Terri Wilder: Do you remember the first time you heard about AIDS?
Jewel Thais-Williams: Yes, I do, vividly. We opened a second Catch One in Houston. We had drag shows, which were prominent in those days. And it was the night that one of the hostesses was to come in and perform, as well as have the show. Her name was April, and she didn’t show, and she never did that. She had always been ahead of time. And so then the others start to show up, and someone knew that she was in the hospital. They said she had pneumonia and she had been there for almost a week now, and she wasn’t getting any better.
And I said, “OK, well, you know, keep me posted, let me know what’s going on.” And a couple of weeks went by, and there were maybe one or two others had pneumonia, and they were hospitalized and still hadn’t recovered or gotten any better, for that matter. And shortly after that, she passed away—but nobody knew the name, then, of AIDS. And as far as we all knew, she had pneumonia and passed from that, as well as a couple of other folks who got pneumonia. And within a few weeks, the news came out. It was this epidemic, especially among gay men, that was sweeping across the nation and areas where there was a large gay population. And nobody knew what it was or where it came from.
TW: So tell me about the 1980s and what was happening about AIDS in your area. April was probably the first person you knew with the disease, but what happened after that? Were people scared? Did they rally around what was happening in your community?
JTW: After closing down the club in Houston so I could focus on the one in LA, I had been flying back and forth in the meantime, but I had to come home, because I was hearing the same pneumonia story from folks here in Los Angeles. So when I got back, there was some fear. But one of the things about the nightclub, the disco, was that people had always come there, could keep whatever else was going on with their lives and come here. So you didn’t get a lot of examples of fear or concern at first. Because they were out, it was kids who had been put out [of their homes], and they were disenfranchised already, and ostracized and all of that, because of their gayness. But as time went on, and especially for those that the kids had named “bathhouse queens,” were getting it in record numbers just every week, maybe even more frequently than that, somebody was being hospitalized with it. So that was the ’80s, and it was towards the end of the ’80s that it was at its height, heading into the early 1990s. It was like almost 10 years before the real explosion happened. It was in 1987 or so, was the spring when Archbishop Carl Bean—who had started the first gay church—and I got together with some other folks and decided to start the Minority AIDS Project. Because initially, it was thought that it was just a white gay man’s disease.
I have a couple of stories to share with you. One was like a brother to me. His name was Henry. He also worked as a bartender for me at the Catch. And we were talking to other folks once I knew what it was and how it was being transmitted, you know, in regards to the safety of what it is that they were doing sexually. And then one day after the epidemic was about maybe a couple of years old, Henry, who I had talked openly [with] about sex, he said that he didn’t do certain things that he thought was what caused it, but he was also a heavy drinker. So there was times when he passed out or whatever. Sometime during this process, he started to feel some of the symptoms that his friends, colleagues, and club boys had experienced before. He was on his way to have a check-up and see. He said, “I don’t know, with them talking about—I didn’t do anything. I shouldn’t have it.” I asked him again if he wanted me to go to where they were doing the testing with him. And he said, “Girl, I’ll be all right.” So he went off on his way. And about an hour or two later, he came back and said, “Well, sister, I got it.” That was the first time that anybody that close—you know, you have customers and you have acquaintances in there. But one of my closest friends.
So that, that was tough. And so over the next six months, nine months, I don’t even remember exactly how long it was. Then I went to see him. And he was from a large family, so several of his sisters were starting to take care of him. And so I would still go by, it’d be once or twice a week, and check on him and call him on a daily basis.
TW: What was your reaction when he came back from the doctor’s appointment and he said, “I’ve got it”?
JTW: I remember, I gave him a hug, and I’m one of those people, very few things shock me. They didn’t have a lot of expectations about outcomes. But when he said that, you know, by that time, a lot of other folks had been getting diagnosed, and some of them died, a great many of them had died. And so I just gave him a hug, and I told him it didn’t have to be a death sentence. And that we could fight it. We lost the fight. He lost the fight, he did succumb.
