Longtime HIV Survivor Reminisces About the Atlanta Buyers Club
Perhaps on your local public radio station you heard the story of Christopher Harris, 74, an HIV longtime survivor who volunteered in the 1980s and 1990s with the Atlanta Buyers Club, one of many such groups around the country in those decades that got folks living with HIV/AIDS experimental treatments not (or not yet) approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These unapproved treatments were technically illegal, though authorities generally turned a blind eye.
The 2013 film Dallas Buyers Club, starring Matthew McConaughey as real-life heterosexual HIV patient Ron Woodroof, who died in 1992, portrayed one of those clubs. The buyers' clubs offered not only supplements and herbs but drugs thought to have anti-HIV activity, including Compound Q, ddC (zalcitabine, which got FDA approval in 1992), alpha interferon, and Peptide T.
The buyers' clubs generally faded out with the advent of effective FDA-approved combination therapy in 1996. Nonetheless, they offered not only a ray of hope but a source of information, purpose, connection, and community for desperate folks living with HIV back in the dark ages of treatment.
StoryCorps, the nonprofit that records and archives oral histories, recorded Harris as part of its "Stonewall OutLoud" initiative, which collects the stories of LGBTQ elders, in honor of this month's 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising that fueled the modern LGBTQ rights movement.
You can listen to Harris' StoryCorps short version here. But we thought his story was so incredible that we called him and asked for the longer version. (We also called the only other Atlanta Buyers Club survivor Harris knew about, Jesse Peel, M.D., whom we've profiled before, but sadly he could remember no details about the club.) Here's Harris, a sweet man who choked up several times on the phone recounting these intense memories.
Tim Murphy: Thanks for talking, Christopher. First, tell us about yourself today.
Christopher Harris: I'm a retired apartment refurbisher. I still occasionally go out on calls to clients. I spend most of my time doing volunteer work with Atlanta Prime Timers, a group of about 175 older gay men; we get together each week for coffee, to eat, to go to the movies or symphony. I'm also a member of Virginia-Highland Church, a liberal church affiliated with the United Church of Christ. I do all my own gardening. And I have a daughter and grandchildren who are working on their degrees, who are very fun.
TM: That's because, as you say on the recording, you were married to a woman and had a daughter before you met the love of your life in a bar one night.
CH: Yes, in 1980 or 1981, I met Jim Carpenter, a very handsome, nice guy. We were together until he died from AIDS in a hospice in 1997, around the same time that Princess Di and Mother Teresa died.
TM: So, take us back to the '80s.
CH: I found out I had AIDS in 1983. I went to the hospital for something, and they asked if I had risk factors for AIDS, and I said yes, and so they tested me [he can't remember if it was for the HIV virus, the test for which did not come out until 1985, or for his T-cell count] and said it came back positive. I thought, "OK, you're going to die." Jim hadn't been tested yet. But he'd slept around with all the same people as me -- we were young and good-looking and experimenting -- so we silently knew that we both probably had the virus.
I actually was diagnosed with colon cancer the same day. The young resident who told me was so nice. I said, "You can't tell me I have cancer and AIDS in the same day." He was about to cry. This may sound weird, but I felt bad for him.
So then the doctor told me that we were going to fight it, but he also told me to get my affairs in order because I probably had 12 to 14 months to live. And I said, "I have a daughter, I have to live."
TM: And then the best part of your StoryCorps story is when he says to you, "You dropped something on the floor," and you say, "No, I didn't," and he says, "Yes, you did." And you pick it up -- and it's the phone number for the buyers' club. He didn't want to tell you directly because it was technically illegal.
CH: Right. By that point, I think 1988, I was taking AZT, which had been approved, but it wasn't working. My T cells were going down, and I had dreadful diarrhea all the time. So I called the buyers' club, and they said that they met Friday afternoons after 6 p.m. and to bring $50 cash. It was down on Peachtree Street where the old gay clubs used to be. So I put the cash in my underwear so I wouldn't get mugged and went into this old building with puddles of water on the floor because it had been raining. There were four or five guys there. Tom Blount; Freddy; Don; a nice, handsome black guy named Evan, I think. They're all dead now.
