Ray: Louise, how was it that you started doing work with people with AIDS and those in the gay community so early on in the AIDS crisis?
Louise: I’ve said for a long time that AIDS made me famous. It took me from just an ordinary little teacher who was doing her stuff to suddenly — boom. Life sort of put its hand in front of me and said, “What about if you handled this?”
When AIDS first started spreading, no one knew anything about anything about it. But I had worked with gay men for some time, mostly in New York. I had a small group there, and it grew. When I came out to California, I tried to start another group, and I couldn’t get it together. It just wasn’t right.
Then one day, as AIDS started its journey, somebody called me up and said, “Louise, can you help? We need a group for people with AIDS.” I said yes, but I didn’t know if it would work. Six guys came to my living room that night. I remember we gave them dinner, and I said, “I don’t know what we’re doing. Nobody knows what they’re doing now. It’s all unchartered waters. But we’re not going to sit here and play Ain’t It Awful. We’re going to take a positive approach, and we’re going to see what happens. We’re going to do the same thing I’ve always done with people: We’re going to release resentment. We’re going to forgive. We’re going to learn to love ourselves.” We talked for some while. At the end of the evening we sang a song and did a little meditation, and then they went home.
The next morning, I had a call from one of the guys. He said, “Louise, it’s the first time I’ve slept in three months.” So, the next week we had fifteen men come. We just did that over and over again, until in three months I had ninety people in my living room, and my living room could only hold about sixteen. We got a gymnasium in West Hollywood to give us some space, and in one week we went from ninety people to one hundred and fifty. It just kept going like that, and then we outgrew the gym! Finally, the city of West Hollywood gave us some space to hold meetings. It became known as the Hayride. People would call each other up, “Are you going to the Hayride tonight?”
I call it six and a half years in the trenches. Nobody knew what they were doing, and basically nobody was doing anything for anybody. They wouldn’t touch people with AIDS.
You had these frightened little boys. They were so young. So, I didn’t say no, and it just grew by itself.
Ray: And you were in your mid to late forties?
Louise: No, sweetheart, fifties. I didn’t start until fifty. I didn’t begin anything until fifty. And this has been thirty years now.