenue, Boulder Colorado 80301-2877. Telephone Number: (303) 444-3541; Fax: (303) 449-3356. Paper around $15.00; hardback around $50.00. Since publication, Westview Press has become the property of Harper Collins, publishers and can be ordered directly from them. Search for AIDS and info on the book and ordering will appear in their index.

If unavailable from the publisher, copies can be had from the author for $10.00. Write: Philip M. Kayal, Ph.D., chairperson, Dept. of Sociology and Anthropology, Seton Hall University, So. Orange, NJ 07079 or e-mail at

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