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HIV/AIDS Crisis, 1981‒1997

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 ACT UP handbill

ACT UP handbill announcing a march against HIV/AIDS held at the Aquatennial in Minneapolis on July 18, 1990.

In 1981, AIDS was a mystery illness—a so-called “gay plague” because of its initial appearance among men who had sex with other men in large coastal cities like New York and San Francisco. Minnesotans breathed a sigh of relief, thinking they were far enough from the epidemic to be safe. But they were wrong.

The first inkling of an emerging epidemic came in the weekly report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on June 5, 1981. The article, which reported on trends in morbidity and mortality, identified five previously healthy gay men who had contracted a rare pneumonia.

The disease had already spread to Minnesota. St. Paul native Bruce Brockway was a gay activist and the publisher of the Twin Cities’ first gay newspaper: Northland Companion, later renamed Positively Gay and then GLC Voice when it was taken over by Tim Campbell. By July, Bruce already suspected he had AIDS. He was finally diagnosed in June 1982, making him the first documented Minnesotan with the disease.

Acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). HIV attacks the body’s immune system. When this happens, the infected person falls prey to a host of opportunistic infections that take advantage of the broken immune system.

HIV is transmitted through blood and other bodily fluids. In the United States, it initially appeared in men who had sex with men, IV drug users, and, before the invention of a test to screen for HIV, recipients of tainted blood transfusions, including hemophiliacs.

Brockway refused to take his diagnosis lying down. In April 1983, he co-founded the Minnesota AIDS Project (MAP), the state’s first grassroots organization set up to help people with HIV/AIDS. And they needed the help.

AIDS was worse than anyone could imagine. Sufferers succumbed to multiple complaints—swollen lymph nodes, oral thrush, night sweats, diarrhea, weight loss—while shuttling in and out of intensive care, fighting off yet more opportunistic infections. The end result was almost always death.

In addition to serious medical problems, people with HIV/AIDS had to deal with the stigma that came with a disease associated with homosexuality and drug use. Billy Runyon, another MAP co-founder, lost his job at a Minneapolis blood bank when his employer found out he had AIDS. He wasn’t alone. People with HIV/AIDS lost jobs, apartment leases, friends, and family. They were the subjects of accusatory religious sermons that framed HIV/AIDS as God’s judgment against gays.

Then there was the fear. Brockway and Runyon, along with their doctor, Frank Rhame, talked to print and TV journalists. Through interviews, they tried to dispel the rumors, among them the idea that you could get HIV from mosquito bites and from being in the same room as an infected person.

By the end of 1983, Minnesota had nine diagnosed cases. But that was only the tip of the iceberg. HIV has an incubation period of up to ten years. That meant that most Minnesotans with HIV didn’t know it yet.

By 1985, four years into the epidemic, people with HIV/AIDS were living longer because of improvements in treating infections. But there was still no cure. In response, a new organization set down roots: the Aliveness Project. The project’s focus was on living with HIV/AIDS, with the stress on living. While MAP helped with medical care, housing, and end-of-life needs, Aliveness provided opportunities for social gatherings. It offered tickets to concerts and plays. It hosted a food shelf and community meals.

One of Aliveness’s volunteer cooks was Bill Rowe, a chain-smoking, leather-wearing anthropology professor at the University of Minnesota. When regulars stopped showing up at the community meal because they were too sick, Rowe brought meals to their doors. This act of goodwill evolved into Open Arms, which enlisted a team of cooks and drivers to make food deliveries to homebound clients.

In 1983, San Francisco opened the first HIV/AIDS clinic in the world. Two years later, Dr. Keith Henry, newly arrived in Minnesota, opened Minnesota’s first HIV/AIDS clinic at St. Paul Ramsey Medical Center. In the same year, a test for HIV became available. When doctors diagnosed patients as HIV-positive at St. Paul’s sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) clinic, they could now immediately refer them to the nearby HIV/AIDS clinic for ongoing treatment.

The year 1987 witnessed Minnesota’s one hundredth death from AIDS. It also saw a monk retire from his work at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville to open the first AIDS adult foster home in Hennepin County. The monk, Brother Louis (Charles) Blenkner, rented a four-room house in South Minneapolis. He lived in one room and took care of the residents in the other three. He shopped, cooked, offered friendship, and provided medical care with the help of nurses and doctors.

