Stories from gay and straight women in Central Florida, Tampa Bay and the nation during the AIDS epidemic

By : Greg Stemm
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It was the late 1980s. All across America, including right here in Central and West Central Florida, gay and straight women were suddenly finding that their gay male friends and relatives were dying from a tragic and perplexing new disease.

From our vantage point in 2017, AIDS has become a chronically manageable disease instead of a death sentence and PREP has dramatically reduced the likelihood of transmissions. It can be hard to remember just how dire a time it was.

In a swirling caldron of fear many gay women, and some of their straight counterparts, stepped forward to provide compassion, care and comfort to their dying male friends. Nearly all can point to one pivotal moment when they felt a strong calling, a moment when they suddenly felt the overwhelming feeling “I simply must do something.”

We’ve spoken to several of these courageous women who told us their stories of bravery and love, and how the disease brought them closer to their male friends than they had ever been in the past. Their stories are full of moving moments and trying confrontations, frustration and joy and transcendent compassion that allowed them to overcome their own fears, while educating others and embracing those that had been left behind.

A Caring Couple

Dr. Joyce Stone and Becky Williams are a married lesbian couple who have been together for over 35 years. In the late 1980s, the two were members of King of Peace MCC Church in St. Petersburg. Stone was a deacon and Williams was on the board of directors. Both would become instrumental in forming and running the very first AIDS service organization in the Sunshine City.

Williams remembers her first personal experience with a person with AIDS.

“There was a beautiful young man who had been coming to church every Sunday, regularly, for a long time,” said Williams. “Then this guy just disappeared for several months. We had heard rumors about his health but it wasn’t until he showed up so emaciated and sick a few months later we knew what he had,” she said.

Williams continued, “The day he showed up he must have had a fever or something because he was kind of sweaty. He was sitting in the front pew, and as people were coming forward for communion some were hugging him. I want to be completely honest here: We didn’t know then how the disease was transmitted and I had some fear about close contact with the sweat of an infected man. But then I felt something change in me and I realized that if the shoe were on the other foot I would want to feel the touch of those who loved and care about me. I told myself, ‘Becky you have a choice to make here.’

“I hugged him.”

That hug turned into an organization when she, Stone and other concerned members of the church formed AM Ministries, which was an outreach of the church and the first organization of its kind in St. Petersburg.

The organization would assign a “buddy” to each patient who would become familiar with their case, their family, their support systems and guide that person in finding whatever help was available. It’s notable that prior to Williams, all other buddies had been male.

“Honey, you have to understand how divided the men and the women were back then,” she said.

“There were many gay men who didn’t feel comfortable discussing some of the very private details of their lives, including their sex lives, with a woman.”

She says she became a buddy for the first time because there was a patient where it would have been counterproductive for another gay man to be present with the family.

Meanwhile, Stone is now the head pastor at Christ the Cornerstone Church in Pinellas Park. Much of her involvement with AIDS patients had come in spiritual support and she often visited AIDS wards at local hospitals where she confronted stigma, bigotry and misunderstanding on a very personal basis.

“Once I was visiting a parishioner with AIDS at St. Anthony’s. I could overhear a Southern Baptist minister telling the parents of a beautiful young man who was laying in his room dying that if their son did not renounce his homosexuality before he died that he would be damned to hell for all eternity,” said Stone.

She takes a deep breath and pauses. “It took two nurses to separate me from that man.”

The Pentecostal Condom Lady

Linda Jaeger seems almost surprised herself that she became such a dedicated AIDS activist.

Jaeger is a native of Orlando and in the late ‘80s had children going to a Christian school in the area. She and her husband had joined Calvary Assembly Church, which she self describes as “one of those big mega churches.” Everything changed for her when a friend from church invited her to attend an educational program on AIDS in 1988.

“All I can say is that I was ‘moved’ by the scope and the tragic circumstances that many of these young men were facing. I felt at that moment God tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Linda, you need to do something to help here and you need to do it right now.’”

She says she read everything she could find about the disease. Eventually, she started having condoms on hand wherever she went. She admits to feeling a little uncomfortable when members of her congregation started referring to her as “the condom lady”.

