Photo by Mat Napo on Unsplash

How do you offer hope in the face of no hope, in the face of hopelessness? Talking to authors Ellen Matzer and Valerie Hughes.

Before World AIDS Day 2021, I had the great privilege to sit down with Ellen Matzer, RN, CCRN, and Valery Hughes, FNP, RN authors of the book, NURSES ON THE INSIDE: STORIES OF THE HIV/AIDS EPIDEMIC IN NYC.

When a friend suggested that Ellen write a book about her experience as a nurse caring for AIDS patients, establishing the first AIDS wards and clinic, she initially blew it off, but in the summer of 2017 she started thinking about it and began writing down her memories and stories. Realizing that something was missing, she reached out to Valerie Hughes, who she worked with, and started a collaboration. Two years later, the book NURSES ON THE INSIDE was complete.

Talking About: Nurses On The Inside

The day I sat down with Ellen and Valerie to talk about the book and their experience, one of my first questions was if they had any idea of what they were seeing would be the enormous pandemic to come, and neither had the slightest idea. They explained that it was uncommon for nurses in different hospitals to talk about their cases; there was no method of sharing information, no social media, no cell phones. Valerie would be one of the founding members of the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care because they saw the need.

Ellen explained that there was no AIDS specialty or dedicated care initially. The first one was at the former Saint Clare's hospital located in Hell's Kitchen, which Valerie describes as a "horrendous part of the city." The hospital was run down, without many of the basics, from air conditioning and furniture to chart holders. No one wanted to work there.

Ellen describes how, except Nurses and Doctors, anyone else who was willing to work was hired and learned as they went along, from nursing assistants and orderlies to unit secretaries.

"Anybody that walked into the door of Saint Clare's got hired and trained to do something" - Ellen

Valerie adds that you had a job if you weren't afraid because so many people were afraid and would not care for people with HIV. Early in the book, they share their experience with the ignorance and fear, not only of the virus but the LGBTQ community describing how a colleague was overheard saying that "they deserved it," referring to gay men contracting HIV.

But it wasn't just the fear, ignorance, and lack of resources; there was no treatment. This was pre any cocktail, pre-AZT. In the book, Ellen asks Valerie, "Do you think we help?" to which I ask if that was a common question they asked themselves.

"Did we actually help anybody? We didn't save anybody, that's for sure. We didn't save anybody's life. I'm not even sure that we really prolonged anybody's life back then." – Ellen

Ellen says that she thinks they relieved suffering, relieved pain, kept people clean, and tried to come up with different things patients might eat to gain weight. She describes how they would mix Carnation Instant Breakfast with milk and then put that on cereal; they would put butter, mayonnaise, and syrup on anything they could to try and get patients a few extra calories.

Valerie adds that they were very present in patients' lives, which was the value-added. People did not die alone. Even for patients who were not in the hospital, Ellen, Valerie, and other staff would visit them so they would always have somebody see them every day to know they were cared for and were important.

HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, was identified in 1983, and It would be almost four more years before the first treatment for AIDS, AZT, would become available. By then, thousands had died.

We discuss the activism that came about due to HIV/AIDS and how the LGBTQ community came together; groups like ACT UP and Valerie describe her first research job with Community Research Initiative that was co-housed with ACT UP in Chelsea witnessing ACT UP. When I asked if they were surprised by the activism, Valerie added, "finally, gay men just stood up and said, fuck no, we're not putting up with this anymore!"

Most people don't realize that it is a result of the AIDS crisis/epidemic that we have a patient's bill of rights. Today, patients have access to what healthcare professionals write in their charts and have recourse if they are not treated with dignity and respect.

Ellen shares with me that she had just finished a book by Peter Staley, one of the founders of ACT UP Titled Never Silent that chronicles the history of ACT UP and the interactions between him, Larry Kramer, who was another founder, and Anthony Fouci.

