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Health Museum Display Documents the AIDS Crisis in Houston

Outbreak exhibit looks back at epidemics that affected the area within the last 100 years.


A new exhibit at The Health Museum entitled Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World examines the causes of epidemics, how they spread, and what can be done to stop them. Based on a Smithsonian Institution exhibit of the same name, the local exhibit includes a segment on Houston’s response to the AIDS crisis, as well as two other epidemics that affected the Houston area within the last 100 years. Materials from two LGBTQ historical organizations, the Gulf Coast Archive & Museum (GCAM) and The oH Project (AIDS oral histories), help to tell the AIDS story.

A Smithsonian Collaboration

The Health Museum’s mission is “to foster wonder and curiosity about health, medical science, and the human body.” Thus, the Outbreak exhibit answers such questions as why infectious diseases emerge where they do, what makes them spread so quickly, and where we should be looking for the next outbreak.Becky Seabrook, the museum’s senior director of guest engagement, explains that the museum is a Smithsonian affiliate, which gives them access to Smithsonian resources. Their Outbreak exhibit has been on display in Washington D.C. since 2018, and Seabrook felt that it was a good fit with the museum’s mission. She notes that the exhibit is also timely, given the recent global rise in infectious diseases. “We want to teach people how to stop epidemics,” she says.    

The exhibit’s local segment, entitled Close to Home, begins with the 1920 bubonic plague outbreak in Galveston. Then the polio epidemic from the 1940s through the 1960s is covered, and finally the AIDS epidemic from the 1980s through the present. The Health Museum crew built the entire Close to Home display in a remarkable three-month period of time. 

Local Support

Seabrook discovered a wealth of collected knowledge about the bubonic plague and polio epidemics in local medical libraries. But the same was not true for the Houston’s response to the AIDS epidemic. Fortunately, Seabrook knew of GCAM curator Judy Reeves through her network of local museum professionals. After the two spent an afternoon talking, Reeves was able to pull together materials from the GCAM collection that Seabrook borrowed for the Close to Home segment.

After Seabrook searched the Internet for more materials, she became aware of The oH Project’s oral histories and contacted Tori Williams and Sarah Canby Jackson, the project’s cofounders. Seabrook wanted to feature six audio clips from the project’s oral interviews, and she was able to use the online oH transcripts to identify six important moments that she found “sobering.” The interviewees—medical professionals, AIDS activists, and patients—then granted permission to use their audio segments in the exhibit. 

The finished Close to Home exhibit is dominated by a huge photo of a demonstrator at a local protest organized by ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power) with the Houston skyline in the background. On the walls are three dozen large photos, mostly taken during local displays of the Names Quilt Project. There are also items from local fundraising efforts. 

A display table brings together various memorabilia—red ribbons, teddy bears, Denim Party invitations printed on colored handkerchiefs, a personal letter about AIDS, and an AIDS treatment guide. There is also a shadow box dedicated to legendary Houston fundraiser Lady Victoria Lust.

Reeves remembers the day when GCAM began accepting donations of memorabilia. “We were a repository for GLBT history in Houston, yes, but it was more than that. As an organization that could be entrusted to care for the personal effects and memories of those who had died of AIDS-related complications, GCAM helped those who had been left behind to continue living.”

For The oH Project clips, a special kiosk was built. Visitors can pick up a headset and push one of six buttons to select the audio clips. Jackson is pleased with the museum’s oH Project kiosk. “The fact that the Health Museum discovered our oral-history project, accessed transcripts, and decided the content that would be useful for them demonstrates the developing maturity of the project. With almost 70 oral histories completed, it is very exciting that we are not only documenting the response to HIV/AIDS in Houston, Harris County, and Southeast Texas, but that these histories are being used in creative and new ways to tell the story of a particularly difficult time in our history.”

All four women involved agree that the local AIDS segment helps to make it “real and personal” for the exhibit’s Houston guests.

