Kathy Brown-Nichols sits in a living room full of other queer Black women. A cardboard box sits on the coffee table. Brown-Nichols reaches in through a flap and feels around — a banana, a feather, a spatula. “You had to put your hand in the box and pull out whatever. Lord knows what it could have been.” She pulls out a dolphin-shaped dildo.
Blushing, she describes how she could use the dildo during sex to reduce the risk of spreading sexually transmitted infections. She passes the box to a friend who pulls out a jar of peanut butter and tells a peanut butter-related sex story that has the whole room giggling.
In this scene, drawn from partygoers’ memories, it is 1992, and HIV/AIDS is exploding in Arkansas and across the South. It’s a quiet explosion seen by much of society as shameful, a disease of “deviance.”
A decade earlier, HIV started sweeping the East and West Coasts. Doctors initially called it GRID, short for Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. Early media focused on white gay men in California and New York. But between 1991 and 1999, HIV was the leading cause of death across the U.S. for Black men between 25 and 44 years old.
“It was scary because so many guys in our community were passing away,” Darlene Hudson remembers. “I don’t know how many times I went to the hospital [to see friends with HIV]. They would have you put on [disposable masks and gowns], you know, and cover yourself completely because they didn’t fully understand transmission.”
In 1992, same-gender sex was illegal in 25 states, including Arkansas. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush largely tried to frame HIV as a consequence of personal immorality instead of as a public health crisis. And the prevention and treatment research that did get funded was overwhelmingly focused on men.
“[Women’s Project organizer] Kelly Mitchell-Clark approached me and said, ‘Girl, we can’t wait till the CDC [Center for Disease Control and Prevention] tells us we’re at risk,’” Hudson remembers. “It was like, If we don’t do it for ourselves, who’s going to do it for us? There was nobody to ask for permission. There was nobody to ask what to do about this or that. So I said, ‘Let’s do something.’”
They joined a wave of young people across the U.S. who realized they needed to do harm reduction themselves. Working with other queer Black women they knew through the Women’s Project, they started throwing safer sex parties in Little Rock and around the South.
Several organizers hosted each party. They established confidentiality, then anyone who wanted could share a funny sex story to break the ice. They talked about preventing sexually transmitted infections and invited people to process any experiences they wanted to share.
“We became the teachers of it, in terms of how lesbians could protect themselves,” Hudson says. “That was the main conversation, but from that came all kinds of things. It was like, Woah, this is deeper than we thought.”