Averill and Sarah deliver a much-needed update and revision to an early episode about the founding of AIDS Project of the Ozarks (APO), an AIDS service organization that operates out of Springfield, MO and was incorporated in 1985.
Show Notes and Further Reading
Note: Post contains affiliate links.
Brier, Jennifer. Infectious Ideas: U.S. Political Responses from the AIDS Crisis. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011.
Cohen, Cathy. The Boundaries of Blackness: AIDS and the Breakdown of Black Politics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999.
Farmer, Paul. AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame, Updated Edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
Lekus, Ian. “Health Care, the AIDS Crisis, and the Politics of Community: The North Carolina Lesbian and Gay Health Project, 1982-1996” in Modern American Queer History, edited by Allida M. Black (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001): 227-252.
Shilts, Randy. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, 20th Anniversary Edition. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2007.
Verghese, Abraham. My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.
Ramirez-Valles, Jesus. Compañeros: Latino Activists in the Face of AIDS. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011.
McGirr, Lisa. Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Wilentz, Sean. The Age of Reagan: A History, 1974-2008. New York: HarperCollins, 2008.
Averill: AIDS Project of the Ozarks and the similar service organizations around the country served a population deeply in need of support, care, and medical attention in the midst of a crisis. AIDS Project of the Ozarks – or APO, as we’ll refer to it for the rest of the episode – is a particularly interesting organiztion because of where it was founded, who founded it, and how it thrived in a place that had every potential to be disastrous.
and I’m Sarah
And we’re happy to be your historians for this episode of Dig.
Sarah: In the late 1970s and early 80s, gay men in Springfield, Missouri began to mysteriously die. Most of them had returned home to Missouri after living in bigger cities like New York and LA, sick and in need of comfort and care. But instead of getting better, they withered and died. It quickly became clear, in Missouri and around the country, that gay men were dying of the same disease. In these first uncertain years, doctors and the media–as flabbergasted as the victims themselves–called the disease GRID (gay related infectious disease), or the gay cancer. In 1983, doctors finally gained a working knowledge of this horrific affliction, and it was called what it was: the human immunodeficiency virus and acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or HIV/AIDS. Because it was closely associated with men who had sex with men, the disease was feared and loathed, and little money or attention was devoted to stopping its rise.
Averill: In Springfield, as in so many other American cities, the families, friends, and allies of these dying gay men felt the need to do something, if not to fight back against the disease, then at least to provide aid and comfort to those who suffered. Today, we’re talking about the founding of AIDS Project of the Ozarks, and the sad but inspiring story of how some queer Missourians fought back against the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s.
Sarah: In the late 1960s and the 1970s, the Gay Liberation movement in the United States made gay men and women visible in the United States in a way that they never had been before. While gay Americans had won some attention and perhaps a little more space in American politics, they had also raised the ire of some serious opponents. In just one horrifying incident, an anti-gay politician murdered Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California’s history. The Gay Rights Movement also inspired a broader reaction, led by the conservative and evangelical Republican factions that were gaining popularity in the larger backlash to the wild and free culture of the 1960s. The more visible and “out” gay men and women became, the more vitriolic their opponents became in their attempts to curb gay rights.
Averill: It was in this environment in 1980 that gay men began to die – or, more accurately, doctors began to connect the dots between numerous mysterious deaths of gay men. They all seemed to be dying of the same thing, though they sometimes exhibited slightly different symptoms. At first it seemed like a bad case of flu, but autopsies revealed an extremely serious type of pneumonia called Pneomocystis carinii pneumonia. Others exhibited skin lesions called Kaposi’s sarcoma, a rare kind of skin cancer. What they all seemed to have in common was their queerness. In 1981, the New York Times reported on a concerning outbreak, located largely in NY and LA. It emphasized the sexuality of the victims – not only their homosexuality, but their apparent promiscuity, suggesting that several of the patients had had up to 10 sexual encounters a night up to 4x a week, that they had used recreational drugs, and that they had been treated for other sexually transmitted infections in the past.
