“When I left the hospital, no one would come near me,” my now deceased friend Sharon said to me in the 1980s during the AIDS epidemic. “I got polio when I was 7, and people in my small Oklahoma town were scared as hell that they’d catch it from me. They wouldn’t hug me or touch a glass that I’d had a drink in.”
William G. Stothers, chair of the board of Post Polio Health International, contracted polio at age 10.
“They knew it was a virus, but they didn’t know what caused it or how to treat it,” Stothers, a former ombudsman and city editor with the “San Diego Union Tribune,” said in a telephone interview with the Blade. “Many people didn’t know that [polio] wasn’t contagious after the initial period of contagion had passed. They were afraid to hang out with me or my family. They nearly shut down our family’s hardware store.”
Cyndi Jones, Stothers’ wife, who got polio as a child, was a poster child with the St. Louis area March of Dimes. “One day, Cyndi’s at school,” Stothers said, “and the teacher holds up a poster with a picture of Cyndi with her crutches and another picture of a child without crutches. Underneath Cyndi, it said ‘not like this.’ Underneath, the other little girl, it said ‘like this.’”
To this day, Jones remembers the stigma that she felt when she saw that poster, Stothers said.
Why am I telling you this? Because, finally, (more than 30 years since it premiered at the Public Theater in New York City) a movie has been made of Larry Kramer’s iconic, searing play “The Normal Heart.” And the film of the same name, which premieres on HBO on May 25, reminds me yet again of the parallels that exist between the polio and AIDS epidemics (as well as between the stigma that people with polio and AIDS have, and continue, to encounter).
I’d never want to say that polio and AIDS, or ableism (disability-based prejudice and homophobia) are the same. “It’s not a perfect match,” Stothers said, “the fear factor with polio wasn’t homophobia.”
Yet, being queer and disabled (legally blind), and having known over several decades people with polio and AIDS, I can’t help but see connections in these communities. To begin with, many polio survivors and people with AIDS I’ve met have been scorned both by the culture at large and by their own groups. They’ve run up against discrimination in the workplace and in housing; been denied service everywhere from hospitals to restaurants and even turned away by houses of worship and funeral directors. At the same time, people with polio and with AIDS continue to be shunned by some within their own communities.
In “The Normal Heart,” Kramer castigated closeted gay people, including then-New York Mayor Ed Koch, who look away from and keep research funds away from people with AIDS.
Many people with polio tried to pass, Stothers said. “They didn’t want to associate with others with polio.”
I wasn’t surprised to learn that Dr. Linda Laubenstein, a pioneer in AIDS research in the early years of the AIDS epidemic, had polio. Laubenstein was one of only a few doctors then who treated people with AIDS.
“She is incredibly important in the history of AIDS … a real fighter for what she believed,” Kramer told “The New York Times,” when Laubenstein died at age 45 in 1992.
The character of Dr. Emma Brookner in “The Normal Heart” (Julia Roberts) in the HBO movie is based on Laubenstein. “Polio is a virus, too,” Brookner says in “The Normal Heart” to Ned Weeks, a character based on Kramer. “I scare the shit out of people …You’ve got to get out there on the line more than ever.”
Laubenstein and Kramer are among life’s few heroes. Check out HBO’s “The Normal Heart.”
Kathi Wolfe, a poet and writer, is a regular contributor to the Blade.