Thursday, September 16, 2010

On Oprah Returning to the Town That Closed a Public Pool (in 1987) Because an HIV+ Man Took a Dip

Yesterday, I was determined to watch Oprah. She was going back to the small town of Williamson, WV, where she'd done her show following the closing of a public swimming pool after an HIV+ man used it. I remember seeing this episode 23 years ago. I was a closeted college student at the time, and was worried that even watching the show would give hints to my sexual orientation, but I was determined to watch it.

Here is a trailer for the return show. It's interesting how some of those old feelings returned as I watched the show yesterday. The fear and hatred in that 1987 audience was as thick as pea soup, and I loved that Oprah brought back the folks who most stood out. It was also interesting to learn that one of Mike Sisco's sisters, and a child that he used to babysit have since come out of the closet, both of them citing Sisco as both a hero and an inspiration. Indeed he was. I would not have been brave enough to sit before my whole town the way he did. And I now wonder how many closeted people were in that audience either joining the mob or sitting silently in horror.

Of the guests who were particularly cruel to Sisco that Oprah brought back, only two of the three offered apologies to Sisco's family, and both, solid Christians I am sure, argued that compassion both for Sisco and his family was missing in that room 23 years ago. The remaining cruel guest, now a radio talk show host, spent most of his time on air trying to justify his prejudices, and everyone else in that room seemed to be aware of the fact that he was more sorry that he was seen in a bad light, than sorry about the basis for his vitriol.

It was a confusing time for me in the late '80s/early '90s. I was afraid to do anything, and that continued even after I came out in '93. Thankfully, I grew less concerned about what others thought, but the spectre of HIV haunted me for a long time, too long in my estimation. It certainly helped to have a cousin who is both gay and a doctor, and one who has dedicated his practice to helping those with HIV. I've learned so much from him and his patients over the years, and let the fear go.

That seemed to be the message that Oprah conveyed yesterday: the importance of letting go of fear. I am sorry that Mike Sisco did not make it to see Oprah return, and it would have been especially nice to see him confront that man who was "repulsed" by Sisco and "his lifestyle" (a phrase I loathe deeply). Personally, I am so glad that that fear from the late 80s has essentially gone, and "the gays" have moved more and more into the mainstream of American life. I wish that all of those who died from complications related to HIV, particularly the gay men, could be here now to see how far we have come.


Anonymous said...

Catching HIV in a swimming pool! You'd be hard pressed to find anyone who would support that claim.

In hindsight it seems obvious HIV isn't carried in water, or it would have spread wildly.

Hysteria and lack of understanding fueled a fire so nasty that stigma still stand tall.

Oprah did a public service with the original episode, as did her late guest for putting a face to a problem. The revisitation of what happened is precisely what we all need to see. Ugly moments are within all of us, and in all of our lives.

The world has come a long way since the original broadcast.

Miles to go...

Anonymous said...

Seems like a reasonable concern in 1987. The blood supply had been tainted. Better safe then sorry. Today, we know that it is unlikely, but there were a lot of unknowns at the time.

hscfree said...

At Anon #2: There was no evidence that Sisco was bleeding as he swam. Even then, it was pretty clear how one could contract the disease. If this were 1982-3, I might have been more sympathetic to the panic, barely. But by 1987, we'd been almost six years into the AIDS epidemic. So, I don't think the actions were, reasonable, even for the time.