Sarah: Within months, the AP was reporting that the number of deaths had increased from 40 to 100, and by the end of 1981, 121. In 1982, what had been know alternately as “the gay cancer,” “gay plague,” or as the CDC termed it, “gay related infectious disease,” was officially renamed Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS. Deaths quickly mounted – by the end of 1989, 27,408 people had died of the disease. The result was terror, misinformation, stigma and ostracism. For many who opposed homosexuality, the deaths seemed to be proof that it was a sin, and that AIDS was a punishment sent by God. It also seemed to confirm preexisting notions about gay people and gay sex: that they were promiscuous, that anything other than penis-in-vagina sex was deviant and unhealthy, even that gay men would have sex with anyone or anything – including animals, especially when theories developed that AIDS had first originated in apes.
Averill: Nearly all AIDS cases were located in, or at least originated in, New York City San Francisco, and LA. But many of the gay men who lived in those cities were from other places – when they became sick and needed the care of their friends and families, they often returned home, bringing the disease with them. The sexual decadence and experimentation associated with gay men was also associated with the cities – but as suffering gay men returned home, they brought the reality of AIDS and queer life into the heartland of conservative America. Just as an aside, this really is not to say that there were no queer people in rural America. There had been gay bars in Missouri for decades, at least since the 1940s, if not earlier. But the reality was that it was easier to be queer in the city, where it was easier to find your community and you were safe amid the hustle and bustle of people who didn’t know you or care about you. Which is true of the United States, and true of the world.
Sarah: Springfield, Missouri is a really good example of this. Missouri is in the Bible belt. Ellie has an anecdote in her work about John Aschcroft, the former attorney general under GW Bush, who was from Springfield, being so religious that he held daily Bible study classes in his office, and covering up the naked breasts of the statues in the Department of Justice. Springfield was also the home of the global headquarters of the Assemblies of God, a fundamentalist, Pentecostal church, and several religious colleges and seminaries. So we’re talking about a super conservative, super religious town.
Averill: And really, this religious-ness wasn’t contained to the conservatives. It was actually a group of 14 religious people, people who attended church religiously – some Catholic, some Baptist, even some Pentecostal – who came together to found AIDS Project of Springfield (later renamed AIDS Project of the Ozarks as they expanded their reach into the rural areas around Springfield). For one of the founders, a man named Jim House, it was an incident with a young man, helped by APO early in its existence, that sort of encapsulated why the project was so necessary. We actually have a clip of the oral history that Ellie collected from Jim House about those early days of APS. And we’ll play that now.
[Clip of Jim House talking: One kid, his parents, he got really really sick, and they threw him in the pigsty. And he was living out there. And we had to basically save him from that, and he didn’t live much longer than that. So there was some problems.]
So this dying boy’s family was afraid to have him in the house, but unable to turn him away completely. It’s this sort of heartbreaking scenario that wasn’t uncommon – particularly in this very conservative, very religious area. Having this disease meant, to the people in the place, that you were gay, and that was a problem. But presumably, for a lot of Christian people, turning away your own children in their time of need was problematic too. And folks just didn’t understand what HIV/AIDS was, or how to deal with it.
Sarah: Yeah, I think it’s important to understand the dis-information that was out there about this disease – it helps us to understand just why the founding and the work of APO was so important. In Springfield, as elsewhere in the US, there was a hysteria about the transmission of AIDS. People thought you could contract AIDS by sharing utensils and water fountains, even just shaking hands. This fear permeated even those closest to the actual disease – individuals whose friends or loved ones fell ill were afraid to be close physically to that person. At first, a significant portion of APO’s mission was simply to try to counter-act this misinformation, and most of its early (very tiny) budget went to buying condoms and printing and disseminating literature on safe sex.
Averill: They didn’t have the budget to take on projects that other groups in larger cities were implementing, such as rent assistance programs. But another thing APO did take on was known as the Buddy Program, which also attempted to take on the stigma of AIDS. People with the disease were essentially being shunned – Elisabeth recounts the story of a man who was kicked out of his church choir, his major network of friends and acquaintances, after he was diagnosed. The Buddy Program assigned APO volunteers to people with AIDS, who helped them do anything from go grocery shopping, to organize their medications, to mowing their lawns. Most importantly, they were simply present in the lives of those with the disease, ensuring that they weren’t alone.
