A mix of supposition and stereotype quickly cemented into fact. Kimberly Bergalis and seven other patients accused dentist David Acer of infecting them with HIV through in-office procedures in the mid to late eighties. They offered no substantial evidence and yet they were able to convince others that their claims were sound, based primarily on the fact that they did not fit the dominant HIV transmission narrative. Dr. Acer was a gay man and living with HIV; his body vulnerable to OIs, including Kaposi sarcoma. These few details were enough for the news media that descended on the doctor’s and patients’ small conservative Flordia town. Enough for attorneys, insurers, and even Congress to become involved. They listened without ever investigating what happened with any impartiality. Bergalis died a hero; Dr. David Acer died a scapegoat, a villain, a monster.
In his new book-length poem, A Quilt for David (City Lights Publishers), writer and educator Steven Reigns seeks to return to David his dignity and explore the social constructs that allowed him to be stigmatized: straight female “innocence” is lauded while gay men are worthy of punishment as “vectors of disease.”
In one poem, Reigns writes:
David said hiding his diagnosis was “lonely and isolating.”
He used an alias at doctor’s offices hours away from his home.
Kimberly, secretly sexually active, points her finger at David.
In the preface to A Quilt for David, Reigns explains his use of the medium of poetry: “I decided to tell David’s story as a way to counter the treachery of his end of life. Poetry wasn’t just my beloved form of writing; it felt the best way to assemble the sparse information that existed without adding speculative details. The discrediting facts about the dental infection story were overridden by public emotions elicited by Kimberly’s narrative. Poetry and poetic language compel our emotions. What if, through poetry, I could offer an equally empathetic and compassionate view of David?”
Reigns, who has a private practice as a psychotherapist, and knows much about the balancing of feelings and facts, offers a compelling counternarrative. A Quilt for David itself is assiduously researched (the book includes pages of citations), yet the writing showcases small, human moments and poses questions that try to get to the heart of the matter. It is a testimonial that the public needs to hear because accusations are often louder and longer-lasting than the truth. Consider this fact included in the poem: “There have been no other / documented cases of / dentist to patient transmission.”
Reigns has often turned to writing as a way to build community and it’s no wonder he was appointed the first Poet Laureate of West Hollywood. He developed and runs the first-ever autobiographical poetry workshop for LGBT seniors and edited an anthology of their work, titled My Life Is Poetry. He is the author of a dozen chapbooks and the collections Inheritance and Your Dead Body is My Welcome Mat.
He also started The Gay Rub, and the first and last pages of A Quilt for David feature a rubbing of David Acer’s grave. Asked to describe The Gay Rub, Reigns responded: ”The Gay Rub is an art project I started eight years ago that is a collection of rubbings from LGBTQ plaques and markers from all over the world. There are 350 rubbings that have been exhibited at universities and galleries across the country and it was the subject of an award-winning short documentary by Michael Saul. The exhibition’s purpose is to educate and give attention to historic commemorative markers. The name is a bit cheeky and attention-grabbing. Rub can mean social friction, truth, and short for rubbing. It can also mean erased, like so many LGBTQ events and people have been rubbed out of history.”
In addition to writing and teaching, Reigns has also worked in the HIV field for a decade as an HIV Test Counselor and Educator, certified in both Florida and California. He started in Florida where he conducted testing across multiple sites, including bars, clubs, and detention centers. Later, he ran a program for high-risk youth. In California, he coordinated a rapid testing program for a community clinic. He has also presented at national conferences.
A&U corresponded with Steven Reigns about writing A Quilt for David.
Chael Needle: Congratulations on the book. I couldn’t put it down. How does it feel to finally be able to share it with the world?
Steven Reigns: This project has always felt important and urgent to me. The research and writing took ten years and throughout that time I felt the pressure to get the story right. News from then was riddled with AIDSphobia and homophobia. It was a time where widespread support and sympathy were given to those with “acceptable” modes of transmission. There is still quite a bit of shame and stigma but it was significantly worse then and combined with lack of information. I’m pleased to hear you liked it. This book appropriately humanizes David Acer. That hasn’t been done before.
Could you talk a little bit about your process over the ten years? How did the book evolve over time?
