When the AIDS epidemic started in 1981, journalist and LGBTQ civil rights educator Eric Marcus was a young gay man, trying like so many others to navigate the post-Stonewall era of being out and gay in New York City.
“I was not one of the people who founded ACT UP or GMHC. I didn’t go to protests,” he said. “I was one of the people on the sidelines, trying to figure out who I was—having a career, having relationships, coming of age—against the backdrop of this unfolding catastrophe.”
For the current season of his popular “Making Gay History” podcast, “Coming of Age During the AIDS Crisis,” Marcus uses his own experience to chronicle the early days of the epidemic in his native New York City.
GMHC figures heavily in the early episodes. Marcus attends its famous circus fundraiser in 1983, and, in the next episode, volunteers as a crisis intervention worker for two men dying of AIDS. That was soon after Larry Kramer and five other gay men founded Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1982 to raise money for AIDS research and take care of the sick and dying.
Ordinarily, Marcus, the podcast host, draws on a rare archive of 100 interviews with LGBTQ people, both notable and obscure, that he recorded 30 years ago for his groundbreaking 1992 book, reissued in 2002 as Making Gay History: The Half-Century Fight for Lesbian and Gay Equal Rights.
Marcus typically features someone he’s interviewed for each episode, from iconic trans activist Sylvia Rivera to straight ally advice columnist Dear Abby. His aim, he tells listeners, is to bring “the largely hidden history of the LGBTQ civil rights movement to life through the voices of the people who lived it.”
But for the ninth season, Marcus wanted to tell the story of the AIDS crisis at the 40-year mark. “We’re a small podcast. AIDS is a very big subject. How do you tell such a big story with limited resources in a way that affects people?” he asked.
He decided to do it by telling his own story. Although Marcus wasn’t an activist, AIDS touched his own life and that of everyone he knew in New York in the early 1980s.
Over his audio memoir’s six episodes, Marcus crafts a richly detailed history of the first decade of the AIDS epidemic, at its epicenter in New York City, from his own, very personal vantage point, by weaving his own present-day recollections with those of friends, family, and the people he met along the way.
The season’s first episode begins on July 3, 1981, when Marcus, who’s just graduated from college, spots an obscure headline in The New York Times: “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals.” It’s something he’s never heard of before.
By episode two, it’s April 30, 1983, and Marcus attends GMHC’s sold-out benefit performance of the Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus, featuring Patti Lupone, at Madison Square Garden, along with 17,600 other gay men.
“This was the first time we were all in the same place,” Hal Moskowitz, the GMHC volunteer charged with selling the tickets, tells Marcus almost 40 years later. “We weren’t alone.”
In the next episode, it’s the spring of 1984, and Marcus volunteers at GMHC as a crisis intervention worker. His first client, Efthemios, a gay, Greek immigrant, dies just a few days after Marcus visits him in the hospital. His other client, Jimmy, a straight, IV-drug user, asks Marcus to help write his eulogy—a message to his 12-year old son—which he delivers at Jimmy’s sparsely attended funeral at the end of 1984.
By then, Marcus’s own friends have started to get sick and die.
Season 9 concludes with the publication of his book, Making Gay History, in 1992, following a two-year, cross-country journey to interview nearly 100 LGBTQ historymakers and allies.
Marcus said he’ll continue chronicling the early years of the AIDS crisis for Season 10—but through the voices of six people with very different experiences from his own as a white, middle-class, gay man.
Teaching Gay History
Making Gay History has caught on with listeners worldwide, who’ve downloaded more than 4.5 million episodes of its nine seasons.
“We were so thrilled to get 25,000 downloads at the end of the first season. Now each episode gets that within the first month of its release,” said Marcus, who creates the podcast with a team led by story editor Sara Burningham.
But Marcus actually conceived the podcast as a way to teach K-12 students about the LGBTQ civil rights movement. New York City has just funded a pilot project to bring Making Gay History to several middle schools next year.
“LGBTQ history belongs in schools—and almost nobody knows this history,” said Marcus, who’s become both a storyteller and educator.
Marcus himself was not aware of the pre-Stonewall struggle for LGBTQ equality, he said, until he started researching his original Making Gay History book. He found people like Edythe Eyde, who anonymously wrote a samizdat newsletter for lesbians, “Vice Versa,” in the late 1940s while a secretary at RKO Pictures.
Each podcast episode offers a deeply researched, multi-media history lesson. A companion webpage at MakingGayHistory.com provides a short introduction to the featured historymaker with copious links to news stories and videos for historical context, and a transcript with archival photos and documents.
Marcus secured initial funding in 2015 from The Arcus Foundation for the podcast’s first season and partnered with History UnErased, which prepares educators to teach LGBTQ history. Pedagogy is important, Marcus said. “Virtually no educators have experience with this history from their own education,” he explained. “And it’s potentially very fraught.”
He helps conduct teacher-training workshops with History UnErased and also presents a one-hour LGBTQ audio history tour to school assemblies to introduce students to the subject. “I have watched the faces of students as they listen to the presentation,” Marcus said, “and they’re transfixed in a way they’re not when reading words on a page.”