Nobody Gets Out of Here Alive

Page 17 of 27

On June 28, 1984, the Colorado AIDS Project presented an educational forum featuring two speakers. One was Dr. Robert Janowski, a primary-care physician with a large gay practice, discussing gay sex techniques to reduce the risk of AIDS infection.

The other was Dr. Cohn, who in 1982 had set up a project in which he became the surveillance officer for the state of Colorado, compiling case studies for every instance of AIDS in the state. The program would eventually be incorporated into the national statistics gathered by the CDC. He'd first met Patrick Gourley when questioning him about the hemophiliac patient who'd died of AIDS in May of that year; it was when he'd asked the nurse about any other unusual, immune-related deaths that Gourley mentioned the Southeast Asian man he felt may have had the disease. Cohn had since found Gourley and Lease to be extremely proactive in requesting educational programs for the gay community.

Such education was necessary to combat what Gourley, in a November 1984 article in Out Front, called "the ostrich syndrome" prevalent among those in the gay community who preferred to know less rather than more. And education, he noted, was going to become even more important with the news that a test had been developed to indicate exposure to HIV.

People in the gay community were troubled by the proposed testing. Would these records fall into the hands of employers and insurance companies and be used to terminate jobs and coverage? More chilling, might they be used to round up homosexuals for quarantine? Gourley recognized these all as legitimate concerns.

However, he wrote, it was important to consider being tested. "The reason being that at this time we must assume that everyone positive for the antibody is potentially contagious to others. Presumably, then, all of us who are positive would then modify our behavior somehow to decrease the risk of infecting others."

Some gay activists were contending that AIDS cases in the heterosexual population showed "it's not just a gay problem."

"True," he wrote, "sort of. I think it is probably pretty certain that lots of straight folks are being exposed to the virus. However, it is still the same risk groups that are getting AIDS."

As of January 31, 1985, there were a total of 79 "persons with AIDS" in Colorado. Of them, 28 were still living; 51 had died. The majority, anywhere from 72 to 92 percent, were identified as homosexual or bisexual; intravenous drug users and hemophiliacs made up another 3 percent each; cases that were transfusion-related or involved heterosexual contact with intravenous drug users made up only 1 percent each. Of the total, 88 percent were white, 9 percent Hispanic and 3 percent black.

AIDS was focusing the energy gays and lesbians had previously given to their liberation movement. AIDS projects were springing up across the country. Fundraisers were raking in money. In Denver, CAP came up with the idea of a "buddy system" so that no person with AIDS would have to be alone.

In the meantime, the gay community nationwide was beginning to debate the advisability of "de-gaying" AIDS. Gays realized that members of the hetero population weren't going to spend the massive amounts of money that would be needed for research and to care for people with AIDS if they thought gay people were the only ones at risk. It would only happen if they felt it might affect them -- or their sons and daughters. And there were straight politicians, like Colorado's own Senator Bill Armstrong, who publicly wondered whether it would be advisable to quarantine gay males if it looked like the epidemic was spreading rapidly into the heterosexual population.

Gays had some measure of success at de-gaying the disease when the symbol of the cause became a young hemophiliac in Indiana named Ryan White, who had contracted the virus through blood products. His battle against the prejudice he and his family suffered was a cause even the most hard-hearted gay-basher could take up. When government funding was approved to care for people with AIDS, the vast majority of whom were gay, the program was not named for a gay man who had died, but for Ryan White.

Nationwide, health officials wanted the names of gay men who had tested positive for HIV so that they could track the disease as they did other STDs, so they could notify others who might be infected. Many gay men were still afraid of being tested, however. Gourley acknowledged that there was a great deal of controversy over whether testing should be anonymous. But, he wondered, "should we deny ourselves a piece of valuable medical information that can very well be pertinent to our very survival because of our fear of homophobic oppression?...The issue is control over our own health and well being.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Steve Jackson