The AIDS Crisis in Bloomington

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Background and Fundaments

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, abbreviated AIDS, is the set of symptoms associated with long-term infection by the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. First described by the United States Center for Disease Control in 1981, AIDS is characterized by opportunistic infections stemming from vectors not usually significantly dangerous to human beings and increased susceptibility to certain forms of cancerous development and more traditionally dangerous diseases and viruses. In its earliest media coverage, AIDS was more frequently referred to as GRID—“gay related immune deficiency”. In academic circles it became known as the 4-H disease, for its disproportionate presence in homosexuals, hemophiliacs, heroin users, and Haitians, before “AIDS” was introduced into the lexicon in 1982.

Developing AIDS Awareness in Bloomington

The First Inklings

Bloomington is far removed from Los Angeles, where the CDC first discovered sufferers of the syndrome, and the distance shows in terms of Bloomington’s reaction to the developing AIDS crisis. Coverage of the AIDS epidemic in Bloomington proper did not begin in earnest until 1983, though the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction showed an early interest in the epidemiology of the condition by sending delegates to early conferences held on the condition across the United States.

An Increasing Concern

In 1983, AIDS awareness began to truly reach Bloomington—not through queer activists, but through the American Red Cross. On March 2nd, 1983, the ARC held a blood drive on the Bloomington Indiana University campus, and as a matter of course, quizzed potential donors about drug use, blood conditions, travel history—and sexual habits, including sexual preference. The local American Blood Resources Association affiliate, Sera-Tec, also announced an intention to “work with the Bloomington Gay Alliance and other high-risk groups to educate donors on AIDS symptoms.” However, as of the March 2nd blood drive, no donors were actually turned away for membership in a “high risk group”.

The pattern of queer apathy towards the AIDS epidemic continued for several years; in a December 1983 article in the Indiana Daily Student, the director of the Bloomington Gay and Lesbian Alliance stated that he felt gays and lesbians in the area had been “lulled into a sense of safety” and that “they’re thinking this is a problem they have in other places, so why worry about it?” In January of 1984, the local blood resource center, Sera-Tec, noted that it was confident that blood donation and transfusion would not contribute to the spread of AIDS. Even within the same statement, however, Sera-Tec also noted that it had begun to ask gay men not to give blood.

Serious Business

As of January 1986, only one Monroe County resident was confirmed to be a victim of AIDS. However, as the epidemic began to ramp up toward pandemic proportions, the Indiana University President, John Ryan, ordered the formation of an Indiana University AIDS Task Force. In February of 1987, one of the member of that task force and chairman of the Indiana State Health AIDS Advisory Committee addressed a group of pre-medical students and made a frightening prediction: that more than 10% of Americans would test positive for HIV antibodies by 1991. While predictions like these have proven vastly inflated, this panic marks a major shift in the Bloomington community’s handling of the increasingly-personal AIDS epidemic: by February of 1987, four people had joined the man who had previously been Monroe County’s sole sufferer.

The Rise of AIDS Activism

Social Activism

Post-1986, the Bloomington community began to react to the AIDS crisis in a manner one might expect from a community with disproportionate GLBT representation. In October of 1986, the Indiana University Health Center attempted to start a support group for sufferers of AIDS; it did not attract any participants, though it is unclear whether that was more because the community had not reached a critical mass of HIV-positive individuals or if had more to do with the still-prevalent stigma. However, in 1988, a couple with an HIV-positive son, Doris and Bob Fox, started Project FIND, or Friends INDeed, with the help of the Gay and Lesbian Switchboard and the Bloomington Gay and Lesbian Alliance. This community-organized and –run support network for AIDS sufferers and their families proved far more successful than the University administration-organized attempt of 1986. This may reflect a certain distrust of the University by local queers whose lives are more emphatically rural than the University’s proximity might imply. Two years later, after their son had died, the Fox family was also instrumental in starting the first PFLAG chapter in southern Indiana.

Campus groups also organized consciousness-raising and support events. In February of 1989, a coalition including the GLB student group OUT, the Campus AIDS Task Force, the IU Student Association, the Department of Health and Wellness Education, and the Residence Halls Association sponsored events to recognize AIDS Awareness Week, including panels and a presentation by the president of the American College Health Association, Dr. Richard Keeling.

Academic and Institutional Activism

The University also engaged in significant AIDS activist work.