TW: Did he get sick pretty quickly?
TW: How long from his diagnosis did he have to stop working?
JTW: Probably a few weeks, maybe. No more than two or three months. Because, when he got symptoms that he felt like he needed to go get tested, he had probably had those for a while, too. Like some diseases, it affects different people in different ways. So I don’t really know. And evidently, he doesn’t know the person from whom he had contracted the disease either.
TW: So you helped cofound the Minority AIDS Project. Why did you decide to get involved in that way?
JTW: Well, most of my customers were guys. In fact, the first four or five years after I had opened The Catch in Houston and LA, it was mostly guys, and one of the things that the virus did, one of the things that happened to the population coming to the club was that women started to come more. Straight women that had gay friends, you know the industry in Hollywood, with acting and dancing and dancers and all that stuff. So there was a lot of straight women as well as lesbians that started coming to the club with their friends who contracted it. It was an open space for them to come and dance and have fun. I’m not saying that every guy did this, but they still wanted to party and have a good time. So they showed up at the club.
TW: So tell me some of the things that the Minority AIDS Project was able to do, and your involvement in it.
JTW: We were able to contact the state—well, she wasn’t even our assemblywoman, but Maxine Waters was there to help us out, and she knew the funding coming to the Black gay community didn’t exist then. And then when the guys would go to the AIDS organizations and they weren’t given proper treatment and a referral and all of that. So I hooked up with the Minority AIDS Project, and with that came Dr. Wilbert Jordan, he was one of the first physicians to treat AIDS and HIV. He would go down to Mexico and get interferon, because that was the treatment that seemed to work best. The AZT, most Black guys were allergic to it and didn’t get any kind of help from that. So it wasn’t until the newer drugs came out that they were able to get relief. But anyway, we started the Minority AIDS Project to provide services for our community. And it was a partnership with the Unity Fellowship of Christ Church, which was the first Black church for lesbians and gays. And it came out of a need to serve the folks in our community.
TW: Were people supportive of your involvement in HIV, or did anybody ever criticize you about it?
JTW: Not to my knowledge. I guess because of the club, [I] kind of operated in the security of that. And so, you know, the criticism about it being a gay club and all that—it’d been a gay club since the ’70s, which is when I first opened it. The biggest criticism came from the straight Black churches, but they never accosted me directly.
TW: What do you mean? They didn’t want you to take care of people with HIV? Is that what you mean?
JTW: Right. And when the Bush presidency was in, they started this faith-based AIDS program, which meant that there was still no services of consequences reaching the population that it was supposed to reach. Because at the church, you know, gays were sinners, and it wasn’t going to happen. So you can imagine. And once they got the money, they did not in most cases go to help out in the neighborhood.
TW: So you owned a very famous club, and it was very popular, and you had celebrities end up coming to your club and performing. Because you were such a successful businessperson, were you able to use your club’s notoriety and your connections to raise money for HIV? Did you ever use the space for a support group?
JTW: We had men’s group, we had fundraisers. The most popular were the reverse roles, where the femmes would lip-sync guy songs and the butch, masculine guys would put on dresses and high heels. So we had fundraising going all the time. Plus, it wasn’t out of my pocket, but some of proceeds from the nightclub business went to keeping the Minority AIDS Project going and supported, because aside from a few meager funds, we did not have a lot of support.
TW: So how did a group for men work? Did the groups happen during the day when the club was closed, or how did that happen?
JTW: Sometimes. We had happy hours, too. We provided some kind of casserole or buffet-type situation, so a lot who were homeless or just hungry could always come, seven days a week, and can get something to eat. We had put up the initial funds to get to a place before Minority AIDS Project that housed eight to 10 folks, it was called Dignity House. And we started a food bank. One of the things that happened was that a lot of the kids didn’t want me to know that they had AIDS. So then they would stop coming, ’cause they didn’t want me to see them. So I had to stop doing that. And then we started our own food bank down to the hood, but I never showed up for it. So I pretty much stayed in the background and, like I said, we had fundraisers, every chance we could get. We had a couple of big ones with APLA and Stonewall Democratic Club, and like I said, we had one just about every month raising money for MAP in addition to donating proceeds and doing whatever was necessary. If somebody needed some money to try to get a place or whatever, I helped out in whatever way I could give back.
