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Oral History Project Capturing the History of AIDS in Houston

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The first 15 years of the epidemic were particularly cruel.
By Brandon Wolf

In this age of PrEP therapy and antiretroviral cocktails, the devastating early years of AIDS seem hard to imagine. And many who lived through that era have shut a mental door on those memories.    

However painful the brutal memories are, it would be tragic to allow them to be lost to history. Toward that goal, The oH Project has been founded to collect, preserve, and make available the experiences of people impacted by the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Houston, Harris County, and Southeast Texas, with special emphasis on the early years of the epidemic.

A Ruthless and Relentless Killer Stalks the Gay Community

In June 1981, AIDS first became known to Americans through media reports of five men in Los Angeles who had died from “gay cancer.” In truth, it was not cancer, but rather a retrovirus that was capable of destroying the human immune system.

The syndrome began to spread rapidly. There was no medical explanation, and no way to test for it. Flying blind, medical professionals treated the suffering amidst an environment of mystery and fear.         

By 1984, the HIV virus had been identified in the blood of those afflicted. Gay men were warned to avoid intimate contact with bodily fluids. But for those who had contracted the virus, there was no remedy. AIDS was a death sentence. Typically, friends, loved ones, and others died within six months of diagnosis. Spreading exponentially, the virus showed no mercy. 

In 1987, researchers cracked the code of HIV’s reproductive process. The virus attacked CD-4 cells (the immune system’s “fighter cells”) and turned the cells into HIV factories. It destroyed healthy immune cells and flooded the bloodstream with larger and larger quantities of HIV virus.

Not until 1995 was an effective means of stopping this reproductive cycle found. Early antiretroviral treatments stopped HIV temporarily, but the retrovirus usually mutated past the medication. Finally, a combination of antiretrovirals that provided roadblocks at numerous points in the reproduction cycle stalled the mutation. 

That same year, the growing death toll spiked at an all-time high before finally starting to diminish. While the news was welcomed with a collective sigh of relief, it was set against a 15-year rampage that had left the LGBT community physically and emotionally devastated.     

A Disease with Cruel Ramifications

For many gay men not yet out of the closet, HIV was a double blow—they were outed both as gay and as living with HIV. And the fear and suffering were only the beginning as evangelical leaders zeroed in on those with AIDS, telling them it was God’s punishment for homosexuality. Conservative politicians all but ignored funding the treatment of AIDS, with the flippant attitude that promiscuity had its consequences. 

Gay men were fired or forced to leave their careers because of deteriorating health. Those without health insurance were at the mercy of local charities, some of which refused to involve themselves with the epidemic. Some families disowned their sons, leaving them to die alone and unwanted.

AIDS became the central focus of Houston’s gay community. The aura of the Stonewall liberation that had been celebrated for a decade was replaced by a cloud that grew darker each year. It was no longer “gay” to be a homosexual.   

The Emergence of The oH Project

Revisiting History: The oH Project co-founders Sarah Jackson (l) and Tori Williams look through Ryan White Program files at the Harris County Records Center.
Revisiting History: The oH Project co-founders Sarah Jackson (l) and Tori Williams look through Ryan White Program files at the Harris County Archives.

The oH Project was founded in 2015 as a collaboration between community activist Tori Williams and Harris County archivist Sarah Jackson. The two first met in 2014 when they were brought together to review boxes of Ryan White Program materials that had been collected for years at the Harris County Records Center.

Paul Scott, the county’s records management officer, had retained these records because of his vivid childhood memories of the effects of polio on society. He felt that AIDS would also have a profound effect on shaping our history, and he was determined to make information available for historians.   

While sorting through the records to retain those with historical value, Jackson told Williams that she had captured several oral histories from Harris County employees who were involved with AIDS programs. Jackson longed for a comprehensive AIDS project, but only county employees were within her purview. 

Six months later, Williams put together an AIDS timeline for the “ThroughOut! Houston’s GLBT History” exhibit at the Heritage Society. The timeline project also left her eager to create a more complete history of AIDS in Houston. Together, the two decided to create an oral history project that would capture Houston’s response to AIDS.    

Williams assembled a group of 12 volunteers—longtime AIDS survivors, family members, historians, and others—to serve as an advisory board and working committee. Individuals accepted responsibility for fundraising, financial control, graphic design, publicity, recruitment of interview subjects, and transcription. Several trained historians are now supervising the three individuals selected to conduct the oral histories.

