From AIDS to Equal Marriage in One (Messy) Generation. An Ally’s Perspective

Insider NJ columnist Jay Lassiter looks at how life and attitudes about AIDS and gay marriage have evolved over the course of a single generation.

Joanne Schwartz used to wear a special gown to visit her gay friends. It was the depths of America’s AIDS crisis and her friends were covered in lesions, wasting away before her very eyes.

“I remember when AIDS first came, I remember the hard terrible days, how awful it was.” Ms Schwartz told InsiderNJ. “People now don’t have any idea what it was like to be a pariah, that nobody would be in the room – not only not touch you – but wouldn’t even be in the room with you.”

There was no treatment and little compassion for these dying queers back in the 1980s. The only thing we could do was keep them comfortable and sterile. That’s were the gown came in, to protect their decimated immune systems from outside germs.

There would be no dignity in death for America’s early AIDS martyrs.

“I remember how difficult it was to get people buried,’ Ms Schwartz said.  “That the funeral directors would not bury you if you had AIDS or they would put you in a plastic bag in a closed coffin and they wouldn’t touch your body.”




The makeshift wedding chapel was a converted conference room at the Burlington County Clerk’s office. Gauzy white material hung on the walls backlit by stands of white lights that hung from the ceiling.

And when 66-year-old Bill Strippoli and 64-year-old Lee Craft prepared to take their vows, it was easy to get swept up into their very obvious joy.

After a lifetime apart and followed a whirlwind courtship, (“since January”) Lee and Bill weren’t wasting another day not being married.

“I’m part of that generation as he is and we suffered a lot,”Bill told InsdierNJ before tying the knot. “A lot of people died and were persecuted to have the right for us just to have equality so it’s really important to me to be married.”

Joanne Schwartz, who spent the 1980s caring for men dying of AIDS, was on hand to make their marriage official. Burlington County Voters chose Ms Schwartz to be their county clerk and officiating marriages is part of her duties.

“One of the best parts of my job!” the County Clerk exclaimed on Facebook. “Especially today during Pride month!”

And then, the vows.

“After a very short time of getting to know you, I realized my prayers had been answered and that you’re the one that I’m meant to be with,” Bill told his new husband.

“We always tell each other that we are so much better together than either of us is apart,” Lee replied, tenderly kissing his new husband on the hand.

It was sweetest, most romantic thing I’ve seen in who knows how long?


Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-Union) helped make history on October 21, 2013 when he officiated the union of Marsha Shapiro and Louise Walpin, the first gay wedding in New Jersey history.

“I was a young whippersnapper mayor (of Roselle Township)n- 31 years old – and it was such an honor and something I’ll never forget.” Mr Holley told InsiderNJ. “Marsha and Louise fought so hard for this and now I get to be friends with them. It’s something I’ll never forget. I’ll never forget that sense of pride”

Speaking of whippersnappers, Alex Torpey wasn’t thinking of officiating weddings when he became mayor of South Orange in 2011 at the precocious age of 23.

“Little did I know that it would actually end up as one of the most important memories for my time in office.” Mr Torpey told InsiderNJ. “Those weddings weren’t just an expensive party or a big romantic gesture, they actually conferred a basic set of equal rights to people who may not have had them before. I will never forget how good that felt, and how glad I was to be part of such an important process for so many people.”

Jamel Holley and Alex Torpey, both young mayors when gay marriage came to New Jersey, were born too late to recall the bad old AIDS days.

But Joanne Schwartz remembers it vividly. And she still marvels at the ferocity with which the LGBT community rallied from the AIDS crisis.

So what does Joanne Schwartz, Burlington County Clerk think the early AIDS martyrs would make of marriage equality?

“They would be elated,” Ms Schwartz told Insider, her voice cracking with emotion. “And they would be… I can’t even think of a word… They would be beyond proud!”




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