In early 1986, Hospice of the Piedmont needed help with a patient who had less than a month to live. The organization’s purpose, then and now, is to care for terminal patients, but this patient had AIDS, and AIDS patients were different.
By the end of 1984, there were 10 reported AIDS cases in Charlottesville, 42 in Virginia. A year later, the total number in the state had jumped to 102, and Hospice board member Jim Heilman began pondering the idea of a group devoted solely to their treatment. Given the hysteria and fear surrounding the disease, as well as how quickly and miserably the patients died, AIDS cases required a special kind of care. When a particularly horrific case came to the door in 1986, Heilman called Blaise Spinelli, a 36-year-old med tech at UVA, and asked him if he wanted to help.
The patient was a young man in his mid- to late-20s, living outside of town with his sister and her husband in a rundown house with holes in the walls. The sister and the husband both worked, leaving no one to look after him during the day. When Spinelli walked into the room, he saw a head, a skull really, lying on a pillow, and below that nothing. His body was so thin the sheets were barely wrinkled.
“I remember you,” the young man said. “I used to see you at the bars.”
The development of an effective treatment for AIDS was still far in the future, and people were trying anything: prayer, acupuncture, bone marrow transfusions, even drinking urine. The man wasting away on the bed was being given chemotherapy, which did nothing except leave him vomiting into a trash can. Spinelli sat next to him and gave what comfort he could, which wasn’t much.
That night, when he got back to the farm he shared with his partner, Spinelli wanted to wash his hands forever, to scrub his skin until it was raw. The window opposite the patient’s bed looked out over a graveyard. In two weeks the young man would be dead; for now, all he could do was gaze out at the rows of tombstones.
“I’m not sure I’m up to this,” Spinelli thought.
Word on the street in the ’70s was that The Virginian, a popular restaurant that’s been on the Corner since 1923, was gay-friendly. When they moved to town in June of 1976, 24-year-old Joan Schatzman and her girlfriend headed straight there, spotted three lesbians sitting at a table, bought some beers, and sat down.
Despite the promising introduction, Charlottesville was very different from Boston, where Schatzman lived before moving down South. Boston had overt gay bars, gay neighborhoods, even an openly gay state senator in Elaine Noble; Charlottesville had none of these things.
There were places in Charlottesville back then that were gay-friendly, or at least places where gays and lesbians could go and dance and not worry about being bothered. In addition to The Virginian, there was Brianna’s, a jazz club down Route 29 South, Oasis nightclub on 250 East, and the occasional dance at Newcomb Hall put on by UVA’s Gay Student Union. There were other places you could go and dance, but you wouldn’t want to be seen holding hands with your same sex partner.
Schatzman was out and proud when she arrived in Charlottesville, but the same wasn’t true for most of the people she met. Compared to other liberal, college towns, Charlottesville was fairly conservative, with a largely covert gay community hidden amongst the professorial ranks at the University, encountered at upper middle class dinner parties or private gatherings in the county.
“You had to get lucky,” Schatzman said. “And meet somebody who could give you entrée into the fragmented circles.”
The idea of opening a gay bar in Charlottesville seemed crazy to pretty much everyone. It was one thing to hang out together at certain places, to wink and nudge and let whispers carry the word to those who needed to hear it, but opening a place that was just plain gay, no bones about it, was a different story. Everyone in the scene shared the general belief that the redneck hordes gathered just outside the town walls would attack, break the windows, paint the walls with slurs. Everyone except Schatzman.
She quit her job counting bottles at the Pepsi Cola plant, used her severance pay to rent a house just off the Downtown Mall on Water Street, and opened a gay bar called Muldowney’s Pub.
Except it wasn’t a gay bar. It couldn’t be, not in Virginia in 1980. For one thing, the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control had and still has, a problem with bars; if you want to serve alcohol, you must counteract its sinfulness by serving food, so Schatzman found herself becoming an accidental restaurateur.
But the ABC also had a problem with gays. At the time, Section 4-37 of the ABC rules and regulations read: “… a bar’s license may be suspended or revoked if the bar has become a meeting place and rendezvous for users of narcotics, drunks, homosexuals, prostitutes, pimps, panderers, gamblers or habitual law violaters…”
And Section 4-98: “…forbids a licensee from employing any person who has the general reputation as a prostitute, homosexual, panderer, gambler, habitual law violater, person of ill repute, user of or peddler of narcotics, or person who drinks to excess or a ‘B-girl.’”
