Login / Register
ORNo Account? Register here.
The Party’s Over
Fear of AIDS is changing sex in Atlanta. And the panic grows.
The tiny dance floor is packed. Guitar riffs flash like lightning from amplifiers three feet above the crush of swaying, sweating dancers. In the men’s room, a couple is clumsily trying to have sex standing in the toilet stall next to the overflowing urinal. “Put it there,” slurs the dark-haired woman to her obviously smashed partner. Outside, a tourist visiting from Toronto meets an attractive, well-educated woman, a chemist, she tells him. Half an hour later, they are having oral sex in the parking lot alongside someone’s parked van. He couldn’t remember her name. — Friday night at Carlos McGee’s, July 1981
In the men’s room, Michael, the valet, is dispensing condoms along with towels and cologne. He keeps them out of sight under the sink. ‘I’ve handed out two boxes since Thursday, ” he says. Outside, tanned, trim and elegantly dressed young people circle each other like mating peacocks. But behind the familiar ritual, there is a new and troubling uncertainty — a fear that disease and painful death may lurk just a kiss away. Just a kiss away. — Friday night at élan, July 1987
Photography by Kurt Fisher/Bed: Innovations
They sat there, two sultry orchids in the perfumed hothouse that is elan on a busy night. Donna, auburn-haired and full of figure, wore a clingy, purple dress; she had lived in New York and New Orleans before moving to Atlanta. Cindy was every Northern boy’s dream of a Southern girl, sparkly blue eyes and feathered blond hair, a cheerleader’s body sheathed in a tight turquoise dress set off by matching spike-heeled shoes. They were savvy and sassy, career-oriented, open and funny, the kind of women married guys convince themselves don’t exist – and single guys hesitate to approach. Women who make otherwise sane and settled men want to send the wife and kids off to visit her folks in Knoxville.
Both were recently divorced; neither was involved in a relationship. Work filled their days, but loneliness nibbled at the edges of their lives. They had come, they said, to dance and have a few drinks, to ease the tensions of the job and the burdens of single parenthood. They had come, driven like so many of us, in the hope of meeting that special someone. That hope seemed more distant and fragile than ever. There was hesitation in their eyes and a nervousness behind their smiles. They looked past the schools of slick-haired and Armani-attired predators who circled their table looking for an opening.
They were frightened to death of AIDS.
The fear might be groundless – the deadly epidemic does not appear to be moving rapidly into the general population — but it is real. It is threatening the nonstop party that has been underway in At1anta for the past 20 years. The lines may be as long as ever outside the Buckhead bars, and the after-hours action as frantic, but the last thought after the last drink on the couch is no longer, “Will he respect me in the morning?”
“In the past, your pride was hurt,” says. Donna. “Now you can die. . .. .It’s not that my morality has changed. My dread of the A-word has increased.”
AIDS — acquired immune deficiency syndrome — is a disease that reaches beyond its victims. It has created a new medical category, the worried well, who suffer from a new syndrome: ‘FRAIDS. They’re everywhere in Atlanta: pinstriped professionals visiting doctors and therapists; suddenly meek good ol’ boys calling anonymously to the AIDS hotline; guilt-driven husbands and unfaithful wives surreptitiously visiting clinics to. be tested for the virus.
Donna, 39, is worried about “a mistake I may have made three years ago.” A bisexual lover? An intravenous drug user? She won’t explain. “You used to see those signs – SPEED KILLS,” she says reaching for her drink. “Now it’s SEX KILLS.” Cindy, 26, is concerned about men she hasn’t yet met. “How can you even tell if a guy’s been a homosexual?” she asks bleakly.
For that matter, how can you tell if he’s been with a woman who’s been with a bisexual infected with the virus? Or if that perky sorority sister has slept with a fraternity brother who had sex with an infected prostitute the last time Georgia played in the Sugar Bowl? The permutations are endless and terrifying. When you go to bed with someone, say the experts, every sexual partner in that person’s past is climbing in with you.
Both women have drastically reduced their sexual contacts. “I was much more willing to have brief encounters, brief friendships,” says Donna, a sales manager with a national corporation. She pauses. “Listen, most women don’t want one night stands, but it often works out that way.” She has dated “at least 20″ men in the past year and gone to bed “with three or four.” Cindy won’t cite statistics; she’s “dated a lot, but only gone to bed with very, very few.” Even those nag at her. “So you date a guy for two months before going to bed with him. You let feelings come into play. Then you do it and hope to God. . . . But who’s going to stop in a moment of passion and say ‘Let’s take a test’?”