"People assume that because we were taking care of people, we were not activists. I mean, we were activists in regard to taking care of our one-to-one patients or one to two or one to three patients. We were activists for them, advocating for their health and safety as much as we could, but we weren't out there holding protests." - Ellen

After 40 years and millions of lost lives, there is still no cure for HIV, and while there are new drugs that allow many people to live with this deadly virus, it is estimated that up to one million people around the world died from AIDS in 2020. I ask if there was a turning point in that pandemic where they felt like even if it couldn't be cured, it could be controlled, and Valerie points to 1995 when AZT, the first drug to treat HIV, was approved. Other advances and drug cocktails would follow and Valerie said, "And then, all of a sudden, people stopped being so sick."

While we have come a long way from the days when there was no treatment and infection was considered a death sentence, we also have a second generation who have and are growing up without a personal understanding of what it was like. Despite the new drugs that can allow an individual to reach an undetectable viral load and PREP drugs, the new enemy in the fight against HIV/AIDS is complacency.

Both Ellen and Valerie agree that education is the key because those most at risk face socioeconomic disadvantages that often include a lack of education and access. For those of us who were around initially, it is our responsibility to ensure that the current and future generations have a frame of reference and understanding of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and all the unfinished lives that were lost.

To learn more about Ellen and Valerie, visit their website, their book NURSES ON THE INSIDE: Stories of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in NYC is available on Amazon. To watch, listen to or read my entire interview with Ellen and Valerie, visit my

Purchase the book here. Follow on Facebook here.

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Like many of the recent Marvel Cinematic Universe films, LGBTQ+ fans awaited the release of Thor: Love and Thunder in open anticipation of the inclusivity that both Marvel and Disney had promised. However, the fans were only setting themselves up for disappointment when the film was finally released.

Despite passionate assurances from studio heads to key actors, Thor: Love and Thunder was NOT spectacularly gay. It wasn’t even that good…

Premiere Night Promises

A bolt of lightning cuts across a rainbow on a dark and stormy night.

Lightning bold across the sky

Photo by Bill D.

Standing on the red carpet at the London Premiere of the film, director and actor Taika Waititi and fellow cast members Natalie Portman and Tessa Thompson were offered up the inevitable question: “How gay is the film?

Amidst some laughter from the crowds, Waititi gestured towards Portman to respond. The actress (who plays Thor’s love interest, Jane Foster, throughout the franchise) raised the microphone to her lips and thought for a moment, before delivering a quiet yet fateful: “So gay!

Barely a moment had passed before the gathered fans went wild and Taika Waititi gave his own verdict: “Super gay!”. Tessa Thompson made no statement on the ‘gayness’ of the film, instead opting to swing her microphone around suggestively. As more cheers erupted, a second round of “super gay” slipped out of Waititi’s mouth, before he urged the fans to enjoy the film.

Thor: Love and Thunder’s LGBTQ+ Potential

Thor’s movie-goers were definitely hyped up for a gay extravaganza and they had a specific character in mind. The fan-favorite Valkyrie, played by Tessa Thompson, stumbled her way into the MCU during Thor’s third film, Ragnarok. The Asgardian warrior won many people over with her wit, sarcasm, and pure badassery.

After the events of Avengers: Endgame *spoilers*, Thor Odinson gives up his claim to the throne of Asgard and names Valkyrie as king in his stead. This left many fans excited to see what would become of the character, especially after certain revelations were made at the 2019 San Diego Comic-Con:

“As a new king, she has to find her queen. So that’ll be her first order of business.”

With these words, Tessa Thompson threw her LGBTQ+ fans into a frenzy, with heavy expectations for the then-upcoming fourth installment of the Thor films. Indeed, in an interview with the LA Times, shortly before the film's release, Tessa Thompson was asked to comment on the sexuality of her character. She responded with several promising remarks, including “there’s a lot of folks that are righteously very hungry for that representation to exist in these movies, as am I”.