The project’s mission is to capture “the real story of AIDS,” Williams says. She cites the courage of those affected, the compassion of those who worked to provide care, the commitment of volunteers, the cowardice of those who turned their backs, and the confrontations of activists who worked to change government policies.

The project has committed itself to gathering 100 histories representing the diverse face of AIDS in Houston. It will document various affected groups such as gay men, children, and heterosexuals infected by their sexual partners. The epidemic will be viewed from a variety of perspectives—personal, social, medical, political, cultural, and religious. 

The project hopes to complete its mission in three to four years’ time. Interview subjects are being chosen for their diversity, for the roles they played during the epidemic, their current health status, and the time period of their involvement. The project’s first stage will focus on the first 15 years—the darkest days of the epidemic.    

The Woodson Research Center at Rice University has agreed to be the repository for the histories and accompanying transcripts. The Montrose Center, a 501(c)(3) organization, is the fiscal agent.  Legacy Community Health Services has pledged to underwrite a major portion of the project expenses, with additional funds coming from the John Steven Kellett Foundation and friends of the project.   

The Co-Founders Remember AIDS

Williams says her personal involvement with the AIDS crisis began in 1983 when she was helping a lesbian friend find a sperm donor. She was surprised when one gay friend told her he could not participate because he had contracted what was then called GRID, or Gay-Related Immune Deficiency. 

While volunteering at AIDS Foundation Houston in 1986, Williams found that pet care was a major concern of those affected. In response, she founded the Pet Patrol, which came to have hundreds of volunteers who served several thousand clients and even more pets. 

Professionally, Williams has worked with AIDS efforts at United Way, the Foundation for Interfaith Research and Ministry, and the Houston chapter of DIFFA (Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS). In 1998 she began her ongoing career as manager of the Office of Support for the Houston Area HIV Services Ryan White Planning Council. The Council is responsible for directing federal funds for the planning and delivery of HIV services in a 10-county area.   

Jackson remembers becoming aware of the disease in the early 1980s when her husband, a family physician, got daily reports from the Centers for Disease Control via a primitive dial-up modem that allowed him to closely follow the progression of AIDS. 

Beyond that, Jackson’s knowledge of AIDS came from the news and entertainment media. She was especially affected by Angels in America and Philadelphia. While reviewing the Ryan White Program records in 2014, she researched Houston’s response to the epidemic and found that no academic papers were available.   

More Than Just Chatting into a Microphone

Professional oral histories are not just spontaneous conversations in front of a recording device. The interviewer first holds a pre-interview with the subject, and together they determine an outline of what will be discussed. The actual interview is not scripted, but the outline helps keep them on topic.

The recording is then transcribed and submitted for review by both parties. After being revised if necessary, the oral history is complete when the transcription is approved and signed by the subject.

The transcription, recording chip, and any photos provided by the interviewee are then given to the Woodson Research Center, to be stored in a secure, climate-controlled environment. With the subject’s permission, some interviews will be posted to the Internet and be available for research and education. Other interviews will be controlled by confidentiality agreements if the subject desires anonymity.

The project has one completely finished interview and seven others in process. These include: Don Gill and Brian Keever, community AIDS activists; Michael Peranteau, co-founder of the Center for AIDS; Frank Staggs, an early Bering Community Services fundraiser; Bill Jones, co-founder of Casa de Esperanza de los Niños; Pete Rodriguez, former nursing staff member in the AIDS Wards at Park Plaza and Ben Taub hospitals; and Dr. Lois Moore, a former administrator at Harris County’s Jefferson Davis Hospital, which started treating AIDS patients in 1981.

The community is encouraged to offer themselves or recommend others as interview subjects for the project. To do so, simply fill out the form found at http://tiny.cc/oh_referral.

Long-Term Survivor Brian Keever Remembers

ERSICSS Empress X: Long-term survivor and activist Brian Keever with alter ego Damita Jo.
ERSICSS Empress X: Long-term survivor and activist Brian Keever with alter ego Damita Jo.

Brian Keever has been an integral part of Houston’s gay community for the last 35 years, and these recollections from his completed oral history demonstrate the richness of a personal perspective on the larger picture of AIDS in Houston. 

