The New Untouchables

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

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Some AIDS victims endure their ostracism with remarkable grace. A 34-year- old Memphis man, who has requested anonymity, whiles away his hours playing contract bridge at the M.A. Lightman Bridge Club. When other club members learned that he had AIDS, they began to avoid him. The management forced him to wear rubber surgical gloves. "I don't like this reaction because I happen to be the brunt of it," he says, "but I do understand it. A lot of people in the club are older, and they simply don't know how to take it. Their doctors have not helped by telling them not to get close to me." His presence "has been a nuisance," sighs the club director, Nate Silverstein, "even though he's been very, very nice about it. Personally, if people treated me the way they do him, I wouldn't show my face around this club , anymore."

Many nurses and doctors have shown courage and compassion in caring for AIDS patients. But in big-city hospitals, patients are sometimes left unwashed, lying in their excrement, their food trays stacked outside the door. In Plainfield, N.J., Doris Williams, the foster mother of a four-year-old girl, recalls that nurses at first held and cooed over the child. "But as soon as we got the AIDS diagnosis, they were dressed up like 'Ghostbusters' in gloves and masks."

Dentists are especially reluctant to treat AIDS victims. So great is the fear that some dentists have taken to wearing surgical gloves and masks with all patients. In some California communities, fire fighters and lifeguards use special equipment for mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Those who help AIDS sufferers sometimes become the targets of intimidation and violence. In the past month, the Edmund D. Edelman Health Center of the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center in Los Angeles has received three bomb warnings, and its director, Hugh Rice, has been threatened with death. Just over a week ago, a carload of people threw a vial of acid at a woman employee, burning her face, shoulder and arm. The victim said one of her attackers screamed, "Die, you AIDS faggots!"

Many gay activists fear that the stigma of AIDS will wipe out almost two decades of progress in homosexual rights. Tales of AIDS-related homophobia abound: in New York City, some diners avoid restaurants that have gay waiters. In Washington, D.C., a doctor requires gays to be tested for AIDS before he will give them hair transplants. In Louisville, city detectives donned rubber gloves before entering a gay bar to check for underage drinkers. Says Ken Vance, director of a gay counseling center in Houston: "It's going to get worse before it gets better. As more people become aware of AIDS, there will be a bigger backlash against gays."

The fear and uncertainty have at least in some cases spurred more public funding for research, care of AIDS patients and education programs. In Massachusetts, Governor Michael Dukakis has budgeted $1.8 million for AIDS education. The federal appropriation for AIDS research has jumped from $5.5 million in 1982 to $106.5 million this year. And last week the Administration acknowledged the gravity of the disease when Vice President George Bush told the San Francisco Chronicle that AIDS was a "critical epidemic."

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