“I couldn’t believe my fellow Christians could sit back and do nothing. I was shocked at how some were so callous in their treatment of those afflicted,” said Jaeger.

“I had a situation where there was an entire family infected with HIV,” said Jaeger. The woman had gotten the disease from her husband who had been an IV drug user. It was unclear if their newborn baby was positive. “This woman called me in tears. ‘All we want to do is go to church and we are going to need to have child care during it,’” she said the woman told her. “’But I’ve called 27 different churches and no one will allow us to attend their services.’ Shocked, I told her she was coming to church with me that Sunday. While there were a few in my congregation who shied away from them, the baby went to the nursery with other children and for the most part they were welcomed lovingly.”

Eventually Jaeger’s passion led her to establish “A PLACE for Comfort” (PLACE stands for People with AIDS Caring for Each Other), an AIDS support organization which eventually grew to have offices in four counties including Osceola, Orange, Seminole and Lake. Today she serves on the board of both Hope and Help and the AIDS Institute, a national organization with offices in Tampa and Washington, DC.

“These experiences have really transformed my view of religion and the good we can do if we put aside prejudice and fear and minister to those that need us the most. I never looked at a person as a man or a woman or gay or straight, but as sick person who needed help. Those of us who survived those trying times were really the ones that had a passion for this,” she said.

A Nurse in a Big City

Charlene Metrano is a retired lesbian nurse living in Gulfport. She was in the Navy in the 1960s and served at the Oakland Naval Hospital. She went on to have experience as an ER nurse and work in outpatient clinics. In the late 1980s she had moved to Boston where she was employed as a triage nurse at Fenway Community Health Care, which had started out originally as a small STD clinic in the basement of an apartment building and eventually became one of the country’s largest and most prestigious AIDS treatment centers.

“One of the toughest things for me when I was working on the phone lines doing triage,” said Metrano. “I could often tell from the gasping sounds of their voice and the gurgling in their throat as they talked to me that they had PCP. All I could do was refer them to a hospital or to a clinic, but what was really discouraging was I knew what was wrong with them and I knew there wasn’t much we could do for them then,” she said.

Metrano said by the late ‘80s she was losing on average about 100 patients a month to the disease. “Of course I didn’t know them all, but every one was special to me and it was a tough time going through all that death.” She noted how much the progression of the disease changed after the new medications came out in 1996. “I went from losing 100 patients a month to only 100 a year. Still too many, but after what we had been through it was a blessing.”

Metrano said she was a little surprised at first how many gay men had reservations about accepting help from gay women. She noted that the two cultures were very different and at the time gay women and men didn’t mingle very much. She says she thinks one of the few bright spots about the epidemic is how much closer it brought the entire gay community together. “I always loved all of my gay friends, both men and women,” she said. “When we faced this crisis it was amazing to me to see the divide, but we absolutely had to rise above it. Our gay brothers needed us.”

Metrano says that most of the employees at Fenway were gay men themselves, although she says she never felt ostracized from them. “We women did what we could and we really loved those sick guys,” she said.

Straight To Work

Maggie King has a long track record when it comes to helping gay men dealing with AIDS. Her professional career led her to become an independent consultant, helping a wide range of not for profits do better fundraising after more than two decades working with AIDS service organizations in the Orlando area. For a time she worked with Hope and Help and she now does consulting with Bliss Health Care. Both organizations serve as support groups for those living with HIV in Central Florida.

This married straight woman says her “ah ha” moment came when she was living just outside of New York in the mid-1980s. A gay friend called to tell her the difficult news that he had been diagnosed with AIDS. “I didn’t know much about the disease at the time, but I knew some other gay friends who had been talking about men dying from it. My friend died leaning up against a light pole literally just a few weeks later. It really shook me up how quickly he went,” she said.

After she and her husband moved to Orlando in 2001, she wanted to get more involved in AIDS prevention and care here but met some resistance. “People said to me, Maggie, you aren’t in New York any more. You are in the heart of the Bible Belt and things are different here,” she said. “But I refused to believe that. People are good everywhere and I don’t believe they are going to turn their backs on someone who is sick.”

She said she grew humble working on projects that had such dramatic impacts on people’s lives.

