The Places of AIDS
By Meredith Raimondo
Vol. 16, No. 2, 1994, pp. 3-12
“Cancer clinic has AIDS scare” was the title of the piece in The Atlanta Constitution‘s local news summary on July 30, 1985. Noting that “As many as 1,000 people may have been exposed to the AIDS virus in blood-derived drugs,” the article mentioned only one patient by name: former Georgia Governor Lester Maddox.
Only a week earlier, newspapers around the country had reported Rock Hudson’s diagnosis with AIDS. In Covering the Plague: AIDS and the American Media (1989), James Kinsella argues that the year of Rock Hudson was the year America “discovered” AIDS. It was certainly the year that The Atlanta Constitution and The Atlanta Journal, Atlanta’s morning and evening daily newspapers (collectively referred to as the AJC) “discovered” it.
Unlike Hudson’s, Maddox’s story is not considered a turning point in the history of AIDS in the United States. In analyses of the arrival of the AIDS crisis in the U.S., Atlanta is not featured except as the location of the national Centers for Disease Control (CD C). Epidemiologists did not consider Atlanta—or the Southȁas one of the sites where AIDS “began” in the United States. Such conclusions were erroneous, however. As a survey of the AJC‘s coverage of AIDS in the first half of the 1980s demonstrates, Atlanta was struggling to come to terms with a crisis very much present and local.
Like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, Atlanta is a major metropolitan center. So why does Atlanta get overlooked? One important reason is that in most of the work on AIDS, the role of place is an invisible factor. For example, in Randy Shilts’ popular And the Band Played On (1988), the cities whose names surface are used to illustrate the ways in which AIDS is a national phenomenon, a story of the failure of the federal government. Other critics reduce regional variation to the difference between “urban” and “rural” areas. Where does that leave a city like Atlanta? Atlanta is a modern urban place, but it is also a metropolitan region within the “South,” an amorphous and sprawling section of the U.S. that is, like the Midwest, often represented as a rural and particularly anti-modern space. Because it fits neither category neatly, Atlanta falls through the cracks in analyses that rely on the urban/rural distinction.
In order to understand how the social experience of AIDS developed in Atlanta, it must be examined as a city
in the South as well as a major urban area. The variable of place provides an important perspective on why Atlanta’s story is so similar and yet so different from other urban centers. Reconstructing such history is a complex process and cannot be derived from any one source. However, as a beginning point, the story told by the AJC provides indications of what factors shaped the social experience of AIDS in Atlanta. By turning back to the first half of the 1980s, we can see that like other major metropolitan regions in the United States, Atlanta was struggling with AIDS. However, the city’s efforts to understand and respond were influenced by Southern issues that make this history unique.
The Maddox story serves as a turning point in the AJC, a symbol of the transformation of AIDS from a new arrival to an established feature of Atlanta’s social landscape. The incident also illustrates how important it is to account for the cultural meanings AIDS acquires. Maddox was the most well-known American patient at the cancer clinic in the Bahamas. The day after the initial report, he was on the front page of The Constitution, revealing his intent to test for HIV. He was back on the front page on August 1, when a report indicated that serum with which he had been treated tested positive for the virus. On August 28, Maddox was “grinning broadly” because his test was “clean as a whistle.” Rock Hudson made the crisis real for Americans otherwise untouched by the lived experience of AIDS. For the first time, everyone “knew” someone who had AIDS. Likewise, many Georgians could now identify someone they “knew” whose life had been touched by AIDS.
Until 1985, the majority of AJC stories associated AIDS with gay men. The Rock Hudson story fit this pattern: revelations of the popular actor’s sexuality made him one more “homosexual” undone by his “lifestyle.” Maddox, on the other hand, was being treated in a medical clinic. In the rhetoric of AIDS, that made him an “innocent victim”—an especially ironic twist given Maddox’s virulent defense of segregation during his political career. He represented the threat of AIDS to the “general population,” and the end of the safety that readers could find in not belonging to one of the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control’s initial “risk groups.”