Although rarely enforced, the rules not only made gay bars illegal in Virginia, they effectively made it illegal for gay people to drink in any bars at all. It wasn’t until a 1991 lawsuit against the ABC forced the matter into a U.S. District Court that the anti-gay regulations were deemed unconstitutional and struck.
Schatzman knew the rules, and while she didn’t advertise Muldowney’s as being gay, every gay person in town knew what it was. She didn’t worry about the possibility that she might be breaking the law. How could anyone prove she was “knowingly” serving homosexuals? Opening the bar, she felt, was a form of civil disobedience.
Muldowney’s was, Schatzman said, “straight ’til eight,” serving turkey sandwiches and Chicago style chili to anyone who came in, with free delivery on the Downtown Mall. But after 8pm, the kitchen closed and the music started, and Muldowney’s became, for all intents and purposes, Charlottesville’s first gay bar. The place was tiny, a dive really, and 50 people were enough to fill it. The restaurant hosted live bands and gay comedians, and there was always a DJ and dancing.
Originally, Schatzman wanted to open a lesbian bar, but Charlottesville didn’t have enough lesbians to make that financially feasible, so Muldowney’s became a place where everyone was equally welcome, gay men and women more equally than others. Charlottesville also had a surprisingly large, but hidden, drag scene, and so Saturday night became drag night. Later, near the end of its run, Muldowney’s began to host punk shows, because like drag queens and gays, Charlottesville’s punks often found themselves without a place to call their own.
There were fights at Muldowney’s, but no gay bashing. The feared redneck hordes never arrived, although some of their members did, surreptitiously, not to gay bash…but to be gay themselves.
America celebrated its bicentennial in the summer of 1976 with huge parties in every major city. New York’s harbor filled with ships and sailors from all over the world, a moment captured in Randy Shilts’ book And the Band Played On. Shilts theorized that this was when AIDS first arrived on our shores, spreading from the sailors to the men they had sex with on shore, as New York’s thriving gay community threw a giant party, unwittingly toasting the last heady days of innocence.
Blaise Spinelli had been kicked out of his parents house at 19, after a shrink failed to cure his homosexuality with pictures of naked men and a cattle prod, and ended up in Washington, D.C., living in the gay village of Dupont Circle, in a commune with members of the Gay Liberation Front.
For seven years, his life had been a mix of glittering fun and radical politics, but by 1976 most of his friends were heading for San Francisco, and Spinelli was tired of being defined by his sexuality. He was ready for a change, and in the midst of the bicentennial craziness, he found it in a beautiful young man who was in town to celebrate the end of his undergraduate degree at UVA.
“It was one of those magical relationships,” Spinelli said about his time with Michael. “I was 26 years old. I guess it’s always magical when you meet someone when you’re 26.”
Spinelli moved to Michael’s hometown, Charlottesville, a place that seemed to him like it had no gay life at all. But that was O.K. He’d had enough of all that; he had Michael, and they were happy.
When, in 1981, the first reports began to filter in about a new disease that seemed to be targeting gay men, Spinelli took notice. Social activism was part of his fabric, part of life as he knew it growing up in the ’60s and ’70s. He started posting news reports and fliers at Muldowney’s, warning people that there was something going on, something that seemed to be coming after them.
The disease was called GRID at first, Gay Related Immune Deficiency, and although Spinelli and a few of his friends watched with growing interest, most people paid it no attention. There was no test yet, and wouldn’t be until 1985. The only sign was the appearance of rare illnesses in otherwise healthy young men, illnesses that a normal immune system would have easily destroyed but that had begun to mean certain death.
The first cases of AIDS in Charlottesville almost certainly went unrecorded, slipping by as anomalies before anyone knew what to look for. The first known AIDS case at UVA hospital was in May of 1982, making it one of the first in the state. By then, Spinelli was working in the lab at the pathology department, analyzing blood and bodily fluids. When he heard about a formal presentation, or Grand Rounds, on the first local case of the new disease, he made sure to attend. Here it was, this thing he’d been posting warnings about at Muldowney’s. It had finally come to town.
The Grand Rounds was held in one of the hospital theaters, a circle of chairs arranged around a stage where the white-robed chorus of doctors performed their clinical drama. In the old days, the patient might have been on stage with them, but by now the cases were kept anonymous. Even so, Spinelli knew who the patient was. It was a small town, with an even smaller gay scene.
