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AIDS Leads to Stigma on Campus

By Barbara B. Depena and Brian A. Feldman, Crimson Staff Writers

Although numerous suites in Mather House continue to share adjoining bathrooms, Lorelee S. Stewart ’86 recalls an instance in which the dorm room design was deemed unacceptable: a room of straight male students refused to use the same facilities as their gay neighbors for fear of being exposed to AIDS.

“We were at Harvard, where people are very smart and are some of the brightest students in the United States,” she says. “I was very surprised that this was how people were behaving.”

Such tensions played out at both the local and national level as AIDS began to dominate the media and arouse public concern. While Massachusetts Governor Michael S. Dukakis approved a policy effectively prohibiting gays and lesbians from acting as foster parents, the U.S. Surgeon General asked the public to engage in frank and open discussions about the disease.

However, an incomplete understanding of AIDS transmission also polarized a fearful University and subjected both students and faculty to the consequences of stigmatization.


According to Stewart, AIDS became a public health concern at a time when the societal climate was still hesitant to accept the sexual orientation of gay and lesbian students. Stewart, who was an open lesbian, served as a co-chair of the Gay and Lesbian Students Association, and recalls that the organization’s sign was torn down by another student during an event.

“That [episode] gives you an idea of what it was like to be out at that point in time,” Stewart says. “It wasn’t comfortable. It could be a complete nightmare.”

Christiana H. Logansmith ’87—a former member of the naval ROTC—says that while she stands by a letter she wrote to The Crimson in 1986 defending the military’s policy of excluding students with the AIDS virus, the conversations she overheard as an undergraduate suggested the pervasiveness of homophobia on campus.

“I remember hearing discussions between male students,” she says. “One of them, who was a fundamentalist Christian, was not happy about having a gay roommate. He had a walk-through and he didn’t like that because he wasn’t sure what he was exposing himself to as he came in and out of the room.”

Although a growing body of medical research indicated that AIDS could not be spread through casual contact, misconceptions about the disease remained widespread. Gay and lesbian students, in addition to those who showed an interest in AIDS research and advocacy, were targeted.

Jonathan H. Mermin ’87-’88 took a year off to participate in a research group analyzing the policy ramifications of the burgeoning disease. This work was met with skepticism by his peers, he says.

“I remember people asking me why I was working with HIV and having at least one roommate who was embarrassed about my research,” Mermin says. “There were still so many questions about whether AIDS was caused from an infectious agent or whether it was caused by something else.”

Mermin said that many people who were HIV positive were forced to deal with discrimination and stigmatization while also trying to cope with the realities of the disease.

“People were fearful about not knowing everything,” Stewart says. “A lot of people worried that [researchers] would discover something else about AIDS later on. No one wanted to take any chances.”


Even before the AIDS crisis reached a fever pitch in the mid-1980s, researchers began to notice the increased frequency of the new and mysterious infection.

At the time, only the Center for Disease Control outranked Harvard in the number of scientists involved in AIDS research.

Harvard School of Public Health Professor Myron E. Essex first became involved in AIDS research after the CDC noted the disease’s growing prevalence.

Essex says that many research teams drew from their areas of expertise to explore the pathology of the virus.

“A lot of discussion was about what the cause might be and ... different groups starting to work on different hypotheses,” Essex says.

Drawing from his background in virology, Essex’s team theorized that the disease was rooted in infected T4 blood cells.

Meanwhile, Harvard Medical School Professor Martin S. Hirsch began researching the development and spread of HIV in 1981.

“I would say that our biggest contribution in the field was developing therapies and particularly the concept of combination therapies of HIV infection,” Hirsch says.

Medical School Professor Jerome E. Groopman says he remembers that period vividly.

“[We] were very committed in terms of AIDS,” he says, adding that researchers were concerned not only with the physiological effects of AIDS, but also the “discrimination, stigmatization, and profound misunderstanding of the disease.”

Even for researchers at the Medical School and School of Public Health, the anxiety stemming from the unknown was nearly palpable.

“There was fear—and an understandable fear—that one was dealing with a virus and nobody was quite sure what the virus was,” Hirsch recalls.

And even among the medical community, prejudice was a factor.

“There were physicians who didn’t want to see the patients or operate on the patients,” Hirsch says. “And they didn’t want laboratories next to their own laboratories that were doing research on AIDS.”

Groopman says that a homophobic culture and unfounded fears about potential contamination contributed to wariness within the medical community about treating AIDS patients.

“There were a lot of institutions that really didn’t want to care for these patients,” Groopman says.

In addition to the stigma attached to being gay, and uncertainty about the pathology of AIDS, Essex says that an early source of trepidation was the mystery of how the disease was transmitted.

“Not knowing at the time that it would be only sexually transmitted—as opposed to aerosol—generated a lot more fear [and enhanced] the discrimination that was then going on against the gay community,” Essex says.

According to Groopman, few in the medical community were willing to take a proactive stance in combatting AIDS.

“It required the personal commitment, both for laboratory scientists as well as clinicians including myself and Martin Hirsch, who said, ‘Yes, these are people who are very ill and suffering. We have limited treatments but we’re committed to helping them, and then we’re going to embark on a real effort to figure out what causes the disease and how to potentially limit it,’” Groopman says.


AIDS researchers and former Harvard students say there have been tremendous strides in both AIDS treatment and tempering the social stigma attached to the disease.

“The biggest difference between now and then is that AIDS was new ... and it was a death sentence. People who caught it died quickly,” Logansmith says.

Peter D. Gadol ’86, who helped organize an arts benefit for AIDS research as an undergraduate, adds that the current environment for gay and bisexual students is much more welcoming than the one that he encountered as a student.

“It’s not the same world. It’s interesting how, in many ways, the coming-out experience, which is very powerful to gay people, remains a vital moment,” he says. “There’s no doubt that the world is a different place than it was 25 years ago.”

However, according to Mermin, this is not a reason to underplay the consequences of the disease.

“There is almost a sense of complacency in the American public,” he says. “Twenty years ago there was more fear and stigma than the disease deserved, but now we have too few resources than are necessary to make a maximum difference.”

—Staff writer Barbara B. DePena can be reached at —Staff writer Brian A. Feldman can be reached at

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