Throughout this early period there were few conscious discussions of region, a problem exacerbated by the lack of coverage. The AJC did not write about the local experience of AIDS with any frequency until 19851 (see 1 for comparison by year of total and local coverage of AIDS). Rather, the Atlanta newspapers tended to report on the scientific “mystery.” According to Kinsella in Covering the Plague, many media outlets adopted this approach, taking their cue from the Associated Press Wire Service, the first commercial news service to cover AIDS regularly. AP writers work under great deadline stress with little time for extended research. In covering AIDS, there was one stationary, constant, and reliable source of information: the Centers for Disease Control.
Kinsella argues that reliance on this source placed the focus almost entirely on rare illnesses and categories of “risk.” Because the experience of living with AIDS was rarely a topic, there was no way to ask how that experience varied around the country. The media’s reliance on the CDC, itself an Atlanta institution, played a key role in establishing an understanding of AIDS that made the city’s own experience of the crisis nearly invisible in its daily papers.
Even when scientific studies did focus on location, they did not develop the tools that would contribute helpfully to regional analysis. A brief sampling of the debates about AIDS within medical geography illustrates how problematically scientists handled the question of place. Geography emerged as a factor as scientists searched for the origins of this new condition. However, as epidemiologists worked to solve the “mystery” of AIDS, they focused on national and continental boundaries rather than regional variation within nations.
For example, researchers Gary Shannon and Gerald Pyle outline the standard epidemiological diffusion approach in their 1989 article, “The Origin and Diffusion of AIDS: a View from Medical Geography,” which they expanded with Rashid Bashshur into their 1991 book, The Geography of AIDS.2 Maps are generated by looking at where and when cases of the AIDS are diagnosed. From there, causal relationships between the clusters are hypothesized. The fact that many cases of AIDS were early identified on the continent of Africa led researchers to assume the disease’s African origins. This approach is clearly evident in Shannon and Pyle; AIDS begins in Africa and spreads globally (see 2). However, there are other possible explanations for these clusters. In Blaming Others: Prejudice, Race, and Worldwide AIDS (1988), Renee Sabatier points out that while “Western” research was quick to look for “Third World” origins, those same researchers appeared unwilling to investigate the possibility that AIDS spread from the United States to the rest of the world in exported blood products. Sabatier concludes that the explanations Western scientists provided for the geographical distributions they recorded were influenced by racist assumptions about developing nations. “Objective science” fell prey to geopolitical bias.
Though Shannon and Pyle focus on the geography of nations and continents, their 1989 diffusion map offers a hypothesis about the arrival of AIDS in the American South, suggesting that it came through Miami via the Caribbean. They confirm this finding in their 1991 study, identifying “incubator neighborhoods” in New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Miami, and Houston. In their model, Atlanta is a site of secondary expansion of AIDS in the United States. But there are problems with this conclusion. Their map suggests a causal link in diffusion between the Atlantic seaboard and the West Coast, but it does not identify a similar link between New York City and Atlanta, despite the clear transportation corridor that exists between the two cities. Although they argue that “travel by air and therefore, airline network connections were involved in the early diffusion of the HIV and the subsequent development of AIDS in not only large metropolitan centers, but also major resort areas,” they never discuss Atlanta as one of the “incubator” sites, despite the presence of Hartsfield International, one of the country’s busiest airports. Shannon, Pyle, and Bashur’s model focuses on the travel to and from Haiti to explain what they call “a substantial Gulf Coast pattern,” the key geographic feature of AIDS diffusion in the Southern United States. The focus on the Haitian origins of AIDS in the South to the exclusion of a causal link between places like New York City and Atlanta recapitulates the politics of the search for AIDS’ African origins. Their model fails to explore the movement between the South and other sections of the country and within regions of the South itself.
A national diffusion model utilizing sectional analysis can be found in “Geographical Patterns of AIDS in the United States,” an October 1987 article in The Geographic Review. This research shows that Georgia’s caseload developed quickly and remained comparatively high, demonstrating that AIDS was not simply a West Coast/East Coast phenomenon (see 3). The authors’ analysis of AIDS in the Southern United States is more sophisticated, identifying New York City as well as the Caribbean as being key to the high incidence of AIDS in Florida. However, their use of the CDC’s definition of the South, ranging from the Atlantic Ocean to the Arizona/New Mexico border, encompasses so many diverse areas that their demographic generalizations are of suspect validity for any specific place (see 4).