Sarah: That hysteria about AIDS didn’t go away, though, and it wasn’t limited to urban legends about how AIDS was transmitted. It was also expressed in fear and violence that APO faced anti-gay groups. This is reflected in the oral histories Ellie collected from the early members of APS/APO, like Lynne Meyercord. We have a clip of her recounting some of those fears.
[Meyercord:] We had to be really careful at that time, if someone wanted to come into the support time, we’d meet with them like via phone and stuff first. We didn’t publish went our support group was meeting, or where. Because people were kind of nuts. And we didn’t know – you know, we’d get bomb threats sometimes.
[Ellie:] Ok – the Support Group at APO
[Meyercord]: AIDS Project Springield
[Ellie:] Oh, sorry
[Meyercord:] That’s ok. And I told you that the guy that owned the building, he didn’t want our name on the marquee. That was ok. We didn’t want our name on the marquee either. Because there was still a level of fear. You didn’t know. There’s a lot of nut jobs, obviously. So at first I’d have a preliminary meeting with people who wanted to join the Support Group, to make sure they weren’t just trying to see who was positive, to make sure it wasn’t someone who wanted to injure the people who had AIDS, and get rid of them, because that’s when we had the quarantine discussion going on, and all that crazy stuff. So, we were very care. I’m happy to say that the only people who threatened to shoot us were our clients.
Sarah: It was a very scary time to be a part of the very needed organization – but also just such a crucial time. The Support Group that Meyercord describes here is another of the key services that then APS, now APO, provided the people living with and dying of HIV/AIDS. So beyond combatting stigma through educational initiatives and being the boots on the ground in that fight, the central role of APO was always to help these people who were so desperately in need, who were isolated by their sexuality, and their disease
Averill: The larger fear and stigma that shrouded AIDS impacted funding for scientific research and support for people with the disease. By the late 1980s, President Ronald Reagan had finally acknowledged the crisis. At a speech he gave in 1987 at the American Foundation For AIDS Research (AmFAR) awards dinner, he outlined his intentions to establish new initiatives to test federal prison inmates and immigrants, as well as mandating couples be tested before they could marry – initiatives that carried strong and scary echoes of the golden age of eugenics in the United States, when disabled people were segregated and treated as potential disease vectors rather than citizens because of their health. Already the US military was carrying out these very invasive tests on soldiers. AIDS activists worried that this kind of testing would be used to justify discrimination, an already widespread problem – people who were “outed” as having HIV/AIDS were fired from their jobs, or barred from certain public places.
Sarah: This is, of course, the premise for the critically acclaimed 1993 film Philadelphia, in which Tom Hanks’s character contracts AIDS, is fired from his job, and wants to sue for wrongful termination. Each lawyer he approaches turns him down, but upon seeing first hand the way people treat Hanks in the film, Denzel Washington’s lawyer character seems to identify with him, as a black man in a predominantly white dominated field, and in a legal system that actively works against men of color. Even in that film, the issues of stigma and misinformation are central to the plot – Denzel’s character is homophobic, and concerned that he might contract the disease from any kind of contact with Tom Hanks’s character.
Averill: Of course, the stigma also influenced funding – which is where the rubber hits the road. In 1987, North Carolina senator Jesse Helms took to the floor of the senate to give an inflammatory speech about federal AIDS research funding. He had a pamphlet from the organization Gay Men’s Health Crisis called “After the Gym,” which was a fairly graphic comic produced by GMHC to promote safe sex. It’s approach was – hey, gay men are going to have sex, we need to find fun and accessible ways of teaching them to use condoms. But Helms viewed the pamphlet as pornography, and railed against the fact that federal AIDS research money had been used in its production. (Side note: Whenever I read about a politician giving this kind of self-righteous speech, I automatically assume they have a huge box of porn under their bed. Everyone watches porn, and I’m sure that includes Jesse Helms.) The purpose of Jesse Helms’ rant was to bring attention to an amendment he had placed on a federal spending bill, later called the Helms Amendment, which blocked federal funding to Any AIDS education or prevention materials that “promote or encourage, directly or indirectly, homosexual sexual activities.” And, as these things always go, no federal funds had been used in creating the pamphlet, and GMHC was extremely careful about how they used money in an attempt to avoid these very situations.
