History of GCAP - Jerry Carden Oral History

Jerry Carden GCAP Oral History

Interviewer: We’re talking about the gay community, the Greater Community AIDS Project, and the Gay Men’s Choir

Jerry Carden: Okay, well, my name is Jerry Carden and I was the first chair of the Gay Community AIDS Project, which later, in 1996, after the Gay Community AIDS Project was together for about 10 years, we changed the name to reflect the changes that were happening with the AIDS epidemic, and the fact that it wasn’t just gay men that were affected, but it was anybody.

And, prior to forming the Gay Community AIDS Project, it was 1981 when we began hearing about people coming down with the strange, kind of, they called it a gay-related cancer. The first name for the disease was GRID - Gay-Related Immune Deficiency and everybody was scared in terms of developing symptoms and not known exactly what was happening.

There was a lot of pushback against the gay community, and for myself, I had just gotten into a relationship with another man after a five year relationship with somebody else. And so my fears were the same in terms of being totally clueless as to whether I might be infected or not because I definitely had unsafe sex with people. I was also not in recovery yet from many years of alcohol abuse, and so in 1981 I did sober up, that’s when I met my first partner. We’ve been together for 38 years at the time of this interview.

So, that was kind of my beginning with GCAP. And over time, as the years rolled on from 1981, we began to see cases in our local community, Champaign-Urbana, whereas the cases in much larger cities like San Francisco and New York, you know, we were hoping that it didn’t hit the Midwest but we knew that it probably would. So it was I think around 1984 that we began to have local cases and began to have people that we actually knew becoming infected.

My background, my bachelor’s degree was in health education and community health. And I was working in the healthcare community for a local hospital doing community education, so I felt like I wanted to be involved with what was going on and I was still scared due to my past. And I didn’t really know where it was all going, but the guy that cut my hair became infected, and we were very good friends, I decided, you know what, I’m gonna involved and help other people that are talking about forming some sort of an organization.

And I’ve already discussed how we got going and my interest personally and there were several other people in the community that were interested in doing, um, getting involved in different respects.

So there were those who were more on the social service side of things and wanted to form support networks for people that were being diagnosed or people that were afraid that maybe their symptoms meant that they were, uh, infected and oftentimes people looked at just very basic symptoms and thought that they were infected and maybe they weren’t.

And there were other people like myself who were more interested in doing public education for not just the gay community but the community at large. And since I was involved with local health care community, I worked for a hospital that at that time was called Mercy Hospital and uh that was a little bit of a nervous item for me because I had just started working with them and they were a Catholic health care organizqtion and being out as an openly gay man I was afraid that they might not look kindly at my being involed with this organization because I was also in a public role for them doing community education programs such as stress management and information on nutrition and wellness and exercise and now I was going to be involved in doing interviews because I was one of the only people willing to be out and interviewed.

And there’s another interesting story that I”ll have to save for another time related to a priest and a debate that we did on public television locally.

But, uhm the people that were interested came together. We decided that it would be better to form one organization as opposed to one that was going to deal with support services and one that was dealing more with the education side and we decided that it was important to have gay in the name so that the larger community knew that we were doing something for our local community as opposed to just sitting back and letting somebody else help. Plus nobody else was really helping at the time.

Um, not even the local public health department was really doing that much., So we decided to call it the Gay Community Aids Project, and we started out with those two main functions, buddies program which was support services for the peole with Aids and their family memnbers, then also the education.

Over time the local healthcare community came together with a group called the Champaign County Task Force On Aids, and we partnered together to do a lot of public education programs. We had a slide deck that we would take out to work with businesses, with social service orgs, with hc orgs, just anybody that was interested and we had a portion that was done by the county health task force people where they would talk about the details about HIV in terms of infection and routes of infection and at least what we knew at the time.

And as an aside htat infriomat was constant l changing as they were doing more research so it was very difficult to keep the info up to date and we had a variety of speakers who were going out so we had to keep all those speakers informed of all the different changes that were happening

And then we always had somebody from the gay community uh talking about the more personal impact in terms of uh familjhy members and we couldn’t give any informaotin out about specific people buyt we could talk about it from more of a global perspective .

Uh I do want to make sure that I mention McKinley Presbyterian church and foundation. Uh there were two minsters there… Steve Schumaker (sp?) and um uh Charlie Sweitzer. They were very supportive of the gay community, and they were forerunners in the local community of offering space for gay orgazainoations even prior to the AIDs situation. SO they helped provide us some much needed emotional support as well as space for all the different things that we had going on.

And um let’s see first goals were to ascertain and express gya community concerns related to AIDS related diseases or AIDS related issues. To education gays and non-gays about aids, to provide support services to PWAs or personas with aids and their loved ones and to work with other groups and agencies dealing with aids related issues.

And at this point I think we pretty much have covered some of the early days um after about 10 years of constant changes and even doing more kinds of events such as a lot of fundraisers a lot of awareness campaigns. We started doing our speakers bureau for all the community health classes at the university. There was a required class on human sexuality, and we provided speakers for each and every one of those classes every semester. Which meant somewhere between three hundred and six hundred students that heard the presentation that we had on HIV and AIDS. Um We had home discussion groups for people that were in the gay community, talking about what was the latest information on say for sex as the new, uh as drugs started being developed and coming out to keep people updated on that. To also talk about whether people should be tested or not.

There was a period of time where there was no test for the disease. There was a lot of controversy as to whether people should be tested. And we had a position that no you shouldn’t be tested because we weren’t able because there we really uh weren’t any assurances that people were going to not have that information shared like with insurance companies or with hc providers or their employer even. And that people could be fired so lots of fear and uh need for people to come together and talk um to provide lots of opportunities for that.

We also staffed a… it wasn’t a 24 hr phone line but every evening during the week we would have a volunteer that would operate a phone line from say maybe around 6 o’clock to 10:20 or 11 and there was a phone line that people could call in and ask questions uh anonymously.

and one in particular that stands out for me one night that I was volunteering. A local woman called in and said my son has been diagnosed with AIDS and he is in Tennessee and I’m living here and I just feel like I need to get involved and this person became one of the major volunteers for GCAP over the years. And she’s been still involved over our 30, 35 year history um

Middle ‘90s was when we realized that maybe it was time for us to make a name change. And the name Gay Community Aids Project, we toyed around with the idea of calling it the Greater Community Aids Project and that controversy went on for probably a year a year and a half before the vote was finaly taken and we did have some people in the gay community that object to taking the name gay out of the title but we also found that a lot of people that were complaining about taking that out of the title were not the ones that were really involved and helping.

They were just kind of on the sidelines and saying of youre selling out to you know giving up the title Gay Community Aids Project and we were really doing it to reflect the fact that AIDS was not just a gay disease and that it was time to do that and I think a lot of the people that are now receiving services from GCAP - housing and otherwise - are um people that uh are not necessarily gay but maybe have acquired the disease thorugh uh drug usage or other means.

Uh so those were some of the early days of GCAP and I think I will leave it at that.

Interviewer: Alright thank you so much.

History of GCAP - Jerry Carden Oral History