Read9: AIDS, Community & Compassion

These excerpts are drawn from Chapter 17, “A Plague Arrives,” and Chapter 18, “Becoming Compassion.” The chapters trace the change in the health discourse that occurs in Seattle as lesbians and gays change their organizational strategy and rhetoric to address the arrival of AIDS — and the change in the public image of lesbians and gays that then also occurs as “criminal citizens” become seen as the most compassionate of citizens.

A Plague Arrives

In 1959, as MacIver Wells finished his first confrontation with the Seattle police,

Bobbi Campbell, left, originally from Seattle, became the first person living with AIDS to come out publicly after he became the 16th person to be diagnosed in San Francisco with the still unnamed disease. He co-authored a safer-sex manual called “Play Fair,” and died in 1984. (Newsweek cover, 1983)

Arno Motulsky pursued a different battle in the jungles of the Congo. A young medical geneticist working at the University of Washington, Motulsky wondered why some Africans resisted malaria more than others. To find out, he and his team put needles into more than 1,200 people, drawing blood to test for genetic resistance. In Leopoldville, a Bantu man tested. Motulsky shipped the blood to the university for analysis and, when his own malaria study was completed, the blood was stored first at the university and then the Puget Sound Blood Center.

No one would know for three decades, least among them Motulsky, but the young scientist had just sent evidence of a mysterious new virus to Seattle. In the 1980s, other researchers, examining microscopic amounts of the Motulsky collection, would designate the Bantu man the earliest documented case of a new infection. His blood showed traces of the human antibodies that even then were struggling against the virus; no one knew whether he had survived, but the chances seemed unlikely. In 1997, other scientists using examining Motulsky’s samples with even more advanced techniques found genetic remnants of the virus itself in the blood.

The samples Motulsky gathered stayed safely quarantined. But when the virus eventually made its own way to Seattle a second time–unsealed and unsafely–it would kill more than 3,500 people in the city and its surroundings before the century’s end. And it would infect additional thousands. More than three-quarters of those dead would be gay men.

The first news came June 4, 1981, in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the Centers for Disease Control. A bizarre pneumonia had struck five healthy men in Los Angeles.

At the time, the Seattle Gay News was busy noting other developments, not diseases. Charlie Brydon’s success against Initiative 13 campaign had propelled him to national prominence and to New York as one of two directors of the National Gay Task Force, but sharing responsibility with a lesbian director had not worked for Brydon, and the Task Force itself was being accused of drift in the face of a renewed Christian assault, this one led by the Rev. Jerry Falwell and his organization, the Moral Majority. Falwell perched on the eve of a major triumph–convincing Congress to overturn a repeal of the sodomy law in the District of Columbia. Brydon was resigning and coming home. In Seattle itself, the summer’s already warm weather had drawn gay nude sunbathers back to the U.W.’s Arboretum, where one police officer had apparently removed his own shirt to walk undetected among the crowd and then had used a walkie-talkie to summon uniformed reinforcements–or so the tales of harassment from the Arboretum beach went. On Capitol Hill, a new gay bathhouse prepared to open, the likes of which the city had never seen before. Gone would be the dinginess of the old downtown bathhouses that Jacob Heimbigner and others had operated with the tolerance of the police. Instead, the upscale Club Seattle was installing a thirty-person hot tub, a bunkhouse, workout machines, and what manager Larry Woelich would call an “arena” where, he promised in an interview with the Gay News, “anything goes.”

For Pride Week that June, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus was performing at the Opera House. The hall was packed and new friendships were being made, by day and by night.