Sarah: [Sounds like Planned Parenthood.] The Helms Amendment was a major obstacle to fighting AIDS, but other funding sources became available. In 1990, Congress passed the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act, (Ryan White CARE Act), named for teenage Ryan White, a young man with hemophilia who contracted AIDS through a blood transfusion. Ryan was the target of intense discrimination, including being barred from attending school because of his potential to spread the disease, and he and his mother were powerful activists – in no small part his story was so effective in bringing about legislation because he was a sick and passive child, not a gay man. As soon as the Act was passed, APO applied for a grant, and became one of the first agencies in the country to receive funding from a Ryan White grant. This funding was critical to APO, making it possible for them to seek out larger offices and offer more services.
Averill: I also want to point out that another reason APO was able to hang on even in the face of this discrimination and stigma was that public health officials like Harold Bench, the Commissioner of Public Health in Springfield, framed AIDS not as a gay issue, but as a public health crisis. While in larger cities like NY & LA AIDS activism was spearheaded by gay men, Springfield and APO took a slightly different tack. Other AIDS organizations in the area were small or even failed because of the intense stigma of same-sex sex, but Springfield’s approach of framing it as a health crisis – rather than a moral one – helped it to thrive. They also had the benefit for having two infectious disease doctors in the city who joined the organization, helping to frame the activism as fighting a disease rather than condoning same-sex sex.
Sarah: For those fighting the AIDS epidemic, the most commonly shared experience was death. APO, too, was touched by deaths, and not just of the patients they helped care for. Gary Hogart, one of the organization’s earliest executive directors, who was instrumental in landing that Ryan White grant, was diagnosed with AIDS shortly after getting the good news about the funding. Hogart had been a powerful leader for the group, and his diagnosis left his colleagues worried about what would come next. Hogart passed away in 1991.
Averill: AIDS Project of the Ozarks, it turns out, was one of the success stories of the AIDS crisis – as other organizations petered out or failed, APO is still at work in Springfield, MO. Currently there are 5 part time and 35 full time employees serving 29 counties, in SW MO, 24 of which have been designated as rural. The story of APO is so important for so many reasons, but I think for me what I find striking about it is that it helps us to remember that the AIDS crisis was not contained to cities, that it affected people in so-called ‘middle america’ too.
Sarah: And the reason I think that’s so critical is that today we have an awful lot of conversation about a cultural divide between urban and rural, between the “liberal” elite coasts and the “conservative” blue-collar rural areas of the US. Stories like APO remind us that that is just really not an accurate view of the US, either today or historically – gay people might have congregated in the cities as a way to find their communities, they lived and loved and died in the rural South and West too, and AIDS was a major concern in Springfield, MO as much as in New York City.
Averill: We are so glad you joined us for this revised release of our APO episode, and a HUGE thanks to Elisabeth George for supplying us with the research and interviews to rebuild this episode.
Sarah: As you all (hopefully) know, Marissa, Elizabeth (Garner Masarik), Sarah and I are relaunching the podcast this fall as DIG: A History POdcast. Hopefully you’ve seen our silly video promo on Facebook, and you’re keeping up with all of our tweets and other social media activity. As DIG we will continue to bring you these hard hitting, deeply researched stories from the past.
Averill: We’re real historians, and that’s what we do! And we’re going to organize our episode schedule a little differently. Instead of big long breaks at winter and summer, we’re going to have short seasons – we’re calling them series – with four episodes, one per week, for four weeks in a row; then we’ll take two weeks off to prep another series, and start all over again.
Sarah: Each series will have a common theme – our first is SEX!! – and they’ll be kind of whatever interesting stories we dig up. As usual, if you have ideas for future episodes, or if there is a bigger topic that you’d like to know more about, or if you have questions, comments, or concerns about any of our past episodes, feel free to write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Averill: We are now officially all migrated over to our new social media handle – you can find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest @dig_history
Sarah: We love you, we hope you enjoyed the episode, and stay tuned this summer for another updated and overhauled episode – coming soon!
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Featured image: AIDS quilt, Washington, D.C. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.