The tendency to conclude that AIDS came to the U.S. from elsewhere promoted national boundaries as the key geographical feature of AIDS, overshadowing variation within the United States. A model to describe the different patterns of caseloads within a broadly defined “South” has yet to be developed. The geographical work on AIDS defines “modern cities”—where models of modernity are based on the industrial Northeast—as sites of origin for the U.S. crisis. The fact that Atlanta, one of the most “modern” cities of the South, does not appear in these treatments suggests the inadequacies of this work.
These works and their geographical analyses are retrospective, looking back at the first years of the crisis. They suggest that as data was gathered and models
proposed, Atlanta was not considered a place where AIDS “began” in the United States. Nor does it seem likely that reporters would have found useful tools for regional analysis in such work. However, the dateline Atlanta was not uncommon in the early years of the crisis. When it appeared, it was almost always a reference to the CDC, a federal institution. This replacement of the regional meaning of the city with a national meaning effectively eclipsed the local experience of AIDS in the commercial media. Stories on what the CDC was discovering about AIDS, because they were reported from Atlanta, appeared to be “local news,” but in fact they told nothing about the experiences of people within the city, except for a small group of scientists.
When they began to look beyond the CDC, AJC writers had few cues from this initial primary source as to how to frame questions about the local experience of AIDS. These papers, part of a chain of newspapers held by Cox Enterprises, essentially function as a single unit, publishing joint weekend editions and sharing many staffers and writers. Much of the early reporting on AIDS in both papers was done by the same individuals, Charles Seabrook and Ron Taylor.
The lack of local analysis was not unique to the AIDS story. The 1980s were a particularly bitter period in the AJC‘s efforts to write about Atlanta. The broader struggles around the content and quality of local coverage created the context in which AIDS stories were reported.
One possible way to frame the question of local experience was to look at Atlanta as a Southern city, but there were difficulties in using this approach. According to Gary Moore in a 1992 Columbia Journalism Review article, reporters at the AJC in the early to mid-1980s were writing at a time when the identity of Southern journalism was very contested. The Reagan “Sunbelt” of the 1980s saw the “chaining of Southern newspapers,” as large chains supplanted “family newspapers.” Moore characterizes the situation as a struggle between “those who see the South as basically no place special anymore, with Southern journalism being like any shiny sprocket in chain news” and those who believed that the South’s “essence may be hard to write down as a broad “I” or a narrowed eye, but it’s there, despite the difficulty of digitizing it.”
At the AJC in the early and mid-1980s, proponents of the first position—the South as “no place special”—were clearly in power. Like many newspapers in this period, the AJC withdrew into “safe” reporting. In another Columbia Journalism Review essay (1988), Bill Cutler described Jim Minter, editor of AJC from 1980 to late 1986, as being “far too respectful of local authorities and institutions.” Minter’s deference to local power, both political and economic, led reporters to feel as if they were supposed to “back off from controversy,” thus compromising the spirit of investigative journalism. As a result, morale plummeted and many good writers left for other papers. John Fleming, a former senior editor at the AJC, characterized the papers under Minter as “asleep.” What Moore describes as “a national trend ‘toward comfort journalism'” had the effect at the AJC of discouraging aggressive, challenging investigative reporting into local issues.
In a short-lived moment between 1986 and 1988, the hiring of Bill Kovach as AJC editor lifted the newspaper briefly out of the “haven for mediocrity and soft business coverage it had become,” wrote Eric Guthey in the December 1988 issue of Southern Changes. Yet, wrote Guthey, Kovach’s resistance to New South boosterism proved his undoing and he was fired in the AJC‘s push to look and read more like USA Today.
This history suggests that the AJC might be a prob-
lematic source for analyzing Atlanta as a Southern city because it is a product of a vision in which the South retains a distinct identity only as a kind of titillating curiosity, exemplified by the “Dixie Living” section. While it is true that the AJC resembles USA Today more than anything else, the absence of a complex self-articulated Southern identity does not mean that it cannot reveal something about the local experiences of AIDS. Especially in the early years of the crisis, the stories told about AIDS served to explain and justify public reaction and responses.
