Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Uppity Women #25

It's been a while...

Judith Peabody, with her husband Samuel
(Image credit: Bill Cunningham/The New York Times )

Every once in a while someone comes along to abolish all your ideas about a particular strata of society. Socialite Judith Peabody, who died in late July, certainly did just that. A lifelong supporter, both financially and with her personal time and efforts, of causes as varied as juvenile delinquents, Lenny Bruce, rehabilitating former East Harlem gang members, the New York Shakespeare Festival, Reality House Drug Rehabilitation Center, Dance Theater of Harlem and most notably, the Gay Men's Health Crisis, Judith Peabody broke down many barriers.

Samuel Peabody told the Times that his wife's passion for helping others started early on. He met her when she was 20, when she was working at a center for delinquents. She told him not to tell her mother, who thought she was off taking French lessons, about where she was working.

In an article in the New York Times in 1987, the year I lost the first of my gay friends to HIV, she was noted as introducing herself as simply Judy to members in her counseling group (she had earned certification in psychological counseling) at the Gay Men's Health Crisis. They had no idea what her life circumstances were, of course. Her advocacy, and fearless championing of HIV patients was remarkable both for her active engagement and her sustained commitment over many decades. From the NY Times' obituary,

“Mrs. Peabody was someone who recognized the challenge of AIDS long before it was fashionable,” Marjorie J. Hill, the chief executive of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, said in an interview on Monday. “She did everything she could, on a personal level and an institutional level, to combat the stigma of the disease among people living with H.I.V. and their caretakers. She left her mark on thousands of lives at G.M.H.C.”

She had serious moxie. I can't imagine how uppity a high society matron would have to be to have opened a Drug Rehab and work there. Ditto on GMHC in the 1980's, when I remember friends of mine cringing while watching me hug or eat meals with or even spend time nursing my friends Bobby, Mike or Brian, because, like, they were diseased and what was I thinking? My younger and liberal readers likely will have no sense of how deep the prejudice, the venom and the stigma of AIDS was back then. Having someone like Judith Peabody working for your cause would have been quite an imprimatur.

Frank Rich had a great column on Saturday, titled Angels in America. Judith Peabody certainly was one, from all accounts.

But an uppity, Amazon-y kind of angel. The very best kind.

© Bright Nepenthe, 2010

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