TW: What do you think was the most popular AIDS benefit you had at the club?
JTW: I think they were the “reverse role”—
TW: That was the most popular one.
JTW: Yeah, because it was funny, too. It was fun. You know, kind of took the seriousness out of the moment. But you know, of course, folks were reminded before it was all over that they had to be careful.
TW: Did any celebrities ever want to help do a benefit at your club?
JTW: I’m trying to think. I don’t believe so. I don’t remember.
TW: Do you think that’s because celebrities didn’t want to be attached to the disease, or because they would be fearful that somebody might think they have it, and then they would lose work?
JTW: No, it’s like it is now. I think celebrities want to get the bang for the buck, celebrity-wise. So you’ve got celebrities like Madonna and Elizabeth Taylor and Elton John forming their own organizations or contribute and advertise for APLA or the larger organizations. You know, this is how it is. Toyota won’t give money to a small organization, but they will do that for a national organization. The little guys, you have to scratch for it.
TW: You kind of alluded to this earlier—how did racism combined with homophobia impact the ability for you to help people with AIDS in your community in the ’80s?
JTW: It wasn’t just about AIDS. Early on, I had a meeting with ACLU, ’cause they had started a gay and lesbian chapter, and I told them that they needed to be a chapter for Black lesbians and gays, too. Because we have a lot of the same issues, but there are different issues, too, some of which are racism in the gay community, which was very alive in those days. There was a club called Studio One, which was like the first big gay disco in West Hollywood. And they wouldn’t let people of color come in or women come there. So racism didn’t just come around AIDS, it was already there. So it overlapped into the AIDS crisis.
TW: Can you talk to me about what you’re most proud of from that period in the ’80s when you were helping with HIV?
JTW: The most I was proud was being available and to do all that I could to help. And in the late 1990s when I finished acupuncture school and I volunteered, me and one of my former classmates, the two of us, we did what we called a “gypsy clinic” while we were waiting for our actual license to come. I had in mind to treat mostly AIDS patients and, without knowing for sure, I think that had something to do with other folks not coming because they didn’t know whether it was connected to the AIDS community. So I would go to the AIDS prevention team. They had an office, it was not too far away, and every Wednesday, he and I would load up my SUV with a couple of massage tables and our herbs and needles, and we would go over and treat the fellows there. And one of them in particular, he was really buff looking. I pulled him to the side one time, and I asked him what his T-cell count was. He said 800. I had known him from the club, he did catering. So I had him cooking for me for a while, cooking a happy hour buffet. And so I gave him a lecture. I said, you’re too strong, too buff, too intelligent to commit to making $800 in Social Security a month.
I said, you know, you are not sick now, to where you can notice it anyway, so why don’t we do something about that? And I knew he liked the caterers, so I suggested that he could go to the LA Trade Tech [College], which he did, but they also have the general education courses too that you can transfer to a four-year school. So he went there, and then I had heard that he was going to a four-year school, and then I heard that he had graduated from that. And then I didn’t hear from him anymore. And then one day, I was visiting someone else at Antioch and ran into him after not seeing him for five or six years, and he got his BA from a four-year school and enrolled into a program for licensed family therapy.