*Warning: spoilers ahead!*

So, How Gay Was Thor 4?

To put it simply: not gay at all. Not only did Valkyrie end up without a fabulous new queen, her non-heteronormative sexuality only got the barest mention (a brief line about a previous, now dead, girlfriend). Valkyrie may have made bedroom eyes at some pretty ladies before an action scene spoils the moment, but that’s about as much as we get.

The film does get some credit for introducing a trans character in a minor yet significant role. Thor returns to his people (after a brief stint as a Guardian of the Galaxy) only to find out that the daughter of one of his closest (and deceased) friends is now a boy. The issue is, whether due to personal prejudice or some alien inability to grasp the concept of being transgender, it does take Thor a frustrating few moments to come to terms with the change. And to stop deadnaming.

In fact, the only concession to the queer community was Taika Waititi’s extraterrestrial character Korg finding a husband in one of the closing scenes. This heartfelt moment was somewhat underscored by the revelation that Korg’s entire species is male, meaning he had no other choice but to be ‘gay’.

This Is Not Marvel’s First Queerbaiting Attempt

Close up of an eye reflecting an unknown scene as a rainbow crosses the image.

Photo by Harry Q.

This is, by far, not the first time that LGBTQ+ fans have been sorely disappointed by the workings of Marvel and Disney. In fact, people across many social media platforms have been chiding expectant viewers for once again falling for classic queerbaiting tactics. “Being queerbaited by the MCU is like being a golden retriever with a human who always pretends to throw the ball”, one Tumblr user declared.

Captain Marvel, starring Brie Larson, was the perfect moment for the MCU to introduce its first lesbian lead. Larson’s character seemed to have an intense relationship with another woman, going so far as to help raise her child (before Larson’s Carol Danvers disappeared from Earth for 6 years). Despite leaning into several romantic tropes, the status of their relationship was never fully fleshed out. However, it was also the franchise’s first female-led superhero movie, so maybe they thought that introducing her as a lesbian would make the film too awesome.

The heavily anticipated Avengers: Endgame was also slated to introduce the MCU’s ‘first gay character'. While many fans were excited, particularly as this would be the second of Larson’s appearances on screen, the big gay build-up was a massive letdown. The film’s director Joe Russo made a cameo as a blip survivor mourning the loss of his husband. A five-second throw-away scene that had no impact on the outcome of the film. Big whoop...

Even when we did see a film with a gay lead, The Eternals, there were also ten other straight leads. At that point, it just seemed more like basic probability than an attempt at pushing LGBT+ superheroes into the spotlight.

Why Can’t Disney Let Marvel Be Gay?

The big problem with allowing a few characters to be anything other than cishet is that there are still many countries in the world that outlaw homosexuality. As much as we like to think that the MCU is being made for comic book fans, we all know the purpose of the films is to make money for Disney. And without certain markets in Asia and the Middle East, Disney wouldn’t be raking in up to (and over) one billion dollars per theatrical release.

Is There Any Hope For LGBTQ+ Fans In The MCU’s Future?

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, the second in the much-loved Black Panther arc, will be released in cinemas this November. The studio has confirmed that the film will contain a queer character. Actress Michaela Coel will play Aneka, a warrior, and trainer of the king’s guard. Whether or not her diversity will stand out in the film (let alone endure for more than a 10-second scene that can be easily cut) remains to be seen.

Next year’s The Marvels film, starring Brie Larson, Iman Vellani, and Lashana Lynch may offer the MCU a chance to redeem itself in the eyes of its LGBT+ fans. The studios may feel it’s finally time to offer us the heartwarming lesbian relationship between Larson’s Carol Danvers and Lynch’s Maria Rambeau that seemed to be teased in the first Captain Marvel. Don’t raise your hopes too high, though, as you may yet end up as a stubborn golden retriever waiting for a cinematic universe to finally throw that rainbow ball.