Moving from his home state of North Carolina in 1981, Keever recalls the lure of a big city for a young gay man: “I was not super-political, but I got involved with [what is now the Houston GLBT] Political Caucus because they were endorsing a woman to be mayor of the City of Houston, Kathryn J. Whitmire. And so I helped hold signs at the corner of Montrose and Westheimer that said ‘Vote for Kathy Whitmire’ . . . for hours.”

Paralleling his move to Houston, the AIDS epidemic began to surface: “The McAdory House was the first place I remember, because that was where those AIDS guys went, and it was over here on California. And people—gay, young, white men—[would not even] go over there, because they were afraid, just like everybody else. 

“Thinking back, it was just so surreal—I was nervous, but going, “I don’t know what this is, what’s really going on, but I see people very sick, and they’re saying we need to help, so, okay.”

In 1983, Keever’s friends were concerned about his weight loss, and eventually accompanied him to see Dr. Patricia Salvato: “‘Okay,’ she goes, ‘you’re having some serious issues here. We need to have a sit-down talk.’ And she goes, ‘I want to be honest.’ And I went, ‘I prefer it.’ And she goes, ‘I need to send you over to M.D. Anderson.’ And I went, ‘Oh.’

“I got in to M.D. Anderson at Station 10, which was the area where they were keeping the gay-cancer people. You went, and you showed up at 8 o’clock in the morning and waited for them to get to you. That was the only place that would accept and see you, because of all the fear and all the anxiety and unknowns.”

Twelve Oaks and Park Plaza were the two “AIDS-friendly” hospital facilities. Keever remembers volunteering to visit patients: “You weren’t sure if they had relatives or loved ones, and you wanted to make sure that they weren’t in there alone and no one cared.

“In the early days, outside the rooms was a table. You put on your gloves, you put on your mask and all. Once you got in the room and shut the door, most people took them off, but hospital protocol said you had to do that. And you hand-sanitized yourself, before and after, because you could give them something.”

Keever became a member of the Empire of the Royal Sovereign and Imperial Court of the Single Star (ERSICSS), and won the title of Empress X in 1994. Representing the Houston Court, he traveled widely, but remembers Denver particularly well: “So there were four of us traveling, and you go through where they X-ray. And the lady, she sees one, okay; two, she brings it back, goes through; three, brings it back. By the time she gets to four, she’s going, ‘What are you all doing? Are those crowns or what?’ And one of my more flamboyant friends goes, ‘Well, of course it is. We’re going to a pageant.’ And I’m, like, ‘Oh, my God.’”

San Diego is also a special memory: “The Friday before coronation, which is always on a Saturday night, we hopped on a bus and went to Tijuana just across the border. We went to a gay bar in Tijuana, Mexico, and painted and did a drag show for the Tijuana AIDS project in Tijuana to help raise money for them down there.”

Keever found work with Hannah Niday Flowers for several years, and then worked 11 years on the staff of This Week in Texas (TWT) magazine, a gay publication. “It became very much of an issue to put your lover’s obituary in the magazine. And it got to the point [where] we had four, six pages of obituaries every week. People actually had to show up at our office to give us the picture of their lover who had passed and to write what they wanted. And nine times out of ten, I’d end up doing it.”

Reflecting on his AIDS activism, Keever says: “I was married to the movement. If you had a nice 9-to-5 job and either a woman or a man at home waiting on you, and pets and all the other, that’s what you did. If you didn’t, you went to board meetings, you went to fundraisers, you went to picket in front of Circle K, picket in front of Randall’s—just different things that you did. So there had to be some people that did that. And I’m very happy that I was able to do that.”

Epilogue

From 1981 to the present, 20,000 Houstonians have died from AIDS. Two-thirds died before 1996, when antiretroviral combination therapy finally slowed the virus. J.D. Doyle’s “Texas Obituary Project” records show 1,212 who were gay—a number that is extremely conservative due to the fact that so many deaths were not recorded in any media, or the word “AIDS” was not used in some obituaries.

The numbers are sobering. The effect on Houston’s LGBT community cannot be adequately expressed with simple text. But The oH Project’s completed body of work will provide a look behind the statistics, reflecting the humanity of those who died and those whose lives were changed forever. 

Brandon Wolf is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine.

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Brandon Wolf

Brandon Wolf is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.
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