Memories from the Epidemic

“I used to say that I mourned three times with them. I would mourn when they told me, because I knew what the end was. Then I would mourn when they became symptomatic, because that started putting a timeframe on it—it’s going to be a year or two. Sometimes I’d mourn after they died, but most of the time I felt relieved for them because it was an awful way to die.”

Grimes taught a class on HIV/AIDS, and one class session was about ethics. “Eventually somebody would say, ‘What’s your solution?’ I said, ‘I’d treat the most promiscuous.” That’s the public-health approach—treat the people who are most likely to transmit the disease. And babies are the last priority, because a baby [won’t infect anyone else].’ Of course, I would be immediately chastised by the entire world for implementing such a thing, but I was just trying to get people to think in a public-health way.” —Richard Grimes, an HIV/AIDS public-health education pioneer

“Getting through to the Hispanic male is tough. It’s really tough, for many reasons. Getting through to the young African-American, the gay African-American, is tough.

“We need to shake up the landscape in Houston. There are many HIV-infected men who would punch you in the face if you told them they were gay. They’re having sex with another man, but they’re going home to their wives, who they truly love, and who they are truly sexually attracted to. But they’re having sex with men.

“So you put up a flyer or have gay men in T-shirts handing out condoms in Montrose.
It will never touch the guys down on Navigation, or the guys up here on Beechnut, or the macho guys in Pearland. You’re not going to touch those guys. You’ve got to shake up the way you’re doing prevention in Houston.”— Pete Rodriguez, an HIV/AIDS service provider

“ACT UP did public demonstrations, and police departments around the country began to have to confront how [they would] deal with the disease. [At the time, we didn’t] 100 percent know how it’s transmitted, so they would respond to AIDS demonstrations with the full-body shields and big rubber gloves and, ‘We’re not going to touch anybody.’ The AIDS activists would spit at them, and there was fear on both sides and a sense of urgency on the part of the  AIDS activists that they didn’t have anything else to lose because AIDS was a death sentence, and they needed attention [so they] yelled louder and louder and louder.”—Annise Parker, former mayor of Houston and member of Houston’s LGBTQ community

“[I received my HIV diagnosis on Valentine’s Day of 1991]. My reaction was bad, of course, but I don’t think it was—I may have said some bad words. I was really in a state of hysteria because I was one of those people that believed the TV reports back then [that said] you had to be white, male, and gay. I’m not white, I’m a male, but I’m not gay.”

“I was angry that I had it because I was, like everybody else, scared when you’re watching TV and everybody is dying. Nobody knows how to treat them. Everybody was in panic mode, and they were trying to kick everybody out, trying to tell everybody they couldn’t get an apartment, they couldn’t work, you’d get fired. It was very scary.”—Rodney Mills, an African-American hemophiliac and long-term AIDS survivor

“I remember going to see my father at the hospital one night. I was only there for maybe 20 or 30 minutes because  I just wanted to check up on him. I went and I visited with him, and he was in bed, and he comes up out of the bed and went to the restroom by himself. It didn’t look like there was any kind of pain or anything. He walked around like he was fine, but it was that same night that he passed away.”—Steve Vargas, a long-term survivor and community organizer who lost both parents to the epidemic

“I distinctly remember one great big muscular guy who, when I told him, got ready to storm out the door and probably would have done himself in or jumped off a bridge—I don’t know what. But here is 130-pound Fitzgibbons grabbing somebody twice [my] size and walking him back in and sitting him down and saying, “You’re not leaving until I tell you that there is some good news.” Somebody else took him through the therapy—I think maybe one of the infectious-disease doctors.

“It was not unusual to have somebody get the news and then disappear. Sometimes we heard that they had committed suicide, and sometimes we didn’t know what had happened.”—Stella Fitzgibbons, an internal medicine doctor

What: Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World
When:  The exhibit runs through May 31, 2020
Where:  The Health Museum, 1515 Hermann Dr.

This article appears in the December 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine. 


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Brandon Wolf

Brandon Wolf is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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