For most of the epidemic, the spotlight had been on New York and San Francisco, where hundreds and then thousands of men and women were dying. But the media’s focus briefly shifted to the Twin Cities. On April 2, 1989, Hans Paul Verhoef, a Dutch HIV/AIDS educator, was detained at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Customs officers had discovered AZT, the first effective HIV drug, in his luggage.

It was at this moment most Americans learned that the US Congress had passed a travel ban on foreign travelers with HIV/AIDS. Verhoef had breached the law by not declaring his AIDS status before arriving in the US. He was jailed for five days and finally let go on a $10,000 bond and a promise to leave the country in three weeks.

Incidents like Verhoef’s detention enraged communities fighting HIV/AIDS. In 1987, a group of New York activists had formed ACT UP, which staged demonstrations to bring attention to the HIV/AIDS crisis. The Twin Cities chapter of ACT UP took up local causes, like the mistreatment of an HIV-positive inmate at the Minnesota Correctional Facility–St. Cloud, and participated in national actions. An ACT UP representative was among the community members who served as a review board for doctors running the HIV drug trials at the University of Minnesota.

The university’s drug trials program was part of a national network, the AIDS Clinical Trials Group, which streamlined the movement of potential HIV drugs from labs to volunteer test subjects. AZT had only worked for patients temporarily before the virus came roaring back. New drugs were needed.

By the end of 1995, 319,849 Americans had died of AIDS and over half a million were infected with HIV. And that was only in the United States. Those numbers made the search for a cure, or at least a way of managing the disease, desperate. By 1996, Michael Reinbold, a young Minneapolis man, had been living in the AIDS foster-care home Grace House for a year. He’d suffered a number of medical complications and was expecting to die at the home.

Later that year, however, a new drug cocktail became available. Researchers discovered that using three antiretroviral drugs together prevented HIV from reproducing inside the body. People with HIV/AIDS saw their health restored after taking the cocktail. The phenomenon of so many dying people suddenly returning to life was called the Lazarus effect. In 1997, Reinbold, with the help of his drug cocktail, became one of the first HIV/AIDS patients to walk out of Grace House alive.

Minnesota’s HIV/AIDS organizations are still relevant in the twenty-first century. So is HIV/AIDS. Though the disease is now a survivable chronic condition, the virus continues to spread, with thousands infected in Minnesota and tens of millions worldwide.

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“AIDS statistics in Minnesota.” Minneapolis GLC Voice, January 16, 1989.

AMFAR. Thirty Years of HIV/AIDS: Snapshots of an Epidemic.
https://www.amfar.org/thirty-years-of-hiv/aids-snapshots-of-an-epidemic

Campbell, Tim. “Bill Runyon’s Day for AIDS Awareness.” Minneapolis GLC Voice, March 3, 1986.

Campbell, Tim. “Bill Runyon Dies Following Tribute; Service Tuesday.” Minneapolis GLC Voice, March 17, 1986.

Campbell, Tim. “Bruce Brockway, Pianist, Sire of Gay Press in MN, Police Reporter, Friend of Refugees, Dies of AIDS.” Minneapolis GLC Voice, September 4, 1984.

Clare Housing. The Impossible Journey of Michael Reinbold.
https://www.clarehousing.org/front-door/impossible-journey

“Don Gillis Dies of AIDS.” Minneapolis GLC Voice no. 162, April 6, 1987.

“Dutch Person With AIDS Wins Waiver.” Minneapolis GLC Voice, April 17, 1989.

Emerson, Elizabeth. “AIDS/STDs.” In Public Health Is People: A History of the Minnesota Department of Health from 1949 to 1999, 338‒345. St. Paul: Minnesota Department of Health, 2009.
https://www.health.state.mn.us/about/history

“Falwell’s New Homophobic Campaign.” Minneapolis GLC Voice no. 269, September 16, 1991.

“Gay Councilman Brian Coyle Says ‘Bathhouse Must Go!’” Minneapolis GLC Voice, February 15, 1988.