“It does no good to ask these questions,” agrees Donna. “A person’s sexual history is unknowable. Besides, how can you trust a man’s answers? . . . I personally would never go for a test. If I were positive, it would signal the end of my life. I don’t think I am, but who knows? I’m getting older. Who needs this grief?”
“The sexual revolution got out of hand,” says Cindy. “People screwing whoever they wanted, wherever they wanted. There’s nothing wrong with sexuality, but it’s wrong to pick up someone, screw them and leave them somewhere.” As she speaks, she is joined by George, a bulky man in a shiny brown suit with matching tie and yellow pocket handkerchief. George, who resembles the fighter Gerrie Coetzee, whisks Cindy off to the dance floor. They return; he finds the conversation none-too-promising. He begins to murmur earnestly into Cindy’s ear; the murmur quickly graduates to a nuzzle.
“Tell me,” asks Donna with a laugh. “Does this look like a man who is worried about AIDS?”
We are living in what will certainly be called the AIDS Era, as surely as we lived through the Vietnam Era. (In a few years, the epidemic will have claimed more lives than that unhappy war.) Like Vietnam, AIDS is cutting across every segment of society; It is divisive and destructive and may be, ultimately, unbeatable. A disease has become part of the national consciousness. Moralists debate its “meaning” from the lecturn and pulpit. (Have you ever heard anyone trying to “justify” cancer?) AIDS is the subject of cocktail party concern and tabloid gossip. It has already taken its place beside nuclear war in the nightmares of our children. “I haven’t heard an AIDS joke in a long time,” says Emory student Christie Constantino. “AIDS will affect everyone in the long run. It already has – we’re all worried about it.”
AIDS has become more than a devastating disease caused by a mindless agent existing on the borderline between the animate and the inanimate, between life and non-life. AIDS is more, linking as it does, sex with painful death, pitting as it does, traditional morality against two decades of sexual and personal liberation. AIDS raises, as Georgia State University sociologist Jackie Boles puts it, that ultimately troubling question: “Did Mom and Dad really know what was best for us?”
According to a national survey conducted last summer by the Los Angeles Times, nearly one in five Americans has radically changed his lifestyle (i.e. sexual behavior) because of fear of AIDS — a threefold increase since 1985. Most of the changes have been in the 18 to-24 age group, and among those who reported multiple sexual partners in the year preceding the poll. More than 10 percent of those surveyed said they had personally known someone who tested positive, contracted, or died from AIDS. The disease is now the second most-feared — after cancer — in the nation.
“Many of my patients are absolutely, astronomically frightened,” says Dr. Steven Morganstern, a well-known Atlanta urologist. “AIDS is something they know I can’t cure.” But Morganstern’s patients are typically not AIDS victims or risk group members. He’s treating world-weary college students convinced that commonplace urinary tract infections are “something lethal.” He’s working with a 32-year-old banker, symptomatic, yet free of any infection, a victim of what Morganstern calls the “galloping guilts.” And then there’s the psychiatrist. “He comes in and says ‘Steve, I trust you to the nth degree. I screwed this girl four months ago, and now I’m terrified. Please help me. Tell me what to do.’ And this is from an M.D.! A psychiatrist!”
Morganstern is also seeing the darker side: gay patients who test positive for HIV (human immunodeficiency virus, the agent that causes AIDS) “and continue to go out.” He’s convinced many people are indulging in reckless sexual behavior that will accelerate the spread of AIDS into the general population. He mentions a man he’s treating for genital warts (caused by human papilloma virus, which has been linked to cervical cancer in women). “This guy walks in and starts bragging about the chicks he’s going to bed with. . . . ‘This divorcee . . . this 23-year-old . . . this nurse.’ I’m standing there amazed! He’s a walking social indignity! He knows what he has, and he knows he’s putting every one of those women at risk.
“Sex is an extremely strong human drive,” Morganstern continues, groping for an explanation. “Sometimes it overrides rational behavior.” The doctor has put together a bit of safe sex dialogue he’d like incorporated into everyone’s single’s bar repertoire, a mantra to be endlessly repeated in the AIDS Era:
“I’m free of disease. Are you? I wouldn’t want to transmit anything to you. I know you wouldn’t want to transmit anything to me. Have you used IV drugs? Have you engaged in bisexual or homosexual activity? Do you have herpes? Do you have syphilis? Do you have warts?”