In true liberal arts college fashion, the Bloomington campus of Indiana University played host to the conference “AIDS and Sex: an Integrated Biomedical and Biobehavioral Approach” between December 5th and 8th, 1987. The conference, which attracted more than 100 experts in a variety of fields, hoped to produce a report on the AIDS crisis that provided not only technical information, but also “cross-cultural” and “historical” perspectives, in addition to an analysis of governmental and institutional policy and education tactics for managing the spread of AIDS.

The University also tried in both 1986 and 1989 to found support groups for AIDS sufferers. However, IU Health Services met with little success in this regard, possibly due to a combination of the fact that Indiana University students did not make up the majority of Monroe County AIDS sufferers and a mild “Town and Gown” animosity between the University and the otherwise largely rural and suburban community.

Transitions: the AIDS Quilt

In 1990, 248 panels of the AIDS Quilt, the product of Cleve Jones’s The Names Project, were brought to IU through the combined efforts of the Bloomington Names Project and the Monroe County AIDS Community Action Group. The portion of the quilt was on display between February 15th and 18th.

This display marked a major transition from the informational approach of earlier AIDS activism to the spectacles and productions of the activism of the coming Queer 90’s. Post-1991, Bloomington continued to see occasional informational panels and presentations on AIDS, but with decreasing frequency. By 1997, Bloomington’s AIDS activism had become dominated by benefit concerts, charity-hosted drag shows, and consciousness-raising spectacles.

Queer and Post-Queer AIDS Activism

We’re Here! We’re Queer!

As the Queer Revolution of the 90’s got underway, the face of AIDS activism began a major thematic shift. As people settled in for the long haul towards the development of a vaccine for HIV (a newspaper article in 1984 predicted a “cure in two to three years”; by 1988 the prediction was ten, and increasing) it became clearer and clearer that it would take research symposiums and massive amounts of lab hours to fabricate a solution to the crisis. This shift took the form of a move from consciousness-raising panels and speakers to fund-raising drag shows and consciousness-raising spectacles.

On February 4th, 1991, Bullwinkle’s, a local gay bar, hosted a drag show/auction fund raiser to benefit the Bloomington AIDS Task Force. The coverage criticized past events for “aimlessly preaching about AIDS”. A March 26th, 1997 an Indiana Daily Student front-page article discussed the campus presence of HAVOC, the HIV/AIDS Volunteer Outreach Coalition. A student officer with the title “Special Events Diva” spoke of explosive ways to disseminate information, including demonstrating the way that oil-based lubricants erode latex condoms by smearing a blown-up condom in chocolate sauce and watching it pop, splattering observers with syrup. A few days later, on April 3rd, another newspaper article covered a concert benefit for Children AIDS Network National, billed as the “CANN Music Festival”. Local funk and “post-post-grunge” bands played to raise money and awareness about the negative impacts AIDS has on children.

In 1994, Indiana University joined with the University of Colorado and the University of Kentucky to found the Rural Center for AIDS/STD Prevention in part to specifically address the needs of seropositive individuals in rural areas—such as the ones found in southern Indiana. RCAP is headquartered at Indiana University’s Bloomington Campus; in 2003, the IU campus hosted RCAP’s third annual National Conference for HIV and STD Prevention in Rural Communities, from April 4th to 6th.

In even more recent years, the out-and-visibly-queer trend of ‘90s AIDS activism has continued. In 2006, the IU Sexual Health Behavior Center sponsored the first Bloomington “Latexhibition”, a consciousness-raising event held on World AIDS Day, December 1st. The event included a “latex fashion show”, featuring clothing made entirely out of condoms. In 2007, Bloomington area resident Vicci Laine began working locally to promote various AIDS service organizations. Laine, a trans woman, does work organizing drag shows primarily to benefit organizations focusing on providing services to local seropositive individuals.

Blind Spots

The vast majority of coverage of the AIDS crisis and Bloomington-centered AIDS activism focused on the transmission of HIV through sex, and in particular, gay male sex. Precious little attention has been given to the role of intravenous drug use in the spread of HIV, and there have been no well-publicized pushes in Bloomington to start a local syringe exchange program. While it is possible there are simply few intravenous drug users in Bloomington, the manner in which “Affluent White Queer AIDS” has extensively overshadowed “Poor Largely-People of Color Drug User AIDS” suggests a certain community fixation on the local gay population, possibly to the detriment of other socially marginalized classes of people.