This project started when I remembered [coming home from school] in the eighth grade and seeing a young woman on A Current Affair and Inside Edition. She said she was a virgin and got HIV from her dentist. [To fill in the memory] I started Googling to find out what happened. I wasn’t encountering balanced information and kept diving into more research to get answers. I ended up traveled numerous times to Florida to interview people, pull court records, do research at the local library. During the first part of research and throughout it, I would write poetry and prose about what I was discovering and feeling. Writing in this documentary poetry style was thrilling and I was also propelled by knowing the work was a reinvestigation that might get to a greater truth about what happened.
It is easy to see how research informed the poems—with facts about Acer and Bergalis, for example, prompting ruminations and imagery. How did you confront the challenge presented by the fact that there is more documented information about Bergalis?
The media made a monster out of David Acer and every detail given was turned and twisted into something spurious. Friends and family found it painful to think back on that time and were cautious about talking to someone again. Thankfully some did talk with me and I learned about him giving patients theater tickets, discounting dental work for someone on hard times, playing tennis with friends, and one friend told a touching story of how David took the underprivileged kids she worked with out on his boat for a day. One of the sad stories I encountered was how David tried to treat his Kaposi sarcoma himself by using a painful electrocautery on the roof of his mouth. Thankfully there was enough scraps of information in my yards of research to help assemble these patchwork poems into a quilt that honors him.
It’s interesting to read articles from that time and the favoritism the media had for Bergalis. Lisa Shoemaker was one of Acer’s accusers and did not receive the same airtime or treatment as Bergalis. Shoemaker was given a disparaging moniker making fun of her past employment. At the time she came forward she gained weight due to meds. She wasn’t as “camera ready” as Bergalis and she also wasn’t claiming to be a virgin. She did not receive the exorbitant financial compensation Bergalis or Barbara Webb [another accuser] received. She’s still living and does HIV education in schools. Her volunteering to do educational HIV work, in my mind, makes her more worthy of having a beach named after her. As opposed to Kimberly who lobbied for discriminatory legislation that would demand HIV-positive healthcare workers disclose to their patients. This would have impacted the livelihood of HIV-positive people in helping professions.
As you write, Lisa Shoemaker “offered her truth, not a mythology” and so she didn’t receive the ready-made adulation a large part of our society reserves for the “right” advocates, sorted (in an HIV/AIDS-related context) into what one might call “compassion categories,” with “innocent” and “pure” at the top of his hierarchy. You write about the public support that Bergalis and Barbara Webb received: “As gay men died alone in hospices, hospitals, and homes across the country, people wanted to save these two women.” Did not the claims by Bergalis and others draw the attention of AIDS activists or a more balanced response from the LGBTQ+ media?
I found almost nothing that challenged claims or offered a more balanced approach.
As I state in the book, the buffering language of “alleged” was not used by Bergalis’s lawyer or others. It was stated as a fact. In 1991, there was a strong tabloid magazine culture and trash talk shows. The public was getting fed terrible reporting and messaging. In such a hysterical and heightened state, it must have been hard to look critically at the situation. Those who did were clearly not in the press or in power.
I think it’s helpful to have someone within the gay community, like myself, to examine what happened. There is a book whose entire premise is that David was a serial killer. The author proposes this because David had a “double life” of traveling to other cities to be social. This is what closeted gay men living in small cities did to survive. Even if there were out gay friends to defend David at that time, they would have been subjected to the onslaught of public opinion. An employee who worked for David told me there were news vans parked outside her house for weeks. David’s parents moved into his home to care for him and stayed there after he died. A friend of theirs told me how he had dinner with them one evening and would hear the harassing messages as they came in on the answering machine. He said David’s mom once showed him the pile of disparaging letters she received that week.
Speaking of Bergalis’ push to legislate disclosure of healthcare workers living with HIV and your books’ mention of Jesse Helms’ urge to have people like Acer horsewhipped reminds me we still live with stigmatizing HIV criminalization laws based on outdated science and ideas about the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS (though thankfully activists are steadily changing these). What is your sense of this societal need to stigmatize and punish those constructed as Others? Is it still as intense or have we made any progress to lessen this animus?
In the mid-eighties we had the public disclosures of Ryan White, the Ray brothers, and Arthur Ashe. All of these transmissions were from blood transfusions, and this helped soften the public’s perception but mainstream empathy did not extend beyond these “innocent” transmissions.
There is so much hostility to differentness. Americans have a hard time sitting with uncomfortable feelings. We want quick answers, easy narratives, and categories of good or bad. It’s harder to sit with the unknown or difficult. Instead, the easier option of villainizing happens.
