When some people think of AIDS activists on the frontlines in the 1980s and 1990s, they probably picture gay men. Understandably so, because they were disproportionately affected by the disease. But, in fact, there were lesbian voices just as loud and just as vital.
"I think you certainly saw a lot of women and lesbians getting involved and helping to support the community," said Amy Maggio, who came out at age 30. "Many women and lesbians took up the mantra of providing leadership and support to provide services to the gay community because, unfortunately, men were dying."
Originally from New York, Maggio had a large impact on Chicago's HIV/AIDS organizations. Her work was in the streets, where she marched with ACT UP and passed out condoms in bathhouses; and it was in the boardrooms, where she helped raise millions of dollars for the city's largest LGBT and AIDS non-profit agencies. You'd be hard-pressed to find an LGBT organization in Chicago that Maggio hasn't influenced in some way: Chicago House, the AIDS Foundation of Chicago ( AFC ) , Equality Illinois and the Test Positive Aware Network ( TPAN ) are just a handful of examples. In a broader scope, she served as chair of Chicago's HIV/AIDS Prevention and Planning Council and as a steering committee member for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National HIV/AIDS Prevention Marketing Initiative.
In 1985, Maggio came to Chicago via DeKalb, Ill., and quickly became aware of what at the time was being called "gay cancer." Close friends of hers were dying and she saw that immediate responses were desperately needed. People with AIDS sometimes lacked basic necessities like food and shelter. Very ill, without income and all-too-often cut off from their biological families, LGBT friends and community members came together to serve a caretaker role; they became a second family. Activists started organizing from the ground-up.
Maggio was part of a small team of volunteers to form Chicago House; it was the first organization in the Midwest to provide housing to people with HIV and AIDS. Chicago House has since expanded to provide not only housing programs but also case management, social services and HIV prevention programs. "We had to scramble really hard to find services for people. Hospice services, housing services, Meals on Wheels, Open Hand … all became involved as a result of 'Now what are we going to do?'" said Maggio of the sense of urgency the LGBT communities felt at the time.
As social-service agencies were quickly forming in response to the AIDS crisis, Maggio became passionate about enduring their sustainability. She joined AFC in 1987 as their first development director. Now one of the nation's leading organizations in the fight against HIV and AIDS, it was at that time just a tiny office, with a handful of staff members, housed in Children's Memorial Hospital.
Under Maggio's five years of leadership, AFC launched the first event that sparked what would be a long tradition of AIDS organizational fundraising: The Show of Concern. Held at the Chicago Theatre, it was the first large-scale gala to raise money for AIDS with corporate sponsorship; Phil Miller, then-president of Marshall Fields, was on AFC's board. It also grabbed the attention of celebritiesAngela Lansbury was Mistress of Ceremonies. That evening alone raised an unprecedented amount of moneymore than a million dollars each for the American Foundation for AIDS Research ( AmFAR ) and AFC.
After five years at AFC ( also serving as acting executive director ) , Maggio went on to help lead the way of HIV prevention as executive director of STOP AIDS/Chicago in 1992. Their harm reduction methodstalking openly and honestly about the realities of gay sex and non-monogamy, educating those who were HIV-positive about preventing transmission, and testing in bathhouseswere very controversial at the time.
Maggio had been very active in the feminist movement, especially at the University of Illinois in DeKalb, where she fought for the Equal Rights Amendment and worked with the National Organization for Women ( NOW ) . Maggio knew what it was to rise up as a community and to overcome differences; she challenged NOW to talk about lesbian issues at a time when they were seen as a threat to the battle for heterosexual women's rights.
As an outspoken woman in leadership positions in a community dominated largely by men, Maggio navigated two worlds. There were definite divisions between the gay and lesbian communities, especially in the upper-echelon of donors and executives. You could say she used her immersion in gay male culture to build bridges between the two. "If you ask [ women ] to get involved, and you give them a blueprint for how they can do that in small ways, which translate into big ways, then they'll show up and they'll do it," said Maggio. "If women aren't in leadership positions, then who's going to ask them?"
Gender divisions weren't the only hurdles Maggio faced. With many organizations competing for a limited amount of resources, conflict, she said, was inevitable.
"For people working in HIV, in the professional community, there was always tension, stress and competitiveness over what agency was going to get what funding and who was going to provide what service," Maggio said. "Anytime you're in a leadership position you're going to get that."
Jessica Halem, former executive director of the Lesbian Community Cancer Project ( LCCP, now the Lesbian Community Care Project, a program of Howard Brown Health Center ) saw Maggio as a mentor. "Amy gave me great advice about dealing with the ups and downs of leadership positions within the queer community," Halem said. "She is someone who is dedicated to the big picture and willing to see the hard work through. I really admire this about her."
That dedication showed. While going on to work in marketing and development for HIV/AIDS clinical corporations, Maggio didn't stop volunteering her time to the cause. She was a founding board member of IMPACT ( a now-defunct LGBT political action committee ) , a board member of the National Victory Fund and she chaired events for Equality Illinois, Lambda Legal, About Face Theatre and PFLAG.
Looking back on the early days of HIV/AIDS and the tremendous progress that has been achieved, Maggio has mixed feelings. She said she worries that sustainability of outreach and education efforts are at risk. She even goes so far as to say that a second HIV/AIDS crisis isn't unfathomable. Maggio believes without the fear factor of the "death sentence" that AIDS was in the 1980s and early 1990s, things like secondary infections and illnesses are less visible and therefore may not be taken seriously. She does acknowledge the achievements of her generation and admits her contributions. "I have tremendous amount of pride," she said.
For her decades of work, Maggio's peers and the city of Chicago have formally recognized the lifelong advocate; she was given the first-ever Charles E. Clifton Leadership Award from TPAN and she was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 2009. Something that meant a great deal to Maggio was when longtime colleague and friend ( and major Chicago philanthropist ) Michael Leppen named the lobby of the Center on Halsted after her, through a donation in her name.
"The gift of the lobby was given as a gift of gratitude for her mentorship and friendship these past many years," Leppen said. "Amy has always been on the forefront working with HIV/AIDS issues, whether as an employee for an agency, a donor to cause or a good friend to those afflicted by HIV/AIDS."
Maggio, now 62, lives in Edgewater and currently serves as executive director of the Spina Bifida Association of Illinois.
This story is part of the Local Reporting Initiative, supported in part by The Chicago Community Trust.