“When someone says to you, ‘you saved my lover’s life’ or even more profound when they tell you that you saved their life, it can be a little overwhelming,” she said. “Of course I was glad I could help with funding, but often the support we offered was just as invaluable.” King tells the story of a grandmother whose grandson was dying of AIDS and how shocked and disgusted she was to find out the hospital intended to burn the mattress of her loved one the moment he died. She admits comforting people in those situations was the really hard part.

King says she never felt any unease with patients or other AIDS workers because she was a straight woman. “I was there to help and they knew it. At that point anyone who was willing to step up to the plate was welcomed with open arms. Honestly I have to tell you that working to fight AIDS was the best career decision I ever made. It was humbling and rewarding in ways that are difficult to express,” she said.

“I was glad to be able to do what I could, but the real heroes are the case managers, employees and volunteers,” she said. “They were the ones that made the real difference. I just made sure they had the money to do it.”

The Doctor is In

When Dr. Dorece (Dorry) Norece graduated from med school at USF Tampa in 1980, she knew she had an interest in infectious diseases, but she says she had no idea that her entire career would be dedicated to caring for gay men fighting a disease that didn’t even exist when she got her medical license. While Norece is a lesbian, she said even before the disease she had many gay male friends.

“It was a surreal experience,” she said. “I’m a Tampa native and suddenly I’m treating seriously ill gay men patients that I went to high school with. Unfortunately the most we could do for patients then was to make their end of life experience comfortable and to die with dignity,” she said.

She remembers her very first experience with AIDS. She was doing an internship at the Tampa Veterans Hospital in 1981. Of course she had read the increasing number of articles in medical journals about clusters of gay men presenting with illnesses not often seen among younger healthier populations. Things like PCP pneumonia and Kaposi’s sarcoma were showing up in men as young as their 20s. She suddenly realized that they had just had a young patient die at the hospital who had presented with the kind of pneumonia described in the articles. She believes he died from AIDS but it was before a test for the virus even existed.

“It was very difficult back then to find a surgeon who would operate on HIV patients,” she said. “There was a lot of fear among these guys, but interestingly enough I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of a physician getting the disease from a patient so their fears were really unfounded. Of course even among doctors there can be a certain level of homophobia and I’m sure that factored into their reluctance to treat these individuals too,” she said.

She recounts the stories of married men coming to see her or worse yet, wives of these men who were sick and didn’t know why. Ruling out IV drug use and any other possible factors, Norece said she became aware of the “down low” culture where some married men will have same sex experiences in secret from their wives’ knowledge.

Another frustrating experience she shares is that the medical profession could see an explosion of the epidemic coming into the black community, but denial and homophobia made it virtually impossible to get safe sex messages out to the churches that are so much a part of that community. She notes that began to change as more and more black women contracted the disease and then children.

She says that dealing with families could be trying at times. She even had to intervene when some families were insensitive to the patient.

“I was making my rounds one day and I entered a patient’s room where his lover and his mother were in an intense argument at the foot of his bed. My patient looked at me in the eye and said with sadness “Ashes Dorry. They are fighting about what to do with my ashes.” Comforting patients at times like these became a difficult but regular part of her role as an HIV physician.

By the mid-1990s when she opened her own practice called the Center for Quality Care, many people in the Tampa Bay area had come to know her as “the AIDS doctor”, although she says she never really thought of herself that way.

“For a while I couldn’t go out to a nightclub anywhere near Tampa,” she recalls. “When I entered the place men scattered like cockroaches. No one wanted to be seen with the AIDS doctor,” she says.

Norece said she saw firsthand how other lesbians took sick gay men under their wing and cared for them. “I can’t tell you how many gay male patients I would see where a gay woman had brought them to the appointment and would listen to what treatments I was prescribing so they could help their friend stay compliant,” she said.

Norece is now semi-retired but volunteers her time at the St. Pete Free Clinic, where she still sees people with HIV, but without the burden of knowing that their death is imminent from the disease. Like some of the patients she saw over the years she herself is a survivor of sorts.

“The AIDS crisis was a devastating time for both men and women in the ‘80s and ‘90s but there are now long-term survivors of nearly 30 years,” she said. “For those who survived it’s a whole new world. If nothing else, the epidemic brought gay men and women closer together and that’s been wonderful for our community.”

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