- Mothers Against Jesse in Congress:Grassroots Maternalism and the Cultural Politics of the AIDS Crisis in North Carolina
On the morning of May 15, 1990, while Rose Vaughn Williams vacationed with her husband at Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, she received a call that she had been dreading for months. Her mother was on the phone, explaining that Rose’s brother had died early that morning. Mark Vaughn had been diagnosed with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) several years before and had been seriously ill for the last eighteen months. In haste, Rose packed her suitcase and drove the three hours from Atlantic Beach to Raleigh to be with her mother. As she made her way to her childhood home, where Mark had been bedridden and on hospice care, Rose thought about her brother’s struggle with AIDS. In the months before he died, the disease had taken an insurmountable physical toll, causing incontinence, blindness, and paralysis. She thought about her mother, Eloise Vaughn, who had been by her brother’s bedside—in the room where he had grown up—during the worst days of the disease and on the morning he died. In the car, Rose had the stereo tuned to National Public Radio (NPR). By coincidence NPR was covering a debate in the United States Senate over a bill that she was closely following. Known then as S.2240, the bill proposed to provide low-income AIDS patients with improved availability of care. As she drove to Raleigh, the very senator who represented her state took the floor to express his concerns about the bill that would eventually be called the Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act, known more commonly as the Ryan White CARE Act.1 [End Page 107]
Jesse Helms was six months away from being reelected by the people of North Carolina to a fourth term in the U.S. Senate in what would be a nail-biter election.2 Helms began his remarks on the Senate floor that day by promising to “try to be brief.” For the next half hour Helms criticized S.2240 and the people it proposed to help. He accused Senate colleagues who supported the bill of falling prey to the lobbying efforts of the “so-called homosexual community,” a term that Helms admitted was the “nicest possible description” he could muster for gays. Then Helms stated for public record that he had received threats from the “homosexual community” and that the Capitol Police had suggested he be escorted at all times by a bodyguard. Helms had refused the protection.3
The senator from North Carolina spent the majority of his time on the floor theorizing that AIDS did not touch the lives of North Carolinians. According to Helms, a cabal that included the media, homosexual activists, “Hollywood,” and colluding politicians had “elevated AIDS into a political issue totally out of proportion to its medical impact on the people of this country.” “The bottom line,” Helms claimed, “is that Greensboro, NC, or Indianapolis, IN, or rural Texas will never have an AIDS outbreak like San Francisco.” Helms’s conclusion was clear; AIDS did not affect North Carolinians, at least none whom he knew. The few innocent, heterosexual bystanders who had contracted AIDS were victims of a disease spread by “promiscuous homosexual[s]” who “engage in illegal and immoral activities” and whose only purpose in supporting the proposed bill was “to proselytize a dangerous lifestyle.” In Helms’s view, even Ryan White, a teenaged hemophiliac who had contracted HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) through a blood transfusion and was suspended from his Indiana school, was being unwittingly used by gay activists to win sympathy for AIDS patients. The namesake of the proposed bill, “bless his heart,” Helms eulogized, was “a courageous little fellow, who died of AIDS on Palm Sunday.” Helms suggested that White and his parents—who had buried their son barely one month prior—had [End Page 108] become dupes in a subversive scheme “to feed the appetite of a movement which is not going to be satisfied until the moral and social fabric of this Nation has been irreparably changed.” Helms concluded by...