In August, the New York Timesreported forty-one cases of a rare cancer among gay men in New York and California. Club Seattle was planning its grand opening, an extravaganza called “Steam.” By the end of the month, doctors throughout the country had counted 100

Changing the Sexual Rhetoric: Seattle’s pioneering “Rules of the Road” campaign set out to both change the public attitude toward gay sex and change gay men’s behaviors (Northwest AIDS Foundation, 1986)

diagnoses of either the cancer or the unusual pneumonia, all in homosexual men. Half had already died. A story in the Seattle Gay News that month focused on a decision to change the name of the Seattle Clinic for Venereal Health to “Seattle Gay Clinic”. It had been created in 1979 to counsel and treat gay men for sexually transmitted diseases. The article made no mention of any new virus.3

Few gay men even knew about it. Those who did were mostly beginning to hear from friends in San Francisco or New York.Seattle would have the bittersweet luxury of fearing the plague before it actually arrived in columns of statistics. It would be known as a “second-wave” city, which meant that it had a little more time to prepare than did San Francisco or New York. But prepare did not mean avoiding the initial infections. Those had already occurred. “Prepare” simply meant time ready the triage.

On Nov. 12, 1982, the Seattle Times discovered that the plague had arrived in the city–indeed, had arrived the previous June just one year after the CDC report, but the health department had not announced it. The first positive diagnosis of a case of AIDS had been made in a man who lived both in San Francisco and Seattle, frequently traveling between the two cities. He had developed Kaposi’s sarcoma. By the time the announcement was made, he had already left Seattle. His name was never published; he was simply a shadow that had vanished. Dr. Hunter Handsfield, who as director of the health department’s Sexually Transmitted Disease Program would be taking the lead in responding to the virus, tried to sound reassuring. Although AIDS had arrived in Seattle, he told the Post-Intelligencer, it “is not a scourge that’s wiping out people on every street corner; the homosexual community has no reason for panic.” Headline writers for both newspapers also seemed at pains to comfort their heterosexual audiences. The Times headline rather verbosely called AIDS the “deadly disease that mainly affects gay men,” while the Post-Intelligencer reassuringly titled its story: “Only One Local Case of Gays’ Disease Found.” 

Northwest AIDS Foundation, 1986, Rules of the Road campaign

In its issue that week, the Seattle Gay News introduced to readers to yet another new word: lymphadenopothy. Handsfield already had fifty men with the symptom under study.  “The long word,” the writer explained, “refers to a swelling of the lymph glands.” Suddenly, a lot more men began to suspect they might be sick.

The virus quickly interrupted whatever other agendas gay activists had. It brought many challenges. Some were global and scientific: unmasking the mystery of the source and its spread, protecting the blood supplies for hospitals, creating a blood screen to see who had been exposed, looking for a vaccine and a cure. Other challenges were very local and could only be addressed city-by-city, gay community by gay community.  Most of those had to do with communication and with the creation of new geographic space.

There was, for example, the question of how to help those who had already contracted the disease. Although each of Seattle’s major gay organizations–the Dorian Group, the Seattle Counseling Service, Stonewall, the Lesbian Resource Center–might address a piece of the response, none were equipped to fully focus on the crisis and to help the infected cope with the demands of money and medicine.

The “Rules of the Road” encouraged as well as warned, Northwest AIDS Foundation, 1986

Too, there was the need to create communications that would head off further infections, to not just educate, but to change the sexual behaviors that spread the virus–once the scientists figured out what those were.  There would be that touchy matter of actually communicating about gay sex. In the 1970s, Brydon had avoided that with his rhetoric about privacy; so had SCAT and WAT by talking about gays and lesbians being neighbors. No one publicly talked about what gay men did in bed together, except, of course, the religious extremists who used graphically exaggerated images as part of their strategy for opposing homosexuality.  But if gay men were going to stop the disease, they would have to talk explicitly about what to do and not do sexually, and they would have to conduct that talk in public to reach as wide an audience of both closeted and uncloseted men as they could. It was one thing to confront heterosexuals in the 1970s with public talk about civil rights or privacy or even gay pride. It was quite another to suddenly distribute condoms on Capitol Hill carrying explicit pictures of erections and anal intercourse. The sexual boundaries of Seattle’s civic conversation would need to be transfigured.