The story at the time was a diseased gay man ruined the life of an innocent virgin, a grandma, and some other people.
“It’s harder to sit with the unknown or difficult”—that makes a lot of sense. The form you chose—a book-length poem—allows the reader to “sit with the unknown or difficult.” In the introduction to this interview, I quoted your reason for choosing poetry, but, once you did decide on the medium, why did it make sense to you to compose shorter prose poems and free verse?
In terms of form, I’ve never been a poet that plays around with the topography of a poem. I don’t use extended spaces or moving margins. A line break in a poem is to give a pause. I used this end-stop to allow an emotional experience to set in. Not to rush to the next word or sentiment. We are left with that one line, standing on its own for our full attention. However, some pieces felt more suited for prose poetry, to be without line breaks, so the form resembles traditional reportage.
In terms of subject matter, the public reaction and unquestioned accusations of Acer’s accusers seemed fueled only by emotions. What if, through these patchwork poems, I help elicit emotions for David and tell a bigger story. Poetry is the language of our emotions. I’m in hopes that, through the poems and prose poetry, I give an understanding and empathic view into the life of David Acer and this horrible situation. There were no features on David or personal interviews from his family or loved ones. I hope this book humanizes him and has readers reexamine what they thought they knew. Even though the work was poetry, I chose not to take poetic license or fictionalize details. Every detail is from my research. This is a story already saturated with so much misinformation and I did not want to add to it.
What do you think needs to be done to dismantle HIV stigma?
HIV transmission education has helped dismantle stigma but hasn’t eradicated it. I don’t have one answer to your question. Sadly, most modes of HIV transmission have religious or societal judgment such as anal sex or IV drug use. COVID does not have this since transmission happens from breathing. I think a component to the stigma might also be discomfort around illness which is ultimately a fear of death. Everyone you know will die, you will die, it is the one thing we can be sure of yet it’s rarely talked about. Seeing people sick or in the dying process can remind one of the inconvenient and uncomfortable fact that it will be us too. Distancing by othering or blaming the sick can be a defense mechanism against facing our own mortality.
Do you think this story shares a similarity with that of “Patient Zero”?
Gay men and especially HIV-positive gay men have a history of being scapegoated. This seems especially true when monetary gain is involved. Randy Shilts created a compelling story in 1987 for his book And The Band Played On. He purposefully disclosed the name Gaëtan Dugas as “Patient Zero” knowing that it’d help sell his book. This misinformation of a French-Canadian flight attendant being the first super-spreader has persisted. It was thirty years later that Richard McKay’s book Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic debunked the myth Shilts capitalized on and popularized. A Quilt for David is coming out thirty years after the first allegations against David Acer and I hope it also quashes the narrative that was created then.
The discourses surrounding Dugas were predominantly sex-negative. Throughout the book, you are purposeful to include a thread of sex-positivity. Bergalis indeed “did nothing wrong”: “She didn’t do anything wrong. / She did with that man, with other men, / what lovers do, she explored the /pleasures of the body.” And further on, you collect all of those living with HIV, David included: “If sex were the act that infected them, each one separately, did they ever call out His name in gratitude? Thankful for that moment, lost in the pleasure of their bodies.” Why did you make sure to include a sex-positive message?
Sex positivity should be the norm, not the exception. Bergalis stated on the Congressional floor that she “did nothing wrong.” I agree with her and also think no one involved did anything “wrong” or deserved their infection. To think any other way would shame or blame someone for being positive. So many risks were being taken unknowingly by everyone at that time. I have tremendous empathy for all involved. Sarah Schulman [A&U, August 2021] said my book reveals “how hypocrisy coheres communities by relying on cliches of femininity, bias, and repressive loyalties.” Without HIV stigma, I suspect Kimberly would have had a different response to her positive result.
Do you feel the book has been a departure from your past projects in any way?
This desire to inform, illuminate, and honor has been present in everything I’ve done. It’s there in my first two collections of poetry, to The Gay Rub, to the My Life is Poetry autobiographical writing workshop for LGBTQ seniors I’ve taught for the past seventeen years. You can also see how it pertains to A Quilt for David. I wrote this so readers can inhabit this time, empathize for David, and see how the media created a monster. It also shows how gayness was treated then, the inequity of care and concern for those with sexual or IV modes of seroconverson, and how one person can change the way we are remembered.
For more information about Steven Reigns, log on to: stevenreigns.com.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U. Alongside his journalism, he writes fiction and poetry. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.