Longtime social justice and HIV/AIDS activist, filmmaker, public speaker and writer Amber Hollibaugh died Oct. 20 due to complications from type one diabetes in her Brooklyn, New York home. She was 77.
A self-described "lesbian sex radical, ex-hooker, incest survivor, gypsy child, poor-white-trash, high femme dyke," Hollibaugh's lifelong work was primarily focused on feminism and sexuality. Her perspective was always informed by her attention to social class. Before her retirement seven years ago, Hollibaugh was the Barnard Center for Research on Women (BCRW) Senior Activist Fellow Emerita Queer Survival Economies (QSE) director.
Among Hollibaugh's other career accomplishments were as Howard Brown Health's elder and LBTI women's services chief officer in Chicago; National LGBTQ Task Force senior strategist; Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE) national initiatives director and education, advocacy and community-building director; Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) Lesbian AIDS Project founding director and women's services national director; New York-based Queers for Economic Justice founding member and executive director; and New York City Commission on Human Rights, AIDS Division education director.
Additionally, Hollibaugh worked at Modern Times Bookstore when she lived in San Francisco. She was also the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay History Project co-founder alongside Allan Bérubé in 1978. During the now infamous 1982 Barnard Conference on Sexualitya key moment during the Feminist Sex Wars of the mid- to late '70s and early '80sHollibaugh gave a talk entitled "Desire for the Future: Radical Hope in Passion and Danger."
That speech was published in the 1984 book Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality as well as Hollibaugh's only solo book, My Dangerous Desires: A Queer Girl Dreaming Her Way Home. My Dangerous Desires consisted of 20 years' worth of her previous writings, an introduction and five new essays specifically written for the book, which won the Publishing Triangle Judy Grahn Award for Lesbian Nonfiction.
During her time with QSE, Hollibaugh organized and participated in a number of public forums; among those she convened was a 2015 conference that led to the publication 'Queer Precarity' by Hollibaugh and Margot Weiss in New Labor Forum (2015). While an emerita fellow at QSE, Hollibaugh also co-authored "Immigrants Are Welcome Here: Best Practices for Service Providers Working with Immigrants who are LGBTQ, Sex Workers, and/or HIV-Positive."
She directed and co-produced, alongside Gini Reticker, The Heart of the Matter, a 1994 hour-long Sundance Film Festival Freedom of Expression Award-winning documentary focusing on women's sexuality and risk for HIV/AIDS. The film was first shown to a national audience on PBS' POV film series. Additionally, she wrote other articles and essays focused on sex and desire for The Nation, Socialist Review, NY Native (where she had a well-known column called "Femme Fables") and the Village Voice.
Hollibaugh and her partner, novelist Jenifer Levin, were together for 26 years at the time of Hollibaugh's death. She had previously been in romantic relationships with the late Honey Lee Cottrell and Leslie Feinberg, as well as Marj Plumb and Esther Newton, with whom she lived and loved for ten years.
Hollibaugh was born June 20, 1946 in Bakersfield, California, and soon thereafter her family moved around the central California area a number of times during her childhood and teen years.
During her brief time attending high school at the American School in Switzerland, one of her teachers told her she was not succeeding in the school due to the fact that her family lived in poverty. He gave her the Karl Marx's book The Communist Manifesto, which propelled her into a lifetime of study communism and class politics.
She left formal education behind after that encounter, and from that moment on was an entirely self-taught scholar. During Hollibaugh's early adulthood, she earned her living as a stripper and sex worker.
Levin told this publication, "What separated Amber from others who were drawn to communism was her queer identity, and the fact that she felt that sexual desire was as powerful and important as analysis of any political systemand that genuine political change was not possible without recognizing the power of erotic longing. This was also the catalyst for her lifelong pursuit to incorporate all marginalized, despised, economically deprived people on the fringes of the queer movement, who were not accepted by the wider LGBTQ community into the movement."
The Woodhull Freedom Foundation gave their Vicki Sexual Freedom Award to Hollibaugh in 2012. In 2018, Hollibaugh received the David R. Kessler Award from CLAGS: The Center for LGBTQ Studies at CUNY, where she was a distinguished lecturer in 2018. She also won the Dr. Susan M. Love Award for Achievement in Women's Health.
Hollibaugh is survived by Levin and countless chosen family members and friends.
Levin said in a Facebook post, "I lost my great love. Amber was a radical political organizer, a sex radical, a charismatic public speaker and a passionate advocate for the most vulnerable and excluded among us: those who, through poverty or race or disability or sexual expression, have no piece of the pie and no place at the table, who were never invited to the table to begin with."
Newton said of her former girlfriend and longtime friend, "You felt her energy immediately as she stepped onto a podium or even into a party. She was a central figure in the successful opposition to Prop 6, the 1978 Briggs Initiative, which would have required public schools to fire gay and lesbian teachers. And her spontaneous and fiery speech set off the 1979 White Night Riots in San Francisco after the killer of Harvey Milk and Mayor Mosconi was let off with a manslaughter charge. Amber introduced me to other gay intellectuals who were her friends and became mine, especially John D'Emilio, Allen Berube and Jeff Escoffier."
In an Instagram post, longtime friend and former work colleague Jessica Halem said, "Amber was a proud high femme who loved butches. Because of her I exist. Because of her, I knew that our gender identities and gender expressions were key to our voice and strength and hence our liberation. Amber so beautifully wove together class liberation with our gender and sexuality so that we might all be more free, more safe, more whole.
Author, academic and longtime friend John D'Emilio said, "Amber Hollibaugh was a tireless and lifelong activist for social justice. A proud femme, she was a pioneer in insisting that the LGBTQ movement fight for a meaningful sexual freedom that would celebrate all differences. She fought for the community's elders, for its economically deprived, and for those struggling with AIDS. And, through it all, her smile, her laughter, and her endless hugs made her deeply beloved by everyone who knew her."
A celebration of life for the wider community will be held in New York City in the coming weeks. Details TBA.