“Forget being swept away,” he mutters with the wisdom of a man who has spent too many years looking directly at other people’s mistakes and malfunctions. “When you meet someone in a bar and they want to go to bed with you, and you want to go to bed with them, remember, as fresh and exciting as that moment seems, it’s happened before – to both of you.”
Heterosexual victims — men and women infected through sexual contact with someone with AIDS or at risk for the disease — account for about 4 percent of all cases. (In Georgia there have been just 18 of these cases.) The overwhelming majority have been black and Hispanic women living in the Northeast and Florida whose sex partners were drug abusers. Nationwide, more than 40,500 persons have contracted AIDS; more than 23,000 have died; 1.5 million more may be infected with the virus, their fate uncertain. Ninety percent of these have been gay or bisexual men or IV drug abusers. Hemophilia- and blood transfusion-associated cases make up 3 percent of the total; unknowns, patients for whom information is incomplete (due to death, refusal to be interviewed, etc.) make up the final 3 percent of all adult cases. “We’re not seeing a dramatic shift in the kinds of cases,” says Dr. Harold Jaffe, chief of AIDS epidemiology at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
In recent studies of heterosexuals seeking treatment at sexually transmitted disease clinics, none of 300 surveyed in Seattle tested positive for the AIDS virus; in Denver only one of 1,000 had been exposed. In Atlanta, only one of 92 prostitutes surveyed in a year-long study was infected. “This suggests very, very low rates in the general population,” says Jaffe.
Yet, the panic grows. Talk to any nurse in town about the fear on the hospital wards. (The CDC recently reported three health care workers had been infected, apparently by patients’ blood coming in contact with minor skin abrasions or acne.) AIDS can incubate for years; the virus spreads silently without symptoms. By some estimates, heterosexuals will comprise 9 percent of the 270,000 AIDS cases predicted for 1991. No one knows how many seemingly healthy people are infected with, or passing the virus to, others. And what can you say for sure about that seemingly healthy person standing next to you at the bar, or smiling at you across the crowded floor of the health club?
Harvey is convinced he’s going to get AIDS. He’s not gay or bisexual and doesn’t inject himself with illicit drugs. He is a construction worker who believes — despite all his precautions – that infected vaginal secretions will penetrate his scraped and scratched hands and perhaps he will die. His fear drove him to Atlanta’s first safe sex party for heterosexual males held last August. Harvey, a trim, darkhaired man in his late 20s, wanted information on “hand condoms” — known to the rest of the world as surgical gloves.
Safe sex parties — organized by AID Atlanta, a nonprofit organization that ministers to AIDS patients and others affected by the disease — provide instruction and advice on how to avoid becoming infected or passing the virus on to others. The mood may be light, but the message is blunt and deadly serious. Nearly 2,000 gay men in Atlanta have attended these functions. (Estimates of AIDS virus infection in Atlanta’s gay community run as high as 30 percent.) In the last year, nervous heterosexual women — mostly professionals in their 20s — have begun to sign up. “The big fear among women,” says Lynn Hampton, one of the organizers, “is ‘How do I suggest using a condom? He’ll think I think he’s gay or I’m a slut.’ Rather than suggesting, many are abstaining from sex.”
The condom is king in the AIDS Era, a must for all but the most secure sexual partners. Atlanta pharmacies all report higher condom sales, with young women increasingly making purchases. The big seller is the traditional latex condom ($4 to $7 a dozen), but the upscale crowd is opting for lambskin ($25 per dozen), clearly the BMW of prophylactics. “It’s the folks on Habersham Road that want the lambskins,” says Steve Falkenhainer, manager of the King’s pharmacy in Peachtree Battle shopping center.
At the safe sex party, a candy bowl contained condoms of various textures and qualities (lubricated, ribbed, receptacled); later they were distributed as favors. Despite comedian Robin Williams’ lament that a condom makes his penis “look like a terrorist,” the hosts insisted that condoms could be imaginatively incorporated into foreplay; they were a. must for vaginal, anal, even oral sex — the latter a seemingly daunting proposition. “You can coat it with mouthwash or a little vanilla extract,” suggested Hampton wanly.
Harvey got to try on his hand condoms (“kinda kinky”), recommended for those who practice “mutual masturbation.” (The AIDS virus has been cultured from vaginal secretions and pre-ejaculatory fluids.) “In Atlanta, chances are you will never meet a woman who has AIDS,” said Hampton, but no one seemed to hear. When one party goer offered statistics that suggested the incidence of AIDS virus infection among heterosexuals who are neither members nor the sex partners of high-risk groups is one per 100,000 or lower, he was accused of having a bad attitude.