For a large audience of readers, the AJC was a primary source of information and opinions about the crisis. The commercial media did not represent an exclusive source of information—the AJC was not the only storyteller. Harlon Dalton points out that “the mass media are scarcely the only avenues of communication in the black community,” citing the example of the African-American church as an alternative site for education.3 Conversations, storytelling, and oral traditions remain important informal modes of communication among Southerners of all ages and races. Indeed, one of the challenges for Southern newspapers continues to be high rates of illiteracy. However, Moore sees a connection between print and oral forms in Southern culture: “Southerners like a good story, and they like a good story well told, and they like to see it in the newspaper.” Media narrative has a great deal of influence on other kinds of knowledge and communication in a culture saturated with information technology, and may produce values that help frame the debate as information travels from print into oral tradition. As the AJC constructed a drama of AIDS in Atlanta, it created players (both heroes and villains), critical moments, and moral lessons. The framing of local issues by these “mainstream” dailies reveals some of the dynamics of power in Atlanta’s AIDS crisis.
Before the Maddox incident, what story was the AJC telling? Early coverage focused on CDC reports of gay cancer in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Most of those stories came from the wire services, talking of rare disease, drug use, and sexual promiscuity. By 1983, national coverage of the crisis had increased dramatically. The AJC ran a front-page feature on Sunday, February 13 which called AIDS “the killer that no one understands.” It
made AIDS local by talking about the experiences of Charles, a resident of Atlanta living with AIDS. The article treated Charles with dignity and allowed him to speak in his own voice. It noted that AIDS had brought an increase in homophobia. However, it undermined its own efforts to counteract prejudice by reporting that “most of [AIDS’] victims—about 75 percent—have been homosexual males, like Charles.” By invoking the risk group structure, which erroneously implies that identity leads to AIDS, the article contained and isolated Charles from the presumptively heterosexual—and therefore “safe”—reading “public.”
Perhaps the Sunday article’s most interesting point was the following speculation:
Some authorities on Atlanta’s gay community cite a sexual conservatism bred of Southern culture as one reason the disease has not hit hard here. Many Atlanta gays are from small Southern towns, where promiscuity—whether it be homosexual or heterosexual—is frowned upon. Others say the disease simply has not landed here in full force yet…Atlanta, after all, is a national crossroads.
This story raises important questions about Atlanta’s gay community and AIDS, insomuch as one “gay community” exists. When this term appears in the AJC, it generally seems to refer to white men with enough class privilege to gain access to medical and social service institutions, access which may have allowed the paper to notice them.
The February 13 article suggests that sexuality as the centerpiece of gay liberation may have a very different meaning in the South. It also points out the importance of a highly mobile urban population and the corridors they travel. By thinking about Atlanta as a Southern city, the AJC writers were able to provide important insight as to why the crisis seemed to be developing more slowly. The story noted that there were fifteen reported cases of AIDS in Georgia, and nine deaths.
Scattered reports suggest that AIDS became an increasingly serious issue throughout 1983. A controversy over zoning for a proposed all-male health club in the Virginia Highland area was reported as splitting the gay community, particularly because a gay man with AIDS initiated the protests. In July, the AJC described “paranoia” among the estimated 125,000 gay residents of the metro Atlanta area as the Georgia caseload rose to twenty-seven. As evidence of changes in the “gay community,” the authors cited an organizational meeting for the volunteer group AID Atlanta attended by “a crowd of 80 gay men—most of whom…had never before joined a gay organization of any type.” The report also reflected that “AIDS concerns” in Georgia were not as great as in San Francisco or New York.
At the end of 1983, the first public responses to AIDS became visible in the AJC. AID Atlanta requested financial support from the city and from Fulton County to establish “a 10-hour daily AIDS hotline and a screening clinic” and asked the Fulton County Board of Health “to formally declare AIDS … a public health emergency in Atlanta.” Councilwoman Mary Davis supported the proposed program, which “focused primarily on homosexual males, but … also serve[d] intravenous drug users and Haitians,” but in September their request for $10,000 was tabled. When the possibility of funding for the year-old group was raised again at the end of the month, the Fulton County Board of Health recommended that it be made available.
