AIDS at 25

When AIDS came to Nevada, the battle was against both the disease and the ignorance about it

In the early years, Dr. Trudy Larson ministered to AIDS patients and to public panic.

In the early years, Dr. Trudy Larson ministered to AIDS patients and to public panic.

Photo By Jean Dixon - UNR

“He was a young man—he had been kicked out of his home [by his parents] because he was gay. You know, about 15 and went on the streets.”

The doctor speaking is known for the twinkle in her eye and her early entry into the field of AIDS medicine. She says she remembers this one young patient especially well.

“And so he had to prostitute on the streets, and he got infected. But he was able to sort of make his way in the world. And he became my patient. And of course, we didn’t have any treatment then. But he was young. He used to open his home to runaways. He used to help counsel. I mean, he knew—he got real seriously ill and eventually died, but all that time, he always offered things to other people … He had a so difficult life, and he was rejected, but he didn’t let it faze him. You know, he just turned his life into a real positive one, helping other people.”

Such memories come back as June 5 approaches. It is being marked as the 25th anniversary of AIDS. It’s not really, of course. That’s just the date in 1981 when the Centers for Disease Control finally gave the disease some official recognition. (Some—such as Gabriel Rotello in the Huffington Post—fault journalists’ use of the date.) Nevertheless, the date is going to be commemorated by widespread events and coverage.

They will hardly have the tone of a celebration. There is no reliable figure for the death toll from AIDS, but it is substantial in many nations and is ravaging Africa. Ambassador Stephen Lewis, appointed by the U.N. secretary general as a special envoy on HIV and AIDS in Africa, recently reported that at the David Livingstone School in Zimbabwe, a teacher asked her students to write down what AIDS meant to them. Eight of ten of the children wrote the word “death.”

Because its earliest sufferers in the U.S. were gay, for survivors, the deaths of their loved ones were often accompanied by the additional suffering of a stigma. Before the term “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome” was created, it was often called the “gay plague.” Many times, to protect against the stigma, the cause of death was not publicly noted.

Pat Buchanan wrote, “The poor homosexuals—they have declared war upon nature, and now nature is extracting an awful retribution.” Some even suggested that fighting the disease would be immoral. Jerry Falwell: “To oppose it would be like an Israelite jumping in the Red Sea to save one of Pharoah’s charioteers.” Ronald Reagan came to the presidency six months before the CDC report was issued, but he went through nearly his entire presidency without mentioning the disease that set off a national hysteria, finally doing so in 1987.

Reno was the home of the annual gay rodeo, though for a long time many people never even knew it was in town. It was conducted quietly at the county fairgrounds, and attendance was screened to protect some of the rodeo cowboys who also competed in straight rodeos and to protect all from violence. In 1977, rodeo founder Phil Ragsdale said, “Basically, most people say live and let live, but then you get a few who get a few drinks under their belts.” He expressed the hope that the day would come when he could throw it open to the public.

But the rodeo became well known by being attacked. In 1981, before AIDS was even a factor, Nevada Lt. Governor Myron Leavitt said, “I’m strongly opposed to queers using public property… They call them queers because they got a screw loose.”

As AIDS gained force, others attacked the rodeo as a threat to public health. Right wing groups annually would make problems for the event, and because so little was known about AIDS, they were free to use all kinds of folklore about how the disease was spread. On one occasion, they brought Dr. Paul Cameron in to make a case against the rodeo. Partway through his press conference, it became known that his doctorate was not in medicine, and the questioning turned hostile. (Cameron was a psychologist, and the American Psychological Association later dropped him from its membership. The American Sociological Association said, “Cameron has consistently misinterpreted and misrepresented sociological research on sexuality, homosexuality and lesbianism.")

The attacks raised the visibility of the rodeo. On March 31, 1982, it was featured on the “reality” television show Real People. In September 1983, syndicated columnist Phyllis Schlafly attacked it in her column: “Can the homosexuals be denied public facilities in order to protect the local citizens from disease?” Rodeo officials were uncomfortable with the higher profile and the accompanying attacks, particularly since most responsible community leaders stayed silent. The rodeo finally departed Reno.

By the mid-1980s, myths about AIDS were rampant, as they had been about polio in the 1950s. Leaflets filled with scary but false information were distributed in Nevada. A sort of slow-motion panic began to build.

Nevada prison guards wanted protection in case there were AIDS-infected prisoners. An AIDS-infected prostitute in Las Vegas was found plying her trade, so the legislature considered a measure subjecting such people to enhanced sentencing—up to 20 years in prison. (Washoe County District Attorney Mills Lane said he didn’t need the legislation to achieve its intent). There was talk about infection from drinking glasses and toilet seats. Publications produced by anti-gay activists spread false information about infectiousness. The level of fear became so high that at the Washoe County health department, officials said people were coming in for AIDS tests who had no need of them. “You’re way outside any high risk group,” a health worker told one Renoite who was tested.

Journalists were at a loss to cope with this flood of information and misinformation because there were no experts on the new disease, and so they could do little about the hysteria.

Into this climate stepped Dr. Trudy Larson, a Reno pediatrician. She first got into the public discussions of AIDS when the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada asked her to speak at one of the health hearings on the gay rodeo.