Also there would be the quest to reshape the meaning of certain physical spaces and the types of communication carried on there. Pioneer Square had provided the underground refuge for clandestine social meetings; Renton Hill, the pulpits for a new identity; the University District, space for ideological argument; Denny’s knoll, insider reforms. Quickly, AIDS would call into question one specific piece of Seattle’s established gay territory: the male bathhouses and their role as possible centers for the kind of sex presumed to spread the disease. AIDS would also dramatically introduce gay concerns into the piece of the civic conversation that dealt with medical care for all citizens. The doors of hospitals would have to open. Who would care for someone carrying what seemed an always fatal virus? Who was a “family” member–the parents who might have rejected their gay son, or the ragtag mob of friends and volunteers who maintained twenty-four-hour vigils?  Where would there be new asylums for those who would be sick?

And, finally, of course, there would be mourning to be done.

Becoming Angry, Becoming Compassion

As gaps in either the treatment  of patients or the education of the still-healthy became apparent, more and more AIDS organizations formed in Seattle, as if by sheer numbers of news groups the epidemic could somehow be controlled. Seattle’s black, Asian and Hispanic communities had not initially been targeted by the Northwest AIDS Foundation so, by 1987, a new group sparked by a lesbian/gay organizing program of the American Friends Service Committee emerged to run education efforts there. The People

AIDS education images would grow more explicit, especially as more groups needed to be reached. POCAAN broke new ground with its more explicit “Brother to Brother” campaign in 1987 (Geoff Manasse)

of Color Against AIDS Network it was called–POCAAN, for short. Similarly, needle exchange programs formed to head off the virus’s sweep through the city’s intravenous drug users. Heterosexuals who had developed AIDS began a support group. An organization called Rise N’ Shine focused on children and teenagers with AIDS. The Babes Network helped women exposed to the virus. Soon, somewhere in the city, there would be a group for virtually every type of person contracting the disease, many of them started or assisted by those suffering the most casualties: gay men.

Beginning in 1988, there would also be a new type of group in the city, one created from what was a growing frustration and anger over the disease. In October, Seattle activists formed a chapter of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power–ACT-Up–with the intent of forcing confrontations with those they thought were moving too slowly to combat the disease. ACT-UP had already been making an impact on the East Coast for two years, holding demonstrations to protest actions–and inactions–by the Reagan-Bush administration and by the U.S. Supreme Court.  But, in Seattle, AIDS activists and local government officials were already working so closely together that ACT-UP’s actions were often aimed elsewhere rather than directed at city or county officials. The first act was to protest the Reagan administration’s neglect of AIDS at a speech in Tacoma being given by then Vice-President George Bush. The second was to demonstrate against Safeway stores when the chain refused an issue of a pop music magazine, Spin, because it included a condom along with an article about safe sex. The grocery chain would not back down on the magazine, but it did agree to eventually print a safe sex message and an AIDS Hotline telephone number on its grocery bags. Another demonstration in 1990 demanded that the federal government spend more money on AIDS-related programs; although about fifty protestors blocked intersections downtown, city police blocked off traffic and let the rally proceed until it ended three hours later. In 1991, ACT-UP did actually target one local group, the University of Washington medical center board, which had voted to bar its HIV-positive hospital workers from performing surgery on patients unless they consented. ACT-UP member Michael Davidson made his way to the board’s lunch table the day after the vote and hopped on it to demand that the policy be rescinded. Instead, the board moved its lunch to another room.

ACT-Up marching in Seattle, 1994

Sometimes, when local government agencies could not move fast enough, ACT-UP in Seattle catalyzed. It started a needle exchange for intravenous drug users in 1989, for example, several months before the health department received authorization from politicians to do so; once the political approval came, the health department took over the program, which had already been agreed upon. When, a decade after the epidemic started, the Seattle school board pondered whether to make condoms available to high school students, ACT-UP members stood on the sidewalks outside the schools in 1991, passing out condoms and explicit safe-sex information until the board voted to begin its own program. . . .

Something surprising and unpredictable happened during the AIDS epidemic. Throughout most of the century, Seattle’s homosexuals had been presented symbolically in the public mind in various negative ways. To people like George Cotterill and Mark Matthews, they had been the city’s Unnatural Sex Offenders. For psychiatrists, they evolved into the city’s Perverse Citizen and its Mentally Ill Citizen. For city officials of the early 1960s, they were its Promiscuous Citizen, spreading gonorrhea and syphilis. Even after Stonewall,  the best homosexuals could hope for was to become the Minority Citizen deserving of tolerance and civil rights protections.

