The New Untouchables

Anxiety over AIDS is verging on hysteria in some parts of the country

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But government efforts have not been without controversy. After a gay group began distributing Mother's Handy Sex Guide, an explicit manual on "safe sex," at Los Angeles bath houses, gay bars and clinics, Los Angeles County Supervisor Peter Schabarum denounced the eight-page brochure as "plain, hard- core pornography." Under his prodding, the Los Angeles County board of supervisors last month began to "review" its $1.1 million in funding for local gay community agencies.

More heartening is the example of San Francisco, one of the cities hit earliest and hardest by AIDS. (In the past month alone, 67 new cases were diagnosed, bringing the city's total since 1981 to 1,463.) There the scare stories have begun to disappear from the newspapers, and public panic has abated. "We're past the concern with casual contagion," says Holly Smith, spokeswoman for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation.

Last week San Francisco TV station KPIX aired an hour show called Our Worst Fears: The AIDS Epidemic, which carefully explained what is known about the disease. The program was watched by nearly a million people, the largest audience ever for a public-service broadcast in the Bay Area. The Westinghouse Broadcasting system aired the program in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Boston as well. Says Boston's WBZ-TV Station Manager Tom Goodgame: "The problem with AIDS is really two epidemics--the real health epidemic and the epidemic of the mind. We're trying to make some sense of the false rumors."

Nonetheless, the fear of the unknown that caused thousands of parents to keep their children home from school last week is bound to spread. After broadcasting a news story about the New York boycott, Memphis TV station WHBQ conducted a phone-in poll asking viewers, "Would you send your child to school with a child who has AIDS?" Results: 493 yes, 701 no.

The Queens neighborhoods where the boycott erupted are solid middle-class communities, very much like scores of neighborhoods all over the U.S. "I'm sure there are people in Tennessee who think this is just a big-city problem," said Mary Lorraine Napoli, who helped organize the boycott of P.S. 63. "But it's a worldwide problem. Why else have Swiss TV and the Canadian and Japanese press been here? It's not just our children we're worried about. It's everybody's."

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