“This is war,” said Harvey. “When I go into battle, I go prepared.” In truth, Harvey had already surrendered. He later admitted he had given up sex entirely because of AIDS. The real surprise at the party was David. He was tall and curly-haired, a handsome, virile and sophisticated man, a lady-killer by anyone’s measure. He announced he’d been tested for the AIDS virus and was negative. “Why were you tested?” someone asked. “I’m a practicing bisexual,” he replied. The room fell silent. David was a living example of the bridge everyone is worried about, a pathway that could introduce AIDS into the heterosexual pool. In Minnesota, for example, one third of the AIDS cases have been bisexual men. At least two women in a Minneapolis swingers’ club were infected by such men.
David is not the stereotypical bisexual male — a male who marries and raises a family because it is what society demands, but is sexually and emotionally attracted to men. David loves women, and sleeps with them without telling them he is bisexual.
If AIDS does explode into the straight population, Atlanta may well be Ground Zero. Georgia is first nationwide in gonorrhea cases, fifth in the number of teen pregnancies. There are an estimated 3,000 drug addicts in Atlanta and a booming, convention-driven prostitute trade. Atlanta’s whores may not yet be infected with the AIDS virus, but fully 50 percent of them admit to using IV drugs. One of them admitted to having 5,000 sexual contacts. On Cypress Street, feral packs of male hustlers – many of them drug users – service the furtive needs of bisexual men, some of whom return to prosperous suburbs to join wives and children at Little League games. Many of these drug abusing hustlers have girlfriends who are prostitutes. “AIDS is a sexually transmitted disease,” says Ken South, the former director of AID Atlanta, “and Georgia is a sexually active state. This isn’t just a half dozen queers in Midtown having sex. Atlanta is a cauldron for infection.”
Elaine sits in the living room of the elegant Tudor home. She is trim and attractive – tanned and toned to perfection. The air conditioner hums softly in the background. The lawn beyond the windows sweeps abruptly downward to Habersham Road. This is another Atlanta, separated from the mundane, workaday city by distance only money can measure. “I fear AIDS,” she says with a little shiver. “It’s out there.” She tries to remember when the uneasiness began. Perhaps when her dentist, then her electrolysist, began wearing gloves.
“At parties,” she says, “you know how you always talk about sex, religion, and politics – those three categories. AIDS is now a category.”
She’s read a lot, but like most people, doesn’t believe everything the government is telling her about the epidemic. She knows the disease is not supposed to be spread by casual contact. “[But] what if someone cuts himself in a restaurant and it’s transmitted?” she asks. Elaine and her husband, . George, travel a good deal. “We have a lot of friends in New York,” she says. “Everybody there knows someone who’s got it, who’s died from it. The feeling has filtered down.”
She’s worried about her children, both still preadolescents. She bought material for them to read. “Terrific stuff,” she says. “I want them to be educated.”
George takes many business trips. “I tell him ‘You better not fool around.’ It’s playful and joking. He tells me the same. I know he’s safe …. I’d cut his balls off.” Elaine says she has a lot of friends, successful career women, divorced or never married, approaching 40. “They’ve been fooling around since their 20s. They’ve banged a lot of eyes out. Now they’re terrified.”
And then she reveals one of Buckhead’s open secrets: another pathway for AIDS. “I know firsthand that a lot of men are seeing hookers. I’m talking about high-class hookers. It’s a way of life around here. They’re in unhappy relationships with their wives. This is how they cope.
“We’ll pay for it,” she laughs. “Us poor Buckhead wives.”
Sociologist Jackie Boles is an expert in the field of so-called “deviate occupations” — prostitutes, strippers, etc. “Masturbation is OK,” she reports. “Voyeurism is nice. There’s definitely an increase in S&M activity among prostitutes’ requests. Think about it. You’re the customer and you are the only one who is bleeding.” She laughs raucously. “You’re the bleedee!”
There is something more that makes Atlanta particularly susceptible to the terrors — real and imagined — of AIDS. Something beyond the reach of statistics and epidemiological surveys. Something to do with youth, sex, money, power and expectation. The perception of a once-tired city reborn and shaped in the image of tens of thousands of young people who were drawn here: rural Southerners escaping the choking grasp of small-town life; Northerners fleeing the bleak realities of the Rust Belt; blacks realizing the barriers were finally lifted; college kids eager to embark on life’s first adventures. A desire for life in the fast lane. . . a sense of limits to exceed and new horizons to explore.