Sitting in the room, he felt afraid.
“This is a time bomb going off here,” he thought. “This is going to be an epidemic.”
There were six known cases of AIDS in Virginia in 1982, four of which were at UVA. Over the next two years, 63 more cases would be reported in Virginia, 11 in Charlottesville.
Afraid to enter patients rooms, hospital workers would leave food trays on the floor outside the door, careful to avoid touching the used forks when they picked them up afterwards. Spinelli didn’t like it, but he understood. People were afraid, because they didn’t know what was happening. No one did.
Spinelli had friends in D.C., California, Texas—friends all over who would call and give reports of the disease in their city, of who was in clinics and who was dying. He called his friend Bob, a lawyer still living in D.C., and told him to be careful. It was a strangely quiet phone call, with Spinelli doing most of the talking. A few days later, Spinelli got the call that Bob was dead; he’d been too ashamed to admit he already had it.
Schatzman started seriously hearing about AIDS around 1984. It was still considered a “gay disease,” something whispered about in fear and shame. Although the first female cases had been reported the year before, they were all contracted via sex with men. It would be awhile before the fear began to spread through the lesbian community. But she realized that the disease was impacting Muldowney’s, as more and more of the men who came to dance began coming down with AIDS. By the end of the ’80s, most of them were dead.
In June of 1985 Schatzman sold Muldowney’s. It had been a lot of fun, and she was proud of what she’d created. But being a restaurant owner had never been her dream. Several months later, Spinelli got the call from Hospice of the Piedmont about the AIDS patient they didn’t think they could handle.
If they couldn’t, who could? There was no outside group to act as advocates for the victims, many of whom had been disowned by their families. Others hadn’t even told their families they were gay yet, let alone that they were dying. How do you make that phone call? “Mom, dad, I have to tell you something. And then I have to tell you something else …”
That winter, when Spinelli went to see the hospice patient—saw his skeletal body under the sheets, saw the tombstones outside the window—he was frightened. But he was also angry. He and Michael got together with Jim Heilman and Wynne Stuart, and the four of them created the Aids Services Group of Charlottesville.
ASG began with 13 people meeting at Muldowney’s, including members of the Gay Men’s Health Clinic in D.C. who’d agreed to train its nascent staff. Every week the number grew as UVA students, local doctors, and others showed up wanting to volunteer. By July of 1987, ASG was officially recognized by the state of Virginia, with Kathy Drabkin as its first director and 75 clients from Charlottesville and the surrounding counties. In the first year, the budget increased from $1,000 to $100,000. By 1989, ASG had 75 volunteers and a permanent staff of six. That year, the number of U.S. AIDS cases reached 100,000.
AIDS is a thread that winds back through all of modern gay life. It very nearly destroyed the gay community, but the fight against it made the community stronger than ever before. Before AIDS, gay pride meant sexual freedom and a public identity; afterwards it meant political activism, as the focus shifted away from the fight to define a lifestyle, towards a fight for the right to live, and in many cases, to die with dignity.
In a way it was AIDS that made marriage equality the central issue it is today.
Getting married had always been something straight people did, and being queer and proud of it meant rebelling against the straight world as much as possible. But then came this plague, and gays found themselves turned away from their partner’s hospital rooms, watching as their loved one’s property was taken by the same families that had previously disowned them.
ASG was the model for all other AIDS groups in the state. With a budget currently over a million dollars, it covers what’s called the Thomas Jefferson Health district: Charlottesville/Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa and Nelson, but also Staunton, Waynesboro, Harrisonburg, and wherever else it’s needed.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that out of every group of 100 people with H.I.V., only 28 are on meds and receiving steady treatment. The rest are wandering through the wilderness of modern health care, perhaps getting some treatment, perhaps getting none. Twenty out of every 100 are lost completely, unaware that they carry the virus. There are roughly 1,000 people in ASG’s immediate area with H.I.V. or AIDS, and ASG is actively engaged with about 225 of them. That’s only 23 percent being treated, below the CDC’s national average of 28 percent. ASG’s ever-elusive goal is to reach those 775 remaining people.
“I was talking to a younger gay guy recently,” said Peter DeMartino, the current executive director of ASG. “And I started talking about the history of AIDS and the history of ASG, and he was like, ‘Wow. Thank you for sharing that.’ I was like, ‘You’re 30, you really don’t know this?’ and he was like, ‘No.’”