Helms' Horrid Legacy

Former Senator's Damage Won't Be Undone by His Death

Although former North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms died last week, his hateful HIV/AIDS policies remain. If Helms had merely been all talk -- he once said of gay people, "It's their deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct that is responsible for the disease" of AIDS -- that would have been bad enough. But Helms' bigotry remains in the form of the U.S. travel and immigration ban for people with HIV/AIDS, and thousands of new infections that could have been prevented by sound sex education.

"His longterm legacy will have to be judged for what it was -- he willfully participated in the genocide of millions of people guided by religious fervor," said ACT UP's Eric Sawyer.

Immigration Ban Remains

The much-loathed HIV immigration and travel ban originated with Helms' 1987 amendment directing the Public Health Service to add HIV to its list of "dangerous contagious diseases." While the Health Service later proposed ending the ban, in 1993, Congress approved a measure that made the HIV immigration and travel ban law. Included in the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) reauthorization that has yet to pass the Senate is the HIV Nondiscrimination in Travel and Immigration Act that would allow the Department of Homeland Security to lift the ban.

Even if the ban is lifted, the memories of pain and suffering it caused will never be forgotten. Along with numerous immigration requests denied and conferences canceled, in the early 1990s, 270 Haitian refugees were detained in Guantanamo Bay for up to three years because of their HIV status. Finally in 1993, a judge ruled the camps violated three different immigration treaties, and the refugees were resettled in New York and Boston.

Another infamous "Helms Amendment" passed in 1989. After seeing a Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) pamphlet portraying anal sex (produced using private dollars), "Senator No" proposed an amendment banning federal funding for any AIDS education or prevention materials that would "promote or encourage, directly or indirectly, homosexual sexual activities" and attached it to a large spending bill so Dems wouldn't fight it (sound familiar to modern times?). When gay groups objected, a "compromise" was reached prohibiting federal dollars for all prevention promoting sexual activities. "Instead of just killing gays, we'll kill everyone," said CHAMP board member Walt Senterfitt. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) followed this Congressional order and set up board censors, who eliminated any picture of genitals, the anus, and safe or unsafe sex in any prevention materials.

GMHC sued, and on May 11, 1992, the U.S. District Court in Manhattan ruled that the CDC had overstepped its legal authority and the restrictions were unconstitutionally vague. But as Peter Lewis Allen wrote in his book The Wages of Sin: Sex And Disease, Past and Present, "There is no way to know precisely how many Americans died as a result of the Helms amendment and the CDC's content restrictions, but the numbers are likely to have been substantial. Hundred of thousands of Americans were probably infected with HIV between 1988 and 1992. Could effective education have prevented 10 percent of those infections? Five percent? Even if only one infection in a hundred could have been averted, the cost of sparing the country's moral sensibilities ranked in the thousands of lives."

Acting Up Against Helms

In 1991 Peter Staley and the newly-formed ACT UP affinity branch the Treatment Action Guerrillas (now the Treatment Action Group) had had enough of Helms' AIDSphobia. In the middle of the night Staley and seven other activists covered Helms' Arlington, Virginia home with a giant condom. Bankrolled by gay philanthropist David Geffen, the meticulously planned action earned international press and an angry denouncement by Helms on the Senate floor. "From what I can tell, he didn't do further damage as far as passing other laws on the AIDS front after that action," Staley said. Click here for Staley's recollections. Below is a video documentary of the action.

Too Little, Too Late

Helms was also a staunch opponent of the Ryan White Care Act, refusing to talk to Ryan White's mother (even when they were alone in the elevator) and he tried to block its reauthorization in 1995. As chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Helms long blocked funding for UNAIDS, but during his last year in office in 2002 Helms teamed up with Bono to address AIDS treatment in Africa, where the epidemic is largely spread by heterosexual sex, and coauthored a bill authorizing $600 million for international AIDS relief efforts.

ACT UP's Sawyer actually met Helms backstage at a Bono concert in 2001, and without mentioning his ACT UP pedigree, told the senator that as a person living with AIDS, he was thankful that Helms was addressing AIDS in Africa. Helms replied that Bono showed him some bible passages and convinced him God would judge for not preventing deaths.

But for Sawyer, this was too little, too late.

It made me realize he was human, but it also made me think, 'You dumb old codger. Isn't it interesting now that you've been diagnosed with cancer you thought about how God will judge?' There seemed a little bit of self-interest involved."

Despite the chorus of anger that Helms' death provoked, he was honored in North Carolina with an elaborate funeral attended by thousands including Dick Cheney, Cindy McCain and Sen. Joe Biden.