An illusion, perhaps, but one powerful enough to make Atlanta one of the premier party towns in America for two decades.”It was personified liberation,” says Boles. “People came to Hotlanta. Young, ambitious, good-looking people who wanted to be free.” And they were. Bars and clubs sprouted like weeds – Billy’s and Harrison’s, elan and Limelight, Carlos McGee’s, Fitzgerald’s, Zazu’s, a hundred others, some with a half-life as short as plutonium 232 and about as explosive. Music played; whiskey flowed. Drugs were everywhere, easing the way past other barriers.
“Sex was safe for the first time,” says Boles. “If you got some disease, you got a shot of penicillin. You had birth control. You had cars. These happy occurrences all came at once.. . . All of a sudden sex was a natural, biological thing, like breathing. The more you do it, the healthier you are. Sex kept down psychoses and neuroses, cleaned out your pores, regulated your heartbeat. If you were overweight or drank too much, have sex. Sex could be substituted for all these other drives. Wasn’t that wonderful?”
“Nobody ever died· from too much sex.
“And then,” continues Boles, “things started going wrong. Women weren’t using birth control; illegitimate births began to soar. Women got STDs from too many partners. They became sterile. You had herpes.”
And the lonely weight of all the onenight stands, and all the shameless; nameless encounters began to build. The foundations of newly liberated Atlanta suddenly seemed cracked and shaky; the old Atlanta, the bedrock, guilt-driven, Bible Belt town, began to stir and rumble. AIDS was suddenly among us.
People began to die from sex. There have been 864 cases of AIDS recorded in Georgia. Eighty percent of them are in Atlanta; 508 have died. By 1991, there will be 5,000 people in the city dying of AIDS.
“Human beings always try to get meaning out of what is happening,” says Boles. “Why do we suddenly have a plague? The obvious lessons are being drawn, too easily I think: perhaps sex is not natural after all; maybe sex is dangerous and has to be controlled. If not, we’re going to have chaos.”
Roy Griffen knows chaos firsthand. The blue-eyed, 34-year-old Alabamian with the baseball catcher’s body is living everyone else’s nightmare. He has AIDS. Hospitalized four times in the past two years because of a debilitating diarrhea caused by an obscure parasite known as cryptosporida, Griffen recovered only to develop pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (the deadliest AIDS-related infection) last January.
“Don’t call me an AIDS victim,” he says sipping a root beer. “No one mugged me and gave me AIDS. I went out and got it myself.” When he speaks, there is an old man’s wheeze in his voice. His face is flushed and once again he has begun to cough up yellow-green sputum — all signs of recurrent pneumonia. Once, he worked outdoors and did all kinds of manual labor.
That seems such a long time ago. Now he admits he can’t walk two blocks without getting out of breath. Like so many other young people, Griffen came to Atlanta chasing a dream. Not to comer the real estate market or make partner in a big law firm. Griffen, a modest man whose roots run deep in the rocky soil of northern Alabama, wanted to be a landscaper. That and nothing more. He wasn’t gay until he was 26 years old. He’d married his childhood sweetheart, spent six years in the Air Force, even got in a year of college. He was the first on either side of his family to finish high school.
Deep down, he knew he was different. He loved Marilyn dearly and never strayed as long as they were married. He understood just how different he was in one of those strange flashes of insight: “My wife and I were shopping. I realized we were both looking at the same man.” It troubled him.
“I was raised to believe that gays were dirty old men in the bushes,” he says. “I was not that way. So I told myself I mustn’t be gay. It was a very slow process coming to terms with these feelings.”
He told his wife the marriage was over. “She blamed herself,” he says. “I said ‘If you were Dolly Parton, I’d still feel the same way.’ ” Griffen “came out” eight years ago and enjoyed his new-found sexual freedom.
“I tired of that very quickly,” he says. “I wanted to settle into a real lifestyle. “
He must have been infected almost immediately.
Griffen arrived in Atlanta in 1984, the AIDS virus already singing in his blood. He began working with a landscaper learning the trade. Within a year he began to get sick. “I knew I had AIDS long before they told me,” he says. “I was hoping it was something else.” He wanted to die at home. He was a Southerner and this is what Southerners have always done. “My grandfather was an invalid for nine years and we took care of him. We never thought of a nursing home,” he says. Griffen wanted to stay in an old trailer next to his grandmother’s house. “I was very sick. I had no insurance. One of my aunts told the rest of my family I had AIDS. She said she could tell from my voice.”