The ACLU could not have picked a better person. During an infectious diseases fellowship at UCLA in 1981-1983, Larson had encountered several immune suppressed herpes simplex cases—some of the first cases reported in Los Angeles. When she arrived in Reno in 1982, the disease that would become AIDS was evolving from “gay plague” to Gay Related Immune Deficiency (GRID), and she had a reputation as a doctor who knew something about it—to the extent that anyone then did. She took on the job of public education with zeal and that perpetual twinkle in her eye. Her upbeat manner in the face of AIDS helped spread the message that panic was unnecessary.

“It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time, being curious, being comfortable, knowing it wasn’t highly infectious, you know, for health care workers or anything,” Larson remembers. She calls getting involved in AIDS “the best decision I ever made.” She says her pediatric training helped keep her spirits up to deal with the tragedies that unfolded around her.

“I used to see kids with cancer and really serious illnesses in the hospital,” she says. “I discovered that they didn’t make me depressed. You know, kids bring a wonderful sense of optimism and hope to everything. They’re not like adults. And so I learned how to deal with death and serious illness from the kids … When I got into AIDS work, even though at that time we had no treatment or much to offer them, there was something I could offer, which was pain relief, and a little hope and [visiting] them … It was always difficult to say goodbye to patients, but … they taught me a lot about how to die gracefully.”

Larson spoke out, calming fears, supplying better information, tending patients and traveling the world to learn more and help others. She lobbied the Nevada Legislature for prevention and treatment funding. She co-edited a book, Evaluating HIV/AIDS Treatment Programs: Innovative Methods and Findings. She threw herself so heavily into AIDS issues during the most hysterical years that she was for a time one of Nevada’s best known non-elected citizens. She was commonly referred to as “the AIDS doctor,” and she became a reliable source of good information for community groups, public agencies and reporters. The indefatigable Larson remained good natured through all of the dark years as the death toll mounted, rarely turning down a request for a talk or interview that allowed her to curb misinformation. On one occasion when she was in the District of Columbia, she did a live night interview for a Reno television station standing in the rain with an umbrella outside a hotel. (Her first response to a request for an interview for this story came from Russia, where she was doing AIDS education for physicians and nurses.)

Often her best weapon was flatly stating straightforward facts that some activists and many politicians did not want spoken—"Needle exchange programs work,” for instance.

As the years passed and the overheated predictions of anti-gay activists did not happen, the level of public anxiety declined, and officials were able to make decisions better grounded in facts than folklore. A number of changes in state law or regulation were enacted.

Washoe County Sen. Sue Wagner was able to use the concern about AIDS to get sex education enacted by the Nevada Legislature, which had always resisted such classes. Wagner got a bill amended to provide for sex education and AIDS education, basically piggybacking sex education onto the panic over AIDS. Some conservatives, like legislators Lawrence Jacobsen and Tom Hickey, supported a sex education program they had not previously backed. It was said that the only thing it took to get sex education into Nevada schools was a worldwide plague.

“That’s true,” Wagner says. “That is absolutely true. I mean, that’s why I attached it, because I thought that it would be the only way … But little did I realize that we were going to have a president that only believed in ‘abstinence only’ and held up all the millions of dollars unless you said that that’s the way you were going to teach it.”

The holdup on federal funding hurt the program, as did a claim that every school needed to have only one instructor teaching the class in order to comply with the law. But eventually, the program was set up on a full-fledged basis and is now a normal part of the educational landscape in Nevada.

In March 1986, the state health board adopted regulations providing for monthly AIDS testing of prostitutes in Nevada’s 36 brothels. The testing was not really needed—the already well regulated brothels were not at the risk level of street prostitution—but it helped calm public apprehension. Board member Catherine Lowe called it an “attempt to get ahead of the problem.” (Street prostitutes were sometimes doubly at risk because often they were both prostitutes and drug users.)

By 1987, Nevada was one of seven states that tested all prison inmates for AIDS.

More and more gay Nevadans, faced with the hostility generated by the early AIDS panic, came out to publicly oppose bigotry. As a result, their political influence grew. In 1993, a state sodomy law that applied only to gays was repealed by the Nevada Legislature, (prompting Dan Hansen of Sparks to circulate bumper strips reading, “No special rights for homosexuals"). In 1997, the first openly gay legislator, David Parks, was elected.

Other things changed, too. Being gay became less stigmatized. On February 27, 1994, both Gov. Bob Miller and his opponent, Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones, campaigned at a rally at Bad Dolly’s, a gay bar in Reno, a scene that once would have been unimaginable. That same year, the casino industry, faced with a boycott of the state by gay advocates, opposed an anti-gay initiative petition brought to Nevada by an Oregon group. The petition failed. On July 15, 1994, after the murder of a gay Reno man named Bill Metz, there was a nighttime rally and march against hatred that included many public figures and a deputy police chief.

AIDS programs became more visible, and people learned more about how to deal with people who had the disease. As research made it more possible to live with AIDS, its victims had longer lives. “But now, it’s so much better than it used to be,” Larson says. “You know, I have patients I’ve taken care of for 20 years. Isn’t that something? … They’re fine. I mean, it’s really remarkable.”

And in 2004, the gay rodeo came back to Reno.