This incident illustrates some of the the AJC‘s exclusions. Intravenous drug users and Haitians, two of the CDC’s key “risk groups,” were mentioned only in the last sentence of the article describing the funding request. Feature stories about the experience of living with AIDS were located entirely in the gay (read: white, middle-class) community. In September, the AJC ran a major front-page feature on the AIDS crisis in Haiti, the pinnacle of coverage about the island. In this piece, there was no follow-up of the suggestion in AID Atlanta’s funding request that the immigrant Haitian community in Atlanta was affected by AIDS. The repetition of risk groups in many articles creates the assumption that the local community was affected, but the AJC did not investigate and document this presumption. In the AJC, AIDS in the U.S. was presented as almost exclusively a white experience. This problem may reflect either judgments about “newsworthiness,” or racial and class barriers denying access to the services that caused AIDS to be publicly recognized. For whatever reason, there were many Atlantans whose stories were left untold.
Some of the silence may have been self-imposed by the paper. According to Cutler in his Columbia Journalism Review piece, the AJC had a generally “troubled relationship with the city’s black community.” Under Cox Enterprises president David Easterly, who arrived in 1982, the AJC attempted to be more “careful” and less “reckless” in its writing on Atlanta’s African-American community. In the case of AIDS, this caution was taken to a dangerous extreme. The AJC clearly distorted the story of AIDS in Atlanta by omitting the experiences of African-Americans from its reports.
National coverage dropped off in 1984 as fears about casual transmission quieted, and the AJC followed suit. As in 1983, stories about AIDS continued to concentrate
on gay men and services in the gay community. There was little change in the first part of 1985. Fulton County filed suit to close two bathhouses, both targets of vice squad investigations for violations of the Georgia sodomy law as well as health risks. Delta Airlines, headquartered in Atlanta, considered and rejected a proposal to bar people with AIDS from its planes. AID Atlanta held a service attended by 300 at All Saint’s Episcopal Church in memory of those who had died. Atlanta municipal court judges took it upon themselves to counsel “johns”—men accused of soliciting prostitution—of the dangers they faced and their potential to spread AIDS to their wives and the heterosexual population at large.
Coverage increased dramatically following the reports surrounding Rock Hudson and Lester Maddox in summer of 1985. A Georgia task force on AIDS was formed. By September, the state had recorded 216 cases of AIDS, almost 75 percent concentrated in the metro Atlanta area, and Georgia moved from eleventh to ninth in state-bystate rankings. The AJC noted that the state government led by Governor Joe Frank Harris remained largely unresponsive, with the exception of some metro Atlanta representatives. In the AJC, fear of AIDS was obvious, as exemplified by the coverage of the confusion over how to “decontaminate” a police car in which a person living with AIDS had a nosebleed.
By the end of 1985, AIDS had “arrived” in Atlanta. A brief survey of 1986 demonstrates that the atmosphere had most certainly changed. Public debate was not so much over what AIDS was and whether it was in Atlanta, but what Atlanta was going to do about it. For example, one of the most reported issues was the school attendance of children with AIDS, despite the fact that by August, “only three children in Georgia [were] currently known to have AIDS.” AID Atlanta, the state task force, and the legislature struggled with legislation introduced by Rep. Billy McKinney that in its original form would have permitted quarantine, required testing for all pregnant women, and empowered the state to test and isolate “at-risk” individuals at will. The legislature considered and rejected a mandatory reporting bill. The governor’s office blocked a grant to AID Atlanta because protesters argued that funding of an explicit same-sex education pamphlet would amount to state support for sodomy, illegal under Georgia law. AJC writers discussed a proposal for the mandatory testing of convicted prostitutes. The Georgia Task Force released a report in June, advocating that children and employees with AIDS be allowed to remain in their schools and workplaces. By early September, Georgia had 495 reported cases of AIDS. The chair of the state task force suggested that as many as 49,500 Georgians might be infected. AIDS began to be written about as a “metro” phenomenon, spreading to counties besides Fulton.