They turned him away.
“My family is afraid of AIDS. They live in a very rural area. People would mark them. They’d be outcasts.”
This is what he says now. At the time, he tried to kill himself. A year ago he met Bud; both men were suffering from ARC, or AIDS-related complex, a debilitating assortment of symptoms and so-called “opportunistic infections” that are often precursors to full-blown AIDS. The two men grew close. Sex was never an issue.
“I’ve had no sex drive for a long, long time,” says Griffen. Bud died early on a Sunday morning in June – in the same bed Roy now sleeps in.
He is alone much of the time. Some of his friends have abandoned him. He understands.”For them to deal with me, they have to deal with AIDS,” he says. “They don’t want that.”
Griffen doesn’t want to die among strangers in Grady Hospital. He is counting on the staff of AID Atlanta to be with him, but still, on those dark and haunted nights, he grows afraid.
He is not sorry for the way he has lived his life. “I’m a much better person of having been gay,” he says. “I’ve had to deal with bigotry and oppression, but I realized my true feelings and acted upon them. Not too many people can say that. . . I guess I’ve not been successful by the world’s standards, but I’m successful by mine. I’m a Christian. I have faith. I am at peace with myself.
“But,” he adds, “it’s a funny thing. To some people I’m the scum of the earth.”
With the faith that so often comforts the dying, Griffen believes some good can come out of a plague. “A higher power may be working here to remind us that we have to interact with each other as human beings and not sex objects,” he says. Dr. Morganstern agrees. “The sensual thing was getting out of hand. There is going to be a refocusing of sexual attitudes.”
Others worry that the main consequence of the epidemic will be a swing back to the sexual repression of the ’50s, before the drawing of sexual liberation in the ’60s. Sensing these attitudinal changes, politicians are now beginning to evaluate what the situation means for them. Privately, many epidemiologists worry that AIDS is becoming politicized. “There is no doubt that increased funding is coming, in part, because of heterosexual fear,” says the CDC’s Jaffe. “We have to wonder if the money will be spent wisely. Will heterosexual hysteria feed demands for more testing, quarantine and other repressive measures?
“AIDS is so terrible, we don’t want anybody to take a risk and get it,” continues Jaffe. “But the major problem continues to be infected drug abusers and their sex partners – people who don’t read newspaper editorials and have lots of other problems in their lives. . . . The panic will grow worse. The feeling out there is for more restrictive policies. Political leaders sense what the public wants. If it is not what the public health community is giving them, then the politicians will take over.”
It is not surprising that people want assurance in a time of pestilence. When science and medicine cannot provide guarantees, perhaps the law will. Others simply don’t want the party to end. “We’re really upset,” says one divorce-scarred and whiskey- soaked veteran, “because sex is our favorite activity.”
“The thinking is,” counters Ken South, the former AID Atlanta director, “as long as I know everyone who’s positive and everyone who’s negative, I can be safe. But it isn’t the responsibility of the state to lock up infected people and protect the poor uninfecteds. It’s defensive driving. Every sexually active American is going to have to practice safe sex . . . wear rubbers. They don’t want to do it. They don’t want to change. They don’t like it.”
So the party goes on, though the hour is late and the floor is not as crowded as it once was. Maybe it will take, as psychologist Dr. Catherine Blusiewicz puts it, “the death of the firstheterosexual movie star from AIDS” to halt it completely.
It goes on because very, very few straight Americans – outside doctors, health care types and grieving family members – have ever seen an AIDS victim in the horrible final stages of disease.
The party goes on because all of us want love but many have come to accept something less: sex as the synonym for love. The party goes on because sexual behavior is almost impossible to modify. Blusiewicz cites one of her patients, “an extremely sexually active 16-year-old girl,” who is convinced that AIDS will destroy the human race. But, says the therapist, “in terms of how she behaves sexually, it has no input.”
On the other side of the generation gap stands Lane, a 50-year-old divorced grandfather and a fixture at the bar of the Creekside Cafe. Lane does not believe AIDS will penetrate his magic circle of lawyers, businessmen and media types. He’s not particularly concerned. “To have it hit you,” he says, “you got to know somebody it nailed.”
