Niagara Gazette

Local News

July 8, 2011

AIDS IN NIAGARA: Looking back on area's first patients

NIAGARA FALLS — In the three decades of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, 1.7 million Americans have contracted the virus, including more than 2,700 Western New Yorkers and at least 265 people in Niagara County.

Despite widespread efforts to prevent the virus from spreading, there are always new victims. In 2008, the latest year for which statistics are available, 10 new HIV cases were reported in Niagara County. Here’s how it all began:

The first reports of the deadly new disease that seemed mostly to affect young gay men in San Francisco and New York came 30 years ago in the summer of 1981. But there were no cases of Acquired Immunodeficiency Disease Syndrome in Niagara County until it was reported during AIDS Awareness Week in July 1985 that two residents had contracted the disease.

A year later, those two plus one new additional victim had died.

These were days of panic and fear. There was no cure. No effective treatment. AIDS seemed to be a death sentence. By the end of 1986, Niagara County had a fourth AIDS patient. In Erie County, 15 of its 30 AIDS patients had died.

Authorities were scrambling to find ways to curb the disease, which they knew was spread through blood and bodily fluids. In 1987, the Niagara Falls Fire Department issued surgical gloves. Firefighters responding to accidents “have become aware of their vulnerability, and they’re becoming a little apprehensive,” said Deputy Fire Chief Robert Miller.

The only gay bar in Niagara Falls, the Crazy Horse Saloon, held an “AIDS Prevention Nite – Kill the Killer Disease,” on Feb. 28, 1987, giving away a condom with every drink.

“Safe sex – that’s what it’s all about,” said bar owner John Alquist. “People have this misconception that if you’re not in jail or gay, you can’t catch the disease.”

President Ronald Reagan that summer suggested mandatory HIV testing for immigrants and for couples getting marriage licenses. That idea met some skepticism and was never implemented. “When you get to that point, you may as well do mass screening,” said Dr. Steve Grabiec, who was then president-elect of the Niagara County Medical Society. “And I don’t think that’s practicable or desirable.”

Brent Nicholson Earle, who had been born in the Falls and grew up in Lockport, was a gay off-Broadway actor and playwright in New York who saw 70 friends and acquaintances die of AIDS. In March 1986, he set out on a 9,000-mile run around the perimeter of the United States to draw attention to the epidemic. It took him 20 months and he drew a lot of publicity. All over the country he got police escorts into towns and cities, but when he reached Lockport, the police refused. “Why?” he wondered. “Oh, I think it has to do with bigotry and prejudice against gay people.” But then as he set out down Transit Road into Lockport, then-Mayor Raymond C. Betsch and his son suddenly showed up and escorted him in. At City Hall, old childhood friends were waiting to cheer him, and the mayor issued a proclamation.

Earle, who learned in 1989 that he was HIV-positive, went on in 1990 to run from San Francisco to the Gay Games in Vancouver, and in 1994 from San Francisco to the Gay Games in New York. He’s been profiled in Parade magazine, and was named by People magazine as one of “20 individuals who shaped the ’80s.”

Today at age 60, he lives in New York and remains an AIDS activist.

Richard R. Haynes is a member of AmeriCorps/VISTA and is coordinator of the Niagara County AIDS Task Force, which is part of the Disease Prevention Department of the Health Association of Niagara County Inc.

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