Self-conscious discussions of race also reentered the AJC‘s narrative for the first time since interest in the origins of AIDS had faded. The paper reported on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s concern for the rate of AIDS in the African-American community. Sandra McDonald, special assistant to the president of the SCLC, blamed the media for underreporting, noting that while African-Americans comprised around 25 percent of the national caseload, they accounted for 29 percent of Georgia’s caseload. The SCLC’s challenge reveals clearly that there was more than one AIDS epidemic in Atlanta, and this particular one had been unnoticed or ignored by the AJC and the power structures which it covered.
What do these stories suggest about the social experience of AIDS in the Atlanta region? In many ways, they follow national concerns: for example, while Ryan White tried to go to school in Indiana, Georgia schools struggled with AIDS policies. However, there are complex and important regional factors which affected the AIDS crisis in Atlanta.
The AJC, up to the Maddox reports, focused primarily on the city’s gay community. This selectivity is important, because while it constructs certain “victims,” it erases others. This absence reflects media fiction, not social reality. Dr. Roger Bakerman, a psychologist at Georgia State, pointed out that in 1986, even among gay men whites accounted for 65 cases per million, while African-Americans accounted for 93 cases per million.4 He speculated that “researchers have been ‘afraid to talk racially'” about AIDS because of “a century of scholarship where whites have studied blacks not to their benefit.” If Bakerman is right, racial bias in AIDS research and services seems likely to continue unless this history is finally confronted and the inequities of local health delivery systems addressed. The focus on sexuality was also influenced by two specific regional factors: the strong influence of religion and the state sodomy law.
Religion did fuel homophobia and AlDSphobia. For example, in 1986, Atlanta Reverend Charles Stanley, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, described AIDS as God’s displeasure with the U.S. for its “tolerance of homosexuals,” spawning controversy and protest. However, religion encouraged AIDS activism as well, in the form of memorial services, prayer services, and protests at which ministers spoke. For example, four hundred people attended a healing service at St. Philip Episcopal Church in June 1986, the first gathering of its kind in Atlanta according to the AJC. It was described as having a powerful effect on participants: “My faith in the institutional church has been restored,’ said George Leich.” To challenge Reverend Stanley’s homophobic remarks, 350 people formed “a ‘circle of prayer’ around his downtown Atlanta church.” They then held “a service of their own with some Baptist-style testifying, a collection and songs.”
The visibility of churches and religion in the AJC as a source of strength and resources suggests that the increased religiosity of life in the South informed the politics of volunteerism—in itself a partial response to the Reagan administration’s failure to respond to AIDS—with an added dimension. People with AIDS were not just coming home to their families—they were coming home to their churches as well. When those churches chose to welcome them, people living with AIDS found a much-needed support network. This kind of activism may or may not be “political” in the terms of New York or San Francisco gay politics. In Atlanta’s social context it often proves a courageous response as gay activists and AIDS activists articulate the specific meaning of politics in Atlanta’s (and the Deep South’s) culture. To equate religion only with homophobia and AlDSphobia distorts its role in the construction of local response to the crisis.
As for the sodomy law, it was (and is) clearly a barrier to the efforts of AIDS activists to educate Atlantans about safer sex. It served as an critical subtext to the “homosexual” as high-risk group. In stories that constantly linked sexuality with disease, to be a gay man with AIDS was to “admit” to breaking the sodomy law. As Haitians and hemophiliacs were withdrawn from the list of risk groups, that left homosexuals and IV drug users. In the state of Georgia, both are criminals. “Heterosexual AIDS” was almost always discussed in the context of prostitution, another criminalized activity. The “criminal status” of these groups served as a key justification for the abrogation of their rights to protect the law-abiding “general public.” For example, state Representative Billy McKinney’s quarantine, test-at-will bill was ultimately dropped because the state attorney general ruled that the Georgia already held such powers. This focus on “criminal” activity could also explain the tremendous interest in the issue of children with AIDS despite the very low incidence of actual cases. The establishment of a specter of criminality served to contain the original threat, our children living with AIDS in Georgia are not “criminals”—that is, in obvious violation of the law as a result of their HIV status—and the volume of stories about them in 1986 may represent the discovery of a new epidemic which could not be explained and contained by the original “risk-group” structure.
