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. Although North Carolina’s AIDS rate was statistically low, UNC System President Bill Friday responded by requiring each of the sixteen campuses to develop an AIDS policy to address both medical concerns and discrimination that year. Chancellor Thomas charged the ASU AIDS Task Force to investigate the issue. Within his memorandum discussing the AIDS Task Force, Thomas also stated that persons infected with HIV would not be excluded from campus activities, as the state law considered people with AIDS to be disabled. The advisory board, co-chaired by Student Health Director Dr. Evan Ashby and Assistant Vice-Chancellor for Student Affairs Barbara Daye, established an educational program. It sponsored a buddy program and speakers to discuss transmission and prevention of the virus as well as living with HIV. The Task Force also received heavy coverage in the Appalachian with educational pieces about transmission, prevention, and incidence rates.
In 1988, Appalachian took the ground-breaking and controversial step of introducing condom dispensers in restrooms throughout dorms and the Student Union. The Student Government Association’s Student Affairs Committee sponsored the 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 Thomas, Appalachian became the first UNC institution to install condom dispensers.
The news of Appalachian’s decision appeared in the local and national press with mentions both in Playboy and on The David Letterman Show. 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 The Appalachian to publish his negative views about the condom dispensers. 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.
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 participate in 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.
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. || | | | | |