And so the moral of that story, too, is not only that he did that, and other people that I talked to, too, and said, “Don’t stop living now.” The best way to die is to stop living. So keep on going with your life. You know, just be careful, because you can get infected with another strain or whatever. We don’t know where this thing is going to. So, you know, safe sex is the name of the game, but there’s a lot of people did that. There’s another guy [who] was 50 years old when he was diagnosed, and he had been a record-company executive, and he came to the church I was attending then. He’s crying on my shoulder, and I suggested to him, I said, “The best medicine that I’ve seen work is to volunteer to do something.” So he quit his job and went to work for this agency there that Dr. Jordan ran called Spectrum. And was there 30 years, after he thought he was going to die that day. He was 80 when he died, from other complications, not AIDS. He had a heart condition.
TW: So tell me about Rue’s House and how that got started, and why it got started.
JTW: I had purchased a house with the idea of having some kind of group home. This was during the AIDS crisis. At the time, women had started to become infected, you know, through heterosexual sex, primarily. And there was an agency called Caring for Babies with AIDS. The babies were left with them, or they found homes for them. And so Rue came up with the idea that it would be really good if the mothers didn’t have to separate from their babies. And so that’s how Rue’s House was born, and she was the executive director and put it together with our help. We were able to support it, because you have staff that you have to pay.
I can say I’ve been really fortunate in being able to make money and have the willingness to reinvest it in the community, for the welfare of the community. We had this home for women and children with AIDS for about 10 years. And then when the new drugs came out, the protease inhibitors came, and everybody started living longer and could live on their own. The last Christmas we had, we only had one transgender lady in the house. So after the holiday season, we closed it, and then we used it for sober living for several years, and several years of homeless people.
TW: How many people could Rue’s House house?
JTW: Well, it was a seven bedroom, and if there was a mom and kids, we had larger rooms for them. So at the peak, we had maybe 12 to 14 folks in it. In those days, some kids were born with HIV/AIDS, too. And one of the women that had her little girl there, Iris, she passed. And the kid went to live with the grandmother. And the kid had AIDS, too. And her wish was to graduate from high school. And [due] to some strings being pulled, we got her into a private school in Santa Monica. So she could go and if she missed some time or whatever, she could make it up, those kinds of things that might not have been able to happen in a public school. And they gave her a scholarship there. And so she got her wish, and she graduated at 17. And then passed about three to four months after that.
There’s a couple of women that still are alive from our Rue’s House days. I see them, they’re out doing the work. Which means that they belong to different groups and organizations, and they make sure that the folks that they encounter get all the benefits and stuff that they can from some state, city, whatever—housing and things of that nature. So, they’re doing real well still, and we closed. So they’ve been alive and doing OK for 25 years or so.
TW: So thinking about the things that you did in the ’80s to help the HIV community, would there be anything that you would do differently if you could?
JTW: I don’t know. The first thing that came to mind would be what we did already, but doing more about the Minority AIDS Project. Being able to make it bigger and provide more services. But we were busy in every organization.
There was a group called Women’s Concern that we organized around Rue’s House that did a little fundraising and gave us support for Rue’s House. But yeah, you know, I would have loved to have had an agency, like APLA or something. But that was not something that I could afford, and I had to keep the club going in order to afford to do what I was doing. So, I visited folks, went to their homes, did acupuncture whenever they could tolerate it, contacted next of [kin] when they visited, when they were in hospice care in the hospital. I donated funds to smaller agencies that started to help with the hospice situation. I would have loved to have invented the cure. But outside of that, with the means I did have and the willingness to do them—and in the meantime, there were other issues—alcohol and drug abuse, that I got involved with. And a lot of those other kids were HIV positive, also.
TW: Well, it sounds like you did a tremendous amount of work during a time that there wasn’t a lot of funding or leadership from the government. I think that’s why it’s important to share your story about what you did. Because I’ll be honest with you, I don’t think there’s a lot of business owners out there like you that were constantly thinking about the community and how can I give back, and had this beautiful gift of owning a business that I can help funnel some money. So I think that’s an amazing gift. It really speaks to your character.
JTW: Thank you. That was the most that I could do for being blessed, you know, and to be in a position to be able to do it. So it was my giving thanks, being full of gratitude, for being available and doing what we did.