AIDS was not the only issue to raise the status of the sodomy statute. In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Georgia’s law in Bowers vs. Hardwick, a case which was wending its way through the lower courts in 1985. In a September 1985 article on sodomy law, AJC political editor Frederick Allen pointed out that “The new argument [in support of the sodomy law] ignores morality and asks whether certain homosexual practices, as a medically proven source of AIDS, constitute a public health menace.” The state of Georgia chose not to raise AIDS when it defended the law before the Supreme Court, although it was cited in amicus briefs. The consequences of the criminalization of sexuality (state law prohibits certain sexual acts, regardless of the genders of the partners) has had an enormous effect on Georgia’s response to the AIDS crisis. The Georgia example also demonstrates the importance of understanding the AIDS crisis regionally. To rely on California or New York solutions, where structural barriers like the sodomy law are absent, invites further failure. Strategies must address regional and local situations.
At the same time, this Atlanta AIDS history reveals some of the complications of region in the late twentieth century United States. The distinction between national and local is tenuous at best, and always in danger of disappearing. Local issues about the Atlanta chapter of
the American Red Cross and its blood supply are inseparable from the policies of the national American Red Cross. The Lester Maddox story was first reported by one of the national wire services with a New York dateline and carried in newspapers around the country. Even defining who is an Atlantan becomes confusing. Like most urban spaces, Atlanta has a mobile population of people from all over the country, and increasingly, the world. This is not to suggest that region is a concept inappropriate to such urban settings. Rather, it is to conclude that region can be illuminated as it illuminates. Clearly, it is critical to understanding the factors that structure the local experience of AIDS in Atlanta in order to create the most socially just response.
In the early and mid-1980s, The Atlanta Journal and Constitution told stories about AIDS which illustrate the struggle of a city to come to terms with a difficult new crisis. Though AIDS was new, it was experienced through historical ideologies of race, class, and gender, as well as sexuality and religion. To understand the process by which the crisis acquired meaning required not just an understanding of the present, but also an understanding of the past, of the social context. Understanding AIDS demanded a sense of history, of the ways in which Atlanta was a Southern city as well as a major metropolitan area. Unfortunately, it was just that sense of history that the leadership of the AJC tried to deny.
By the end of the decade, the AJC attempted to assume greater responsibility. In 1989, it ran a long feature called “When AIDS Comes Home,” recording “The Life and Death of Tom Fox,” an advertising-account representative for the paper. Like the recent film Philadelphia, this well-intentioned piece was designed to raise sympathy and awareness about the devastating effects of AIDS. Such pieces may represent the greatest achievements possible in the commercial media, which are not likely to feature the politics of angry street activists. What is most ironic, however, is that the feature brings AIDS home without a full accounting of what “home” means. What continues to be absent is any kind of analysis of how being in Atlanta affects the experience of AIDS. Over a decade into the AIDS crisis, we look back at the failures of the early responses to find ourselves facing many of the same issues. Though Atlanta shares many features with cities like San Francisco, New York, or Los Angeles, it is also a Southern city, with a history that provides special challenges and special resources. In the face of the ongoing crisis, it is time to account for what that identity means.
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Meredith Raimondo is a graduate student in Women’s Studies at Emory University. Her research seeks to bring cultural and historical perspectives to bear on AIDS in the South.
1. I surveyed the AJC’s local coverage of AIDS (stories which discuss some aspect of the AIDS crisis and Georgia including federal legislators but excluding the CDC) from January-July 1982, 1983-1986. Unless noted, all stories cited ran in this period.
2. Gary W. Shannon and Gerald F. Pyle. “The Origin and Diffusion of AIDS: A View from Medical Geography,” The Annals of the Association of American Geographers 79, 1 (March, 1989): 12.
3. Harlon L. Dalton, “AIDS in Blackface,” Dædalus 118, 3 (Summer, 1989): 210.
4. Ron Taylor, “Blacks High AIDS Risk Spurs Push for Warning Campaign,” Atlanta Journal and Constitution, October 5, 1986: D, 1:1, 8.