Condom Dispensers at ASU, 1988-1989

During the mid-1980s, the UNC system’s awareness of HIV/AIDS heightened. The state of North Carolina ranked twenty-first in the nation for reported AIDS cases, with 193 diagnosed AIDS cases by 1986.[1][2] ASU's AIDS Task Force looked at multiple methods to address HIV/AIDS on campus.[3] In 1988, Appalachian took the ground-breaking and controversial step of introducing condom dispensers in restrooms throughout dorms and the Student Union. The idea originated from the Student Government Association’s Student Affairs Committee which sponsored a bill. They argued that although the Student Health Services annually distributed approximately 2,500 free condoms to students, accessibility in dorms had the potential to increase condom use. When the bill passed in November 1988 and was endorsed by Chancellor John Thomas, Appalachian became the first UNC institution to install condom dispensers.[4][5][6]

The news of Appalachian’s decision appeared in the local and national press with mentions both in Playboy and on The David Letterman Show.[7][8] The negative local response was immediate. Feeling Chancellor Thomas was “sending the wrong message to students,” Ben Cox, pastor of the Watauga Christian Center, paid for a full-page advertisement in campus newspaper, The Appalachian, to publish his negative views about the condom dispensers.[9] Looking back, Thomas remembers,

I had a lot of support. I agreed with it. Good Lord, we had AIDS looking us in the face. But the real strong supporters were in the health area here. . . . I was on the circuit there for a while giving talks about why we needed that. I’m not bragging about it, but I didn’t have to back down at all. I didn’t have to back down and didn’t.[10]

Thomas’ enthusiastic approach illustrates his support for this decision. Thomas made his full-fledged agreement with this decision apparent with his wording and actions.

During this time period, there were not any active LGBT organizations in Watauga County so there were not any to assist with the development of the policy regarding condom dispensers. In fact, no publicly out gay man influenced any part of the campus’ HIV/AIDS response although the medical director planned to speak to an off-campus lesbian and gay organization about HIV prevention. Despite the lack of inclusion within the development process, Thomas’ bold decision had one unreported result: the campus’ gay men felt supported and appreciated. Former student Lee O’Malley, in fact, cites it as having invigorated him and others to form the Sexual Awareness Group at Appalachian (SAGA), the campus’ second lesbian and gay student organization.[11][12][13]

The AIDS epidemic and later, President Bill Clinton’s desire to repeal the military’s gay ban, focused Appalachian student newspaper letter writers on LGBT issues. Responses illustrate how the campus climate evolved. Students continued to express diametrically opposed opinions about homosexuality’s morality and social acceptability. By the late 1980s, Appalachian began publishing letters and columns connecting God’s punishment for homosexuality to AIDS. A few years later, however, lesbians and gay men began taking public stances identifying their sexuality in letters arguing about inclusion and acceptance within the campus community.[14]


  1. Jenny Schrum, “AIDS Causes Mental and Physical Problems,” The Appalachian, 2 October 1986, p. 15.
  2. “AIDS Cases Increasing,” The Front Page, 18 August 1987, p. 3.
  3. Trent Huffman, “New AIDS Advisory Council Formed at ASU to Inform Students,” The Appalachian, 24 April 1986, p. 1.
  4. Russel Johnson, “Condom Dispensers Discussed,” The Appalachian, 17 November 1988, p. 1.
  5. Jeff Weathersbee, “Condom Issue Touches Colleges: Condom Sales Rise Steadily,” The Appalachian, 26 April 1990, p. 1.
  6. Jon Jimison, “Senate Approves Condom Bill,” The Appalachian, 1 December 1988, p. 1.
  7. Michelle Mills, “Condomonium Hits!” The Appalachian, 19 January 1989, p. 3.
  8. Letter to the Editor, Playboy, April 1989.
  9. Full-page Letter from Ben Cox, The Appalachian, 26 January 1989, p. 9.
  10. John Thomas, interview with Kathy Staley, 23 July 2007.
  11. “Thoughts and Observations on Sexually Transmitted Diseases,” AIDS folder, John Thomas Papers, University Archives, Appalachian State University.
  12. Tom Beaman, interview with Kathy Staley, 30 August 2006.
  13. Lee O’Malley, Interview with Kathy Staley, 31 December 2006.
  14. For anti-gay letters and columns, see Rick Rairdon, letter to the editor, The Appalachian, 27 October 1987, p. 9; Scott E. Schnegelberger, letter to the editor, The Appalachian, 26 March 1991, p. 11; Mark C. Pedro, letter to the editor, The Appalachian, 16 April 1991, p. 7; Anne Earley, letter to the editor, The Appalachian, 15 February 1993, p. 9; Jack Daly, “Military Life is Not for Homosexuals,” The Appalachian, 16 February 1993. For letters written by self-identified lesbians and gay men, James Davis, letter to the editor, The Appalachian, 14 March 1991, p. 11; Kimberley Norris, letter to the editor, The Appalachian, 14 March 1991, p. 11; Evan Smith, letter to the editor, The Appalachian, 3 November 1992, p. 7; John Lawson, letter to the editor, The Appalachian, 28 January 1993, p. 9.