He says this though he’s slept with 12 women in the last year and used a condom with only two. He says this despite the fact that Mary, one of his dates, is so frightened of AIDS she fled in terror from a portrait painted by an AIDS victim (just a touch away!). Another of his dates recently threw a news clipping on AIDS in front of him saying, “Since my divorce, you’re the only man I slept with. If I got it, it has to be you.”
Not to worry, says Lane. “If it does hit, it will be the meat market places, the bars with loud music and plastic people. . . . Obviously, I consider myself real.”
The question occurs: “But for how much longer?”
(Some names in this story have been changed where requested by the individuals interviewed.)
Calls to AID Atlanta run the gamut: Can a person get AIDS from deep kissing? What about oral sex?
The phone rings constantly, 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Answering them is never easy. Volunteers at AID Atlanta’s Info-Line are often plunged headlong into the nightmare world of dying or newly diagnosed AIDS victims. Begun four years ago to provide AIDS information, the hotline has become much more: a crisis intervention mechanism, a shoulder to cry on, a no-nonsense authority on safe sex and risk reduction.
On a recent Friday morning, Ellen Lappa, a self-proclaimed “tennis-playing Dunwoody housewife,” was working the phones. Calls ranged from the tragic to the absurd, from a man with “a friend with some symptoms,” to a guy afraid to put his hemorrhoid-troubled backside on a public toilet. Following is a random selection from the log of calls that came in on Lappa’s watch, along with a few of her responses. Think of it as a quick peek at Atlanta’s AIDS-troubled psyche:
Caller No.1: (White male, rural accent.) “Is there a chance of getting AIDS from deep kissing or wet kissing?”Lappa: “It’s highly unlikely.”
Caller: “What about oral sex? I get these little abrasions on my penis?”
Lappa: “Our advice is to always use a condom. It’s like wearing a seat belt.”
Caller No.2: (Ambulance driver.) “Can AIDS be transmitted by perspiration? What if I got a patient who was violent and sweaty? I’d have to be real careful, right?”
Lappa: “It would take about a quart of perspiration in your bloodstream to infect you.”
Caller: “Well, I was watching this basketball game. . . I saw these kids, all soaking and rubbing against each other. It got me to thinking … “
Caller No.3: (Gay white male.) “I have shingles (herpes zoster, a painful inflammation of the nerve endings caused by a viral infection). Someone told me it was a precursor to AIDS. But everybody in my family has shingles. I need to know for sure.”
Caller No.4: (White female, rich Southern accent.) “I read where one of the first symptoms is swelling of the lymph glands. Can you tell me a little bit about that? My glands have been swollen since Monday. I haven’t been with anybody but my husband in six years, but I’ve become a little paranoid. I’m sure you understand. . .”
Caller No.5: (Black male, scared, not doing a good job hiding it.) “I had sex with a woman in December. A friend just told me she has AIDS. Her roommate put her out on the street. . . I can’t fmd her . . . My wife has this rash. Her doctor says something funny’s going on.”
Caller No.6: (White female, bluecollar, nervous.) “How soon would you know if you were infected with AIDS . . . . On Monday, I went to bed with this guy who’s … not my husband. He’s a very promiscuous person. My fear is exposing my husband. This is myfault and I don’t want to risk anyone else’s life. Do you see where I’m coming from? A few years ago, this wasn’t such a problem. . . . Hell, I don’t even know what test to go for.”
Lappa: (Explains that it can take as long as six months for antibodies to the AIDS virus to appear in the bloodstream after infection. Therefore, it could take that long for any reliable test results. She tries a joke.) “Tell your husband you were bitten by a mosquito. Really, you’re going to drive yourself crazy.”
Caller: (Not amused.) “So, it’s sort of a ‘hang in there’ thing? . . . My husband’s a workaholic. We only have sex on Saturday night. It’s already Friday…. “
Caller No.7: (White male, business type.) “My brother lives in San Francisco. He told me he’s had swollen glands for two years. He says everybody out there has them. He’s the only brother I have. I don’t want to lose him. [Long pause.] He’s coming to Atlanta for Thanksgiving. There are children involved. I understand there’s no risk from casual contact. Is that right? Should my children be allowed to touch and hug him?”
Lappa: “He’ll need lots of hugs. Feel perfectly comfortable with him coming to visit for the holidays.”
Caller No.8: (Airline pilot.) “I’m worried about my copilot. He’s screwing everything in sight.”