So I got the drug, I think it was ddC, and I said to them, "I wish I could help you," and they said, "Do you mean that?" "Sure," I said. So they told me to be there next Friday because they needed help.
So I went home and said to Jim, "This is illegal, because these drugs are not FDA-approved," but I went anyway the next Friday. We were honest in the club; we sold the drugs at cost, and after we got organized, we charged a bit extra so we could run the place, and we had a benevolent fund for those who couldn't pay. We formed a board of directors and became a legitimate organization. But I don't really remember what drugs we offered.
TM: Where did you get them from?
CH: We had one guy who ordered a lot from Thailand or Vietnam, I think. I didn't do that part of it. We finally rented a house over on 12th Street, and we'd take turns on Saturday morning opening the place. The word was out there, and as more people came, we had forms we filled out asking, "Are you under the care of a doctor?" "Does your doctor know you are here?" "Are you aware we are not physicians?" As I recall, we gave people a number, because in those times, people were scared of being outed as being gay or having the virus. We assured them that the book with everyone's names and contacts in it was never left behind in the space, in case it were raided.
I remember once, a guy I recognized from my dorm in college came in and said, "I'm giving you too much information; I'll get fired if they find out." And I said, "They won't find out from us." I'd never seen anyone so frightened. He was looking around every second. But I saw in the obits later that he passed away.
TM: Did any of the drugs actually seem to work?
CH: It's hard to say. For some reason, I stayed healthy. I've never gotten really sick from HIV.
TM: What other stories do you remember?
CH: One day, the owner of a big gay bar came in. I don't know if he recognized me, but he was quite ill, and I gave him our usual spiel, and he was terribly rude and snapped, "Just give me the damn stuff." He was so angry and sick that he couldn't be nice anymore, so we had to be bigger than that. I just remember thinking, "I won't see you again; you'll be dead before you come again next month," and I was right. We didn't have time to grieve or hurt, there was just so much to do. It's very emotional for me now, thinking back on all this. [He cries.] I wouldn't watch Dallas Buyers Club for a long time. When I finally watched it, I had to be alone so I could let myself be emotional. I'd had the chance to meet and work with some wonderful people, and then I had to say goodbye to them.
Like Freddy. One day I came in, and people said, "Freddy died. Nobody told you?" He'd been a healthy and gorgeous bodybuilder who used to pick me up and walk across the room with me. There were so many funerals that we couldn't keep a dark suit pressed, because we had to wear it so much.
TM: Anything else you remember?
CH: An old man came in who was very nervous, out of place, and obviously straight. He fumbled for words, then finally said, "My son is very, very sick." He didn't look wealthy. I told him it was $70 but that we had a benevolent fund so he could pay what he could. And he said, "We'll manage as long as we can" and paid the full amount. He was too proud for charity. He never came back again.
We tried to keep it positive inside the club. We brought in coffee and Krispy Kreme donuts. We had guys who came in who had not been to bed the night before, who were coming straight from the club or the bathhouse, several who were obviously heavy drinkers or users. We made no effort to discipline, correct, or intervene. We just loved them. Most of us working there were HIV positive, so you'd think, "That's gonna be me one of these days."
TM: When did the club end?
CH: For me, it ended when Jim got sick. The cocktail had emerged, but it was too late for him. He had toxoplasmosis, lesions in the brain. I came off the board of the club so I could stay home and take care of Jim until the last three weeks of his life, when he went into hospice. I was exhausted. I had great support from my daughter and her husband.
After Jim died, I painted my house. I didn't grieve. Then a week or two before the first anniversary of Jim's death, I had a meltdown. All those difficult memories just flooded me, and I was overwhelmed. I stayed home for a week without taking a bath. Then my grandchild was born almost to the hour of the one-year anniversary of Jim's death.
You can watch Christopher's StoryCorps interview here: