Monday, April 16, 2018

A Second Look at UNC Greensboro's Response to AIDS in the 1980's

LGBTQ history in the 1980s was dominated by the AIDS epidemic, but there is little information about UNC Greensboro’s students’ perspective of the epidemic. The Carolinian featured an article titled, “AIDS - The Mystery Killer,” surprisingly early in the epidemic’s history, 1983.[1] Major coverage in the student newspaper did not start until 1985, at which time the University of North Carolina system implemented a task force to address AIDS on campus. The number of students on the UNC Greensboro campus who were infected with the disease is unknown, but a 1986 article mentions “There was a case of AIDS detected on campus… and that student ‘had since left.’ Whether the student was asked to leave or left voluntarily was not specified.”[2] It should be noted that to protect the university in the event of potential legal liability, it was advised that if a student living in on-campus housing contracted AIDS, their roommate was to be informed, “preferably by the individual.[3]
The Carolinian, December 11, 1986, page 1

Institutionally, UNC system administration began addressing the AIDS epidemics across campuses beginning in 1985. All heads of universities were sent information published by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, providing basic information about the disease.[4] There is no singling out of gay men in the brochure, just an overview of the virus and how it spreads. One week later, William Friday, President of the UNC system, released an official summary of the Administrative Council accounting their meeting regarding the system’s proposal to address the AIDS epidemic.[5] The Administrative Council proposed the creation of a task force to address the epidemic, comprising representatives from all sixteen UNC campuses. This sixteen member task force was composed of four student health service physicians, four student affairs officials, four attorneys, and four health educators. UNC Greensboro had three representatives on the taskforce.[6] It was deemed by the Council that the primary responsibility of the Infectious Disease Advisory Committee was to develop and disseminate information about the virus and how it spread. The actual handling of AIDS cases on each campus would be the responsibility of the chancellors of each campus, but the system task force would provide expert advice and guidance as necessary.

Student Health Services at UNC Greensboro developed a preliminary policy for dealing with AIDS patients. This included procedures such as “advise the patient of possible social problems, particularly in residence halls, if it is known or rumored that he/she has AIDS” and “suggest that if he/she elects to remain in school that it might be in their best interest to consider residing off campus” due to the social consequences. The policy also clearly stated that AIDS victims (as they were described) would not be barred from classes, from using university facilities, or from public gatherings.[7] There is no mention of homosexuality in the policy.

Through most of the documentation relating to UNC Greensboro’s handling of the AIDS epidemic, there are surprisingly few mentions of homosexuality. Some of the materials acknowledged that the gay men fall into the high risk population for the virus, but emphasizes that,

“... this is not, in any endemic sense, a ‘homosexual disease.’ The disease did first gain a substantial foothold within that segment of our population, and its rapid spread among homosexual men is attributable, among possible factors, to certain sexual practices that constitute particularly efficient means of transmitting the virus. Thus, as in the case of Hepatitis B and Syphilis, AIDS is primarily a sexually transmitted disease, and for all such diseases there is a higher incidence among homosexual members of the population. AIDS has remained relatively confined to the population because its members constitute a relatively closed social and sexual grouping.”[8]

Documents, such as the one quoted above, demonstrated that UNC Greensboro officials wanted to curtail the condemnation of AIDS being a purely homosexual disease, not only simply to provide proper information, but also to avoid “the widespread anxiety that otherwise understandably attends discussion of this highly dangerous disease.”[9] In the handwritten minutes from the presentation of the President’s task force, it is indicated that they needed to “communicate that gay doesn’t = to AIDS… Gays already endure discrimination.[10] UNC Greensboro records indicate that the information released to the public was crafted with great intention to avoid negative incidences from occurring on campus, but the documents relating to what the task force and university officials discussed among themselves differed in tone.

One document titled, “Analysis of AIDS-Related Issues in the University Context,” while not overtly anti-gay, does single out the population. This document was used to guide members of the task force and university officials. One highlighted section reads,

“Viewed in the broadest possible precautionary terms, all members of a high risk group (e.g., homosexual males) ought to assume (in the absence of specific, current and definitive medical evidence to the contrary or in view of a counterindicative personal lifestyle) that they are infected with the AIDS virus, and those contemplating intimate contacts with members of such a group should proceed on the basis of the same assumption. This approach disregards (for purpose of maximizing prophylaxis) the fact that only a minority of homosexual makes in fact have been infected with the AIDS virus.”[11]

The message is clear; AIDS may not be a gay disease, but it is best to treat all gay men as being infected until they are tested. How this assumption played out in interactions with students on campus is unknown. There are no oral histories at present in which gay former-UNC Greensboro students discuss the AIDS epidemic on campus, and for any student who may have undergone testing for the disease, health records are confidential. Tragically, it must be noted also that any student who contracted AIDS during this time would be unlikely to be alive today.

Overall, UNC Greensboro’s response to AIDS in terms of providing information to educate students and staff was respectable, but there is no information as to how the epidemic unfolded on a personal level. There was no measurable form of assessment to judge the effectiveness of the campus’ educational resources.




[1] Bob Pearson, “AIDS - The Mystery Killer,”  The Carolinian, Nov. 22, 1983, UA42.4.01, Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, NC, USA.
[2] Firdous Bamji, “Senators Sworn in Tuesday,” The Carolinian, Feb. 20, 1986, UA42.4.01. Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, NC, USA.
[3] [Handwritten Notes from Task Force Meeting],  AIDS Notebook, MS, Office of the Provost Records, UA 3.1, Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives and Manuscripts, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, NC, USA.
[4] Allan W. Ostar, “Memorandum to Presidents & Chancellors of the State Colleges and Universities and Heads of State Systems,” Nov. 13, 1985, AIDS Notebook, MS, Office of the Provost Records, UA 3.1, Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives and Manuscripts, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, NC, USA.
[5] William Friday, “Memorandum to the Chancellors,” Nov. 20, 1985, AIDS Notebook, MS, Office of the Provost Records, 1922-2015, UA 3.1, Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives and Manuscripts, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, NC, USA.
[6] “AIDS Task Force,” MS, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Records, 1937-2015, UA 42.1, Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives and Manuscripts, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, NC, USA.
[7] “UNC-G Student Health Service Preliminary Policy for Dealing with AIDS Patients,” AIDS Notebook, MS, Office of the Provost Records, 1922-2015, UA 3.1, Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives and Manuscripts, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, NC, USA.
[8] “Guidelines for Campus Programs/Policies Re: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome,” AIDS Notebook, MS, Office of the Provost Records, 1922-2015, UA 3.1, Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives and Manuscripts, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, NC, USA.
[9] Dick Robinson, “Memorandum,” Oct.31, 1985, MS, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Records, 1937-2015, UA 42.1, Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives and Manuscripts, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, NC, USA.
[10] “Notes from the Presentation of the President’s Task Force on AIDS,” Feb. 11, 1986, AIDS Notebook, MS, Office of the Provost Records, 1922-2015, UA 3.1, Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives and Manuscripts, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, NC, USA.
[11] “Analysis of AIDS-Related Issues in the University Context,” MS, AIDS Notebook, Office of the Provost Records, 1922-2015, UA 3.1, Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives and Manuscripts, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, NC, USA.

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