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A Quilt for David: Scapegoating in the Time of AIDS

The ghosts of what might have been forever haunt World AIDS Day, December 1. Most especially: an entire generation of gay men that were largely erased, their stories blunted. We muse about their stalled brilliance and moreover, the simple ordinary existence that was stolen from them. And from us.

Poet Steven Reigns’ new book, A Quilt for David, evokes those thoughts, and moreover, those times: when the drug AZT seemed promising and, as Reigns writes: “In the holocaust of AIDS, William F. Buckley Jr. suggested tattooing the infected.”

Using poetry and prose, Reigns details the life of dentist David Johnson Acer, accused by eight people living in a small conservative Florida town––of infecting them with HIV.

At the core of the late 1980s early 1990s story is accuser Kimberly Bergalis, pitted against scapegoat Acer who died from his own AIDS-related illness while the media mob circled, sniffing the perfect storm of a story:

HIV-infected gay dentist infects innocent young virgin.

“All who know her agree that Kimberly is the last person they would have thought might get AIDS,” reads the 1990 People Magazine cover story on Bergalis.

Homophobia was then (more) rampant, and it needed a central villain. During that time, Bergalis’s claims were not yet fully examined by the CDC, which found them to be far-fetched.

Shame then, is central to this story, its swirled ingredients perfectly blended for projecting it onto the expressive LGBTQ population. Moreover, AIDS hysteria signaled profits––all six of Acer’s accusers got settlements, the first three receiving a million dollars.

Reigns resurrects Acer’s life, weaving in details of the 40-year-old’s promising future:

You bought the nicest house on Alamanda Way … Got a pilot’s license, ski boat and truck to pull it, and a tennis club membership …..

the trials of his illness:

Educated to heal, to provide comfort,
to treat injuries of the mouth.
There was one you couldn’t handle.
The sole KS sore on the roof of your mouth.
Soon there were four.

and various striking details:

A hospital staffer referred to you
in a chart as “this unfortunate gentleman.”

Reigns conducted extensive research in Florida, talking or corresponding with Acer’s family, co-workers, patients and former friends, among others.

The details he mines are telling and often specific. Acer’s dental chairs were sold by Dolphin Dental Supply:

Maybe one was sold
To a tattoo shop––
it could still be used, twenty
years later, when positive men
self-appoint bio-hazard tattoos.

Reigns also discovered that Acer’s office had briefly become a nightclub:

Club Envy had an
all-ages night. Kids
younger than the age Kimberly
was when she was in your
chair, moved on the dance floor.
Young girls undid top blouse buttons
as soon as their parents dropped them off,
rolled up their shorts on the dance floor,
sweated under backlights and mirror balls,
kissed with straight white teeth,
pressed their bodies together.

The cadence of Reign’s book ebbs and flows wonderfully as he stitches the story with insight and a kind of gentle yet prodding remembrance––at times dashed with more pointed passages:

Kimberly, the avowed virgin,
later gave video testimony she had had oral sex, refuting her
earlier testimony.
What other things had she lied about?
…………………………….
There have been no other
documented cases of
dentist-to-patient transmission.

In the end, A Quilt for David feels like a needed meditation. Certainly on an earlier tragic era, a precursor, really, to our polarized times. What Reigns writes in the book’s preface is equally true, if not more so today:

Who gets believed? Whose story do we prioritize over others? What risks do we forgive, and what risks to we punish? These are urgent questions relevant to our current pandemic as well.

Beneath the surface and between the lines of Reigns’s writing, however, is the deeper musing that his book evokes: the countless lives lost, the lives that might have been.

And moreover, what other trenchant layers might have been added to our own lives––had the lost generation of gay men survived.

*

For further information about World AIDS Day, see: World AIDS Day

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