Caller No.9: (White woman, upperclass.) “Honey, I just want to find out how prevalent this is in the heterosexual community, because several years ago, I had an affair.”
Caller No. 10: (Young white male, giddy, obviously calling from a pay phone.) “Is oral sex safe?”
Lappa: “Not a hundred percent safe, but … “
Caller: (Interrupting with a laugh.)”I won’t go into the details, but I can promise you it won’t happen again!”
Lappa: “How well do you know this… woman?”
Caller: (Laughing crazily.) “Hell, I don’t even know her name!”
Caller No. 11: (Gay white male.) “My name is Phil and I’ve just learned my best friend has AIDS. Please tell me what I can do …. “
The Testing Dilemma
“Completely Confidential AIDS TESTING. No name or identification required. Buckhead location. Call 261-9327 for information.” — Advertisement, Atlanta Constitution, July 1987
When you call you are told to ask for Cathy. Cathy doesn’t exist. The name alerts nurses and technicians at the Piedmont Minor Emergency Clinic that you, an anonymous person, are requesting a very special test – one which determines whether you’ve been exposed to the virus that causes the acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
When you arrive, there is no waiting. Let the lucky folks with splintered bones and jagged lacerations sit in the waiting room. You are escorted straight to the lab and given five pages of AIDS information to read. A technician carefully draws 5 cubic centimeters of your blood and assigns you a number. You’re probably worried even if you’re among
the 10 percent coming in for premarital testing. You ask lots of questions: “How long does it take for antibodies to the virus to appear in my blood?” “What does it mean to be positive?” “Will I get AIDS?” The last question, of course, cannot be answered.
If you are really nervous, you ask the nurse if the needle she’s using is sterile. “It’s funny,” says Selena Colvin, the clinic’s head nurse. “I’m doing an AIDS test on them and they want to know if my needles are sterile.”
The whole thing takes about 20 minutes. Your blood is stoppered and centrifuged (to separate out the sera) and wrapped in a plastic transport bag along with a requisition sheet listing your number. A courier comes by to pick up the specimen; it is driven to International Clinical Laboratories’ Doraville facility, logged onto a computer, then flown to a Nashville laboratory where the actual testing (an almost fully automated procedure) takes place.
At the Piedmont Minor Emergency Clinic, you pay $80 (always in cash). No charts are written up; no medical records established. The typical clients (75 percent) are white males and females with college backgrounds. If male, you are between 40 and 50 years old. You are likely to be heterosexual. If you are blatantly gay, the nurses may try to remember your face and number and make friendly bets on you.
You might be the accountant in your late’ 40s who had an affair with his secretary. You’ve done this before, of course – the office affairs – but suddenly you don’t trust this woman. You ask how you should break the news to your wife if you test positive. As an afterthought, you wonder if you should tell the secretary.
Perhaps, you’re the pretty, darkhaired woman in your early 30s who arrives in a business suit and carrying a brief case. You haven’t had a relationship in years – maybe you’ve been too busy with a career. You’ve met a new guy you really like. You don’t want to sleep with him until you know for sure.
You might be the clean-cut man, mid-20s, coming in for premarital testing. You’ve had other lovers (female). Now that you’re getting married, you want to be certain. There might be children to consider. Besides, didn’t President Reagan himself recommend routine premarital testing for the AIDS virus? So you use your own name (never, ever do that) because you have nothing to hide. And you mail in a claim to your insurance company for reimbursement. And your insurance is canceled. And you are labeled high risk. And, says nurse Colvin, who heard this very story from a doctor at another testing site, “You’ll never be able to get medical insurance again.”
After five days, the courier brings back your results. You call the clinic and give them your ID number. If you’re a risk group member, you are terrified. Ice water is coursing through your veins. Everyone else is just plain scared. You recall the information sheet given you when you first showed up at the clinic. One of the topics was “Should I take the test?” And the nurse specifically asked how the results might affect your life. You wish you had paid more attention. If your test is negative, the nurse tells you so right over the phone. You breathe real deep and say things like “It’s abstinence for me.”
If you are positive, the test will be run at least twice and a fmal, very reliable test called the Western blot will confirm the results. You then are referred to a doctor who will attempt to calm and counsel you over the phone. Of course, he will fail, because at that moment, you are inconsolable. And doing it over the phone is ineffective at best, inhuman at worst.
If you were the young man who tempted fate and gambled with death by allowing the nurses to assign you the identification number 13, you lost.
Your test came back positive.