Storme Webber Memorializes BIPOC Activism During the AIDS Crisis

by Mark Van Streefkerk

Stories about radical activism in response to the AIDS crisis run the risk of being white-washed or oversimplified. Movies and documentaries about the start of the epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s, for instance, often imply that response activism was largely the work of white gay men, and typically revolve around New York, the birthplace of the international grassroots organization ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power). In fact, HIV and AIDS activism centrally relied on BIPOC contributions that are often left out of popular narratives, and what happened in New York is only one story.

Uplifting BIPOC and marginalized people who made lasting contributions to HIV and AIDS activism in Seattle, Two-Spirit poet and interdisciplinary artist Storme Webber presents In This Way We Loved One Another part of Capitol Hill’s new AIDS Memorial Pathway (AMP). The work is housed in the Cathy Hillenbrand Community Room, Station House Building, on the plaza at the Capitol Hill Light Rail Station. Webber includes portraits, photos, text, quotes, and a developing oral history collection from BIPOC activists — gay, lesbian, gender-diverse, socialists, poor people, sex workers, and spiritual leaders — who came from other radical movements to care and advocate for people with HIV and AIDS. The official AMP dedication ceremony takes place on June 26. 

photo of In This Way We Loved One Another exhibit
“In This Way We Loved One Another” memorializes important contributions to BIPOC-led HIV and AIDS activism that often goes missing from mainstream narratives. (photo: Storme Webber)

Webber is the only Seattle-based BIPOC contributor whose work is a permanent part of the AMP. Of Sugpiaq, Black and Choctaw descent, Webber was born to a queer mother and father, and grew up in Seattle’s queer community of the time, which centered around a gay bar in Pioneer Square called The Casino. Their family’s experience is the subject of a work that appeared at the Frye Museum in 2017, Casino: A Palimpsest.

The Casino was a meeting place for a broad range of marginalized communities, including BIPOC, immigrants, hustlers, and sex workers. Webber traces roots of resistance from these liminal and diverse groups that frequented The Casino through to HIV and AIDS activism and into the future. 

“Audre Lorde said, ‘There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives,’” Webber said. “This is queer history. This is Indigenous, Urban Native history. This is Black history. This is poor people’s history in Seattle. It’s complex. It’s . . .  also continuing a tradition on this Duwamish land since Seattle has been made a city: of radical activism, whether it was the Wobblies or the dockworkers strike.”

Referencing Sarah Schulman’s book Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993, Webber points out that many marginalized people who contributed to HIV and AIDS activism came from other movements. Some of those included the Black Panther Party, United Indians of All Tribes, the George Jackson Brigade, Leftist Lezzies, Radical Women, and Latinx and Asian activism. Webber’s In This Way We Loved One Another is the only work at the AMP that features photographs and portraits of Seattle’s diverse HIV/AIDS activists.

“The human beings in these photographs, they loved one another . . . they opened their arms for people who weren’t welcome anywhere else in the gay community,” Webber remembered. “I think a lot about those people, and I don’t see their stories [represented elsewhere] hardly at all. I often think of them and they are somehow present in the work.”

In This Way We Loved One Another includes photos of Reverend Gwen Hall, Patrick Haggerty, Julius J.B. Broughton, P. Catlin Fullwood, Aaliyah Messiah and her sister Sheilah Robinson, and Kazas Jones. The late Reverend Hall started Sojourner Truth Ministries specifically to provide a spiritual home for Black people with HIV who were ostracized from their own churches or the larger gay community. One photo shows Hall officiating the wedding of Haggerty, credited with releaseing the first gay country album Lavender Country, and Broughton, a working class, Black, Navy veteran from Philadelphia.

Fullwood and Jones helped found People of Color Against AIDS Network (POCAAN), which focused on harm reduction for the most marginalized groups, including sex workers and drug users. Webber reminisced about Sheilah Robinson of POCAAN, a former sex worker and drug user who helped found the Girlfriends newsletter, a publication for sex workers that helped educate about safe sex and other health issues. “Sheila came to work every day at POCAAN in her heels, dressed to the nines, and said, ‘I’m going out to save lives today,’” Webber said.

Commemorating and claiming space for these overlooked activists is significant, especially as it relates to current dialogues about who exactly gets to be memorialized in public space. Last year, for example, saw the toppling of confederate monuments as calls for racial and social justice intensified. In This Way We Loved One Another is Webber’s own way of memorializing people whose stories don’t often get told, but were crucial to HIV and AIDS activism. Webber intends for her work at the AMP to be a container for both past, present, and future liberation movements, inspiring the next wave of activists who will continue to carry the lines of resistance  rooted in Seattle’s history.

“I carry this historical memory and I wanted to lift up this through-line and say, ‘Let it carry on.’” Webber said. “Let us recall that in this way we loved one another. That is a very important part of how they did this work. They couldn’t have done it without a vast and immeasurable love.”

Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist and freelance writer living in the Beacon Hill neighborhood. He often writes about specialty coffee, LGBTQ+ topics, and more. Visit his website and follow him on Instagram at @markthewriter

📸 Featured Image: Storme Webber in front of “In This Way We Loved One Another” at the AIDS Memorial Pathway at the Plaza at the Capitol Hill Light Rail Station. (photo: Mel Ponder)

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