After 24 years at the helm of AIDS Partnership Michigan – in some iteration or another – Barbara Murray will retire March 4.
In an interview with Between The Lines, Murray discussed her career, her life and the changing face of an epidemic that has carved its existence in gay life.
“Best job – hardest job, I ever had,” she told BTL of her post at APM. But HIV was not where she had imagined herself many years ago.
“Well, frankly, all I ever wanted to be was a camp director,” she said. That came from her experience during college working for the Girl Scouts as a camp counselor. She laughs now, as she looks back on it, realizing that the end of camp doldrums left her wishing for the adrenaline of being with the kids again.
She served the Girl Scouts here in Michigan, and then took a post in West Virginia as development director. She returned to Michigan and Flint, to work at the YWCA. There she helped start a domestic violence shelter and program.
“We built it from the ground up,” she said. “We did it in a little less than two years.”
And it was during this time that she faced off with Michael Moore, who then ran the Flint Voice, an alternative newspaper in the area. She said he “ripped” her and the organization a “new one” for their plans. She said Moore thought volunteers for the YWCA should house survivors in their own homes.
“I thought, Michael, what are you going to do when the first guy – course this literally happened – we had a guy try to drive his car through the lobby of the YW (to get at his partner),” she said of the conflict.
During this time, working with domestic violence survivors, Murray said she learned one of the most important lessons.
“I learned how important people who are going through that are as spokespersons and as teachers,” she said.
After the executive director she was working with left to run a Texas YWCA, Murray was passed over for promotion to become the next executive director, and the new leader “made it clear” Murray was not particularly welcome in the organization anymore. So she launched a search for a new job – preferably as an executive director.
“I guess that was the replacement for being a camp director, being an executive director,” she said with a laugh.
Years later she ran into a former Girl Scout camper at the Hotter Than July! celebration, and the young woman told her she was sorry Murray had not gotten the post leading the YWCA in Flint, but that it had been because she was a lesbian. In her typical ho-hum downplay of things, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “Well, isn’t that interesting?”
Finding The Love of Her Life
As her friend, and boss, was preparing to leave for Texas to embark on her new job there, Murray said she invited her to the bars in Detroit. As a lesbian, in the late 70s, the repercussions of being seen in Flint’s local gay bar were immediate, she recalled.
“I knew damn well that if I did (go to the gay bar in Flint),” she draws her finger across her throat.
Murray accepted the invitation, which she would later discover had been a set-up to introduce her to Annie, and went to the bars in Detroit.
Just before her boss and friend left for Texas, Murray recalls a conversation with her.
“She said, ‘Murray, when was the last time you were in love? You need to be in love,'” she said. “I thought, ‘well, I probably ought to listen to her.'”
But getting to love took time. Murray was in the process of ending a “broken” relationship with another woman at the time, and took two years to discover who she was.
While it would take two years for Murray to call Annie and pursue a relationship with her, the two have now been together for 29 years now.
“Oh my God! She’s my rock. She’s the love of my life,” Murray gushed.
She said Annie recognizes that running an AIDS organization is a marriage unto itself, but she doesn’t allow Murray to bring it home with her, “which is good,” she declares.
Murray admits that when a board member at the vision clinic approached her about the post of running an AIDS organization – then called Wellness – she was not particularly interested.
“I was kind of liking this 9-to-5 job,” she said.
But the board member, who was also on the Wellness board, wouldn’t relent. Murray finally agreed to the interview with the board, to get the woman “off my back.”
“The interview was on a Saturday morning and I walked in and I was just so laid back because I was doing this to get her to shut up,” Murray said. “Halfway through the interview, I wanted it so bad. I wanted to say, ‘Please, hire me. Please.'”
That flip in attitude was a result of the passion of the board members and volunteers interviewing her she said.
“I have never seen people so passionate about what they were doing.”
HIV and AIDS, while certainly something she was aware of at the time, was not a part of her everyday life at that point. She had attended one fundraiser for AIDS, hosted by a friend who had done fundraisers for the Common Ground organization, and Murray said she wanted to go because of the artist. She did not know anyone who was living with HIV at the time.
But it was the passion of those involved that drove Murray to want to engage.
“They did what they had to do. Parallel – ACT UP – You did what you had to do because this is terrifying and this has got to stop. Whatever it is, we’ve got to figure out what it is we gotta do,” she said of the passion.
Underlying that passion, of course, was the battle for lives.
“I felt so deeply for some of these guys because, you know, you just had this horrible epidemic train coming down the track – and at that point, there were not answers – you just got hit by the train. If you were lucky, you survived for a while, and others didn’t,” she said.
Loss and Sex
She said she was prepared to deal with the immense loss of fighting an epidemic that is until she was confronted by that loss in the form of the Names Quilt displayed at Cobo Hall.
“That just tore me up,” she said, noting that the Quilt display included panels of people she knew, as did the reading of the names. “It was just emotionally gut-wrenching to see that quilt.”
Over the years, Murray has watched HIV become politicized, “permeated” with politics. She notes that while government funding has been important, it has also quashed fundraising within the community.
“What concerns me about that – and I have heard gay men say this – we don’t have to support you because the government pays for it all,” she said. “The problem with that attitude is, yeah, but the government money comes with strings.”
Those strings complicate and sometimes hamper prevention activities. It is difficult to have deep, meaningful conversations about sex and sexuality with government cash. So private dollars are necessary to do “in-your-face” campaigns.
“I think private dollars are enormously important to what you need to do, and they are very hard to come by,” Murray notes.
“Have we won the fight with AIDS? Yes and No. It is no solution to take a lot of pills,” she said.
She says while HIV is still killing people, sometimes from the disease itself, and more often as a result of the long term effects of the drugs that keep the virus in check, but turn the cardiac system into a “train wreck,” the conversation remains hampered by one over-riding issue.
“The problem is we don’t deal with sex in this country. We don’t. We just don’t deal well with it,” she said.
She notes our conversations and attitudes about sex are not transparent. That we are not giving youth “the whole damn story” about sex.
“Sex should be enjoyable, for God’s sake, but do what you have to do to be safe,” she demands.