But with AIDS that seemed to change. For the first time, they became the Compassionate Citizen.

Three types of stories in the city’s news media constructed this new symbol.

First, there were the stories about homosexuals caring for one another, supplementing or substituting for traditional family members tending to the sick. Gay men and lesbians created all-night vigils; gay men and lesbians sewed quilts to remember the names of those who died; gay men tended to their lovers and partners; gay men and lesbians joined Shanti and Chicken Soup and lesbians ran many of the care-giving organizations. That was reported continually in news stories or obituaries. Jack Jones helped Michael Gallanger. Michael Schauermann cared for Gary Wiggs, and in turn was cared for by his new partner Kevin Hadley. Neither gay men nor lesbians had ever been portrayed that way before.

Heterosexuals did the same, of course, and that was the second line of news stories: the compassion being called forth from other Seattle citizens by those who were dying. Especially as volunteers for Chicken Soup or Shanti fanned across the city, and then began to tell their own stories, it became clear just how deeply people with AIDS were touching the hearts of large numbers of people. In one example in 1987, a Chicken Soup volunteer named Jody Becker wrote in the Seattle Times of the simple act of taking one man out to eat at a restaurant after he had been released from the hospital. He ordered French toast and doused it in butter and syrup to celebrate. But quickly he became too sick to go out again, and Becker shopped for him, made his dinner, and, as she wrote, “listened to his frustrations.” His parents had rejected him for being gay, so she became one of his major supports during his final weeks. One day, as he lay on an emergency room gurney, she listened to hours of stories, then decided to escape to play tennis. She made it as far as the parking lot before turning back. When he saw her, he told her, “Go ahead, kid. You’ve been here long enough.” His parents finally showed on the final weekend. “I tried to unpuzzle the emotions,” Becker wrote. “Who was I but some stranger who had so self-consciously elected to say ‘care’?”

The final line of stories was about the strength of people with AIDS themselves. Early on in Seattle, as elsewhere, headlines and news stories had called them “victims” or “sufferers” or “patients.” But as the years went by, and their individual stories began to be told–either while they were living or in the news obituaries telling of their deaths–they began to be portrayed as “battlers” and “heroes.” Typical was the Post-Intelligencer headline on the story about Craig Anderson dying in 1987 despite AZT. “A battler is dead of AIDS,” the newspaper reported. The Seattle Times headline for Allen DeShong said: “He was committed to letting people know.” Other headlines portrayed the same brave struggle. Peter Davis’s “calling to the ministry stayed alive.” For cartoonist Michael Harmon, his “legacy was candor” and “he always left them laughing.” Christopher! Caldwell, an actor, had a “zest for life” represented by that exclamation point he put after his first name. Jim Bailey was “a music lover who directed Seattle Opera’s growth.” Tracy Brown was “a man of energy.”  Lee McCormack was said to have “brought high energy to theater and music.”

It was not unusual in itself to find laudatory wording in newspaper obituaries. What was unusual was that, for the first time in the city’s history, the men’s homosexuality was being acknowledged even as they were being praised. Partners were being quoted–and recognized as partners. Gay men were being portrayed as mentors offering to their friends and families gifts of insight and wisdom about living and dying that no one–least of all those who in earlier decades would have committed them to prisons or lobotomized them–would ever have imagined.

That change in imagination of who the city’s gay men were would ultimately be the real legacy that those who died left behind.

Of Seattle actor Robert Cole, the Seattle Times said that when he died in 1994, his friends had been gathered around his bed, singing a Bing Crosby tune called “Count Your Blessings.”

“When I get weary and I can’t sleep,” the lyrics went, “I count my blessings instead of sheep.”

“Count your blessings,” they sang.

On the last note, it was said, Cole had died.  He was thirty-four.

Copyright (c)2003, University of Washington Press

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