WEEKLY NEWS DIGEST (August 9-15, 2010)

IN MEMORIAM

Angels in America.” By Frank Rich. Op-ed. New York Times. August 14, 2010. To appreciate how much and how unexpectedly our country can change, look no further than the life and times of Judith Dunnington Peabody, who died on July 25 at 80 in her apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York. The proper names in her biographical sketch suggest a stereotype from a bygone New Yorker cartoon: Miss Hewitt’s Classes, the Ethel Walker School, Bryn Mawr, the Junior League. She “was introduced to society,” as they said of debutantes back then, at the Piping Rock Club, Locust Valley, N.Y., in 1947. As the fashionable wife of Samuel P. Peabody in the decades to follow, she shared the society pages with Pat Buckley, Babe Paley and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. But to quote Tracy Lord, the socialite played by Katharine Hepburn in the classic high-society movie comedy “The Philadelphia Story,” “The time to make up your mind about people is never.” In 1985, Judith Peabody, a frequent contributor to the traditional good causes favored by those of her class, did the unthinkable by volunteering to work as a hands-on caregiver to AIDS patients and their loved ones. Those patients were then mostly gay men, and, as Guy Trebay recently wrote in The Times, they were “treated not with compassion but as bearers of plague.” There was no drug regimen to combat AIDS, and there were many panicky rumors about how its death sentence could be spread through casual contact. People of all types and political persuasions shunned dying gay men even as they treated healthy gay men and lesbians as, at best, second-class citizens. The Times did not put the mysterious disease on Page 1 until after the casualty rate exceeded 500 and didn’t start covering it in earnest until Rock Hudson died of AIDS three years after that. In 1985, the term “gay” itself was an untouchable for writers in this newspaper. Thanks to Peabody’s prominence, her example had a discernible effect in beating back ignorance and fear in New York. But 25 years ago, few could have imagined a larger narrative that might lead to full civil rights for gay Americans.

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