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A Case of HIV Hysteria is Uncovered After 30 Years

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After several people were diagnosed with HIV in a small Florida town in the late 1980s, an unassuming dentist named David Acer was unfairly labeled a Typhoid Mary. The reputation of the closeted Acer, who died in 1990, was dragged through the mud as homophobia and HIV panic spread from Jensen, Fla., to all corners of the country. Writer Steven Reigns, the first Poet Laureate of West Hollywood, spent 10 years researching Acer’s story; the result is A Quilt for David, Reigns’s lauded retelling of the ordeal, one that combines history with poetry and prose. Reigns spoke with Plus about his book — available now from City Lights Publishers —  and what it tells us about health-related fear and misinformation.

What attracted you to David’s story and were you aware of it when it was in the news?

I wasn’t initially attracted to David as much as I was interested in what happened in that dental office. I worked as an HIV test counselor for a decade; presented at national conferences. I’ve tested and given results to over 9,000 people. At work in 2008, I remembered in the 8th grade seeing a young woman on TV talk about getting HIV from her dentist. With all my transmission knowledge, I couldn’t figure out how that happened. I started researching it and kept encountering stories loaded with bias, hysteria, and homophobia. 

You utilize a very unconventional structure in the book. Why did you choose this storytelling method?

Poetry is the language of our emotions. The public reaction and unquestioned accusations of Acer’s accusers seemed fueled only by emotions. I thought short prose and poetry could give an understanding and empathic view into the life of David Acer and this horrible situation. Even though the work is 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. 

Who was David as a person?

David was concerned about being out and ostracized in his small town. He was socially shy, owned a cocker spaniel, and for recreation he played tennis or spent time on his ski boat. He was fearful of being outed and would drive about two hours to Miami to go to gay bars and socialize. When he feared he had HIV, he would take that same drive south to go to doctor’s offices and use an alias.

Tell us about David’s family. Are they still alive and did you speak with them for the book?

David disclosed his sexuality and HIV status to his mom when he was sick. Soon his mother and stepfather moved into his house from Ohio to take care of him. A hospice nurse recalled they would sit by his bedside daily. I spoke with his mother briefly at the start of my research. It was always my hope that she would see the book. Sadly, she died a few years ago.

How far, or how little, do you think our society has changed in its outlook on HIV in 30 years?

Unlike COVID, the modes of HIV transmission coincide with behaviors that have religious or societal judgment such as sex, anal sex, or IV drug use. These judgments have lessened and that has helped with stigma. Today we’re seeing hysteria, data denying, and scapegoating with COVID.  

What do you hope readers get from the book?

I think after reading this, they will be able to hold and understand the complexity of the situation and people involved.  The book humanizes David, but is also generous to the struggles of his accusers. This was a terrible time in our history, and I feel for everyone who was a part of it.  
What lessons from David’s story are applicable today? What happened to David could happen to any of us — an accuser has outside motivations and their finger pointing changes our life and legacy. I’d like to think that things have changed in terms of scapegoating and villainizing, yet this incident is an example of the quick, unexamined, and unnuanced assessments we see sometimes in cancel culture. 

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