JustUs Health. Our History: Formation of JustUs Health.
https://www.justushealth.mn/about-us/our-purpose/history

Louwagie, Pam. “Obituary: William Rowe: Anthropology Professor, Founder of Open Arms of Minnesota.” Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 12, 2016.

“Forced Testing, Contact Tracing, End to Medical Confidentiality, Record Keeping Coming to Minnesota.” Minneapolis GLC Voice, May 4, 1987.

Olson, Debra. “Monk Finds New Life Helping Men Fight AIDS.” St. Cloud Times, June 5, 1988.

Open Arms of Minnesota. Bill Rowe, Founder of Open Arms, Passes Away.
https://www.openarmsmn.org/bill-rowe-founder-of-open-arms-passes-away/

Strege, Debra. “1,112 + Dying with AIDS, Press Coverage Remains Sparse.” Minneapolis GLC Voice, March 21, 1983.

Zonana, Victor F. “Dutch AIDS Patient Freed, Travels to S.F.” Los Angeles Times, April 9, 1989.

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Related Images

 ACT UP handbill
 ACT UP handbill
Aliveness Project brochure
Aliveness Project brochure
Aliveness Project t-shirt logo
Aliveness Project t-shirt logo
Bill Rowe
Bill Rowe
Bruce Brockway at home
Bruce Brockway at home
Bruce Brockway at Minnehaha Falls
Bruce Brockway at Minnehaha Falls
Bruce Brockway and Rene Valdes
Bruce Brockway and Rene Valdes
Rural AIDS Action Network button
Rural AIDS Action Network button
Guerilla Theatre costume
Guerilla Theatre costume
ACT UP t-shirt designed by Keith Haring, mid-1980s.
ACT UP t-shirt designed by Keith Haring, mid-1980s.
Color image of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt at the Metrodome, 1988.
Color image of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt at the Metrodome, 1988.

Turning Point

In 1996, a triple anti-retroviral drug cocktail becomes available that turns HIV—and even AIDS—from a death sentence into a survivable chronic condition.

Chronology

June 1982

Bruce Brockway is diagnosed with AIDS and becomes the first documented Minnesotan with the disease.

October 1982

Minnesota records the first AIDS-related death in the state: a man who had recently moved from San Francisco.

April 1983

A group of gay men, including gay activist Bruce Brockway, found the Minnesota AIDS Project, a grassroots service organization established to help people with AIDS.

August 28, 1984

Bruce Brockway, a gay rights activist and Minnesota AIDS Project co-founder, dies of an AIDS-related brain lymphoma.

1985

Dr. Keith Henry directs the opening of the state’s first HIV/AIDS clinic at St. Paul Ramsey Medical Center (Regions Hospital).

1985

The Aliveness Project, begun as a support group, expands its mission to focus on the social wellbeing of people living with HIV/AIDS.

1986

The Minnesota Department of Health rolls out contact tracing, which makes it a mandatory policy to contact the sexual partners of Minnesota residents newly diagnosed HIV-positive.

1986

University of Minnesota professor Bill Rowe founds Open Arms to deliver meals to homebound people with HIV/AIDS.

March 13, 1986

Bill (often called Billy) Runyon dies of AIDS four days after the Minnesota AIDS Project, an organization he co-founded, hosts Bill Runyon’s Day for AIDS Awareness at local gay bars to promote safe sex and screen its new video “On the Safe Side.”

1987

Brother Louis (Charles) Blenkner, a Benedictine monk at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, opens Hennepin County’s first adult-foster-care home for people with HIV/AIDS in South Minneapolis.

May 25, 1987

Don Gillis, a Minnesota AIDS Project board member, is the one hundredth person to die of AIDS in Minnesota.

1987

The University of Minnesota is selected as one of the sites in the national network of AIDS Clinical Trials Group. Through the ACTG, experimental HIV drugs are tested on volunteer subjects.

1988

Brian Coyle, an openly gay councilmember, leads the Minneapolis city council in passing an ordinance banning gay bath houses, which some blame for the proliferation of HIV infections.

July 16, 1988

The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt is displayed at Minneapolis’ Metrodome for three days.

April 2, 1989

Minnesota makes national headlines when Hans Paul Verhoef, a Dutch HIV/AIDS educator, is detained at the Minneapolis‒St. Paul International Airport for violating the HIV/AIDS travel ban.