AIDS in the Metro-East Area: The Politics of Treatment, Care, and Housing

A reflection by Mapping LGBTQ St. Louis research assistant, Karisa Tavassoli (WU Class of 2016):

While researching this summer at the Belleville Illinois Public Library I came across an assortment of newspaper clippings filed under the heading “Bellev. AIDS Home Hospice,” which offers some interesting perspectives on a world-wide epidemic through the lens of local history. Our Place and Bethany’s Place both had a goal of serving people with HIS/AIDS, but the history of each is quite a contrast.

Our Place

In 1989 the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois filed the first lawsuit in the nation under the Fair Housing Act in order to protect people with AIDS. That same year Charles Baxter converted a doctor’s office into a home called “Our Place” in Belleville, IL. He designed the home to provide a safe and supportive space that would allow people with AIDS to live and die with dignity and in community, hence the name “Our Place.” The city denied Baxter a permit for the home out of “fear of bringing people from other areas with AIDS into [their] community”. The ACLU assisted Baxter’s efforts and filed a lawsuit against the city for violation of the Fair Housing Act. The city eventually gave Baxter $39,000 of the $200,000 the ACLU fought for. But after paying off all loans and fees to start the home, Baxter was left with only $4,000.

The city created new obstacles to prevent Our Place from operating by classifying the property as commercial rather than residential. This way, the city could fine Our Place for “improper” codes, forcing Baxter to spend more money on the house rather than on care for patients. For example, the city plumbing inspector demanded the removal of three newly installed toilets (the only toilets of a commercial property required to do so), draining hundreds of dollars from Baxter’s personal funds that he was using to run the house.

graphic and text about Our Place lawsuit

clipping from Belleville Journal, June 7, 1989, page 1A

Our Place left a lasting impact on the entire metro-east St. Louis and Southern Illinois area. This was a time when the LGBTQ community faced not only the physical, mental, and emotional ramifications of the disease but also the social and financial weight of having to advocate for basic rights and access to care. Our Place gave visibility to the struggle, and not only successfully provided a caring and loving space for people with AIDS, but paved the way for others to develop similar future homes without as many barriers. Baxter had to turn many people down from the house due to lack of space and resources, and the house eventually closed after only two months. The house at 310 S. Illinois St., which operated from September to November of 1989. It was torn down to make way for a parking lot in December of 1990.

Bethany Place

In contrast, Bethany Place, designed for AIDS patients and their friends and families to receive counseling and testing, stayed open for much longer.

In the early 1980s, two Franciscan nuns from Belleville, Sister Thomas and Sister Mary Ellen Rombach, left Illinois to serve and spend time with AIDS patients in the lower west side of Manhattan, NY. At a time when many feared transmission of HIV through casual contact, the two nuns took purposeful steps to combat stigmas surrounding HIV/AIDS, and ultimately concluded that “the real epidemic of AIDS is fear.” They returned to Belleville where they opened Bethany’s Place on 301 W. Lincoln St. in 1988, which then moved to 224 W. Washington St. in 1989. Bethany Place later moved to 821 West A Street and remains the largest non-profit in the Metro-East area of St. Louis that provides HIV prevention and support.

It is important to note that the Christian affiliation and family-focus of Bethany place may have likely allowed the organization to exist under “conservative” (and racist, homophobic, classist, ableist) political structures. Our Place was started by a single man who focused on helping individuals (presumably gay and bisexual men) who had little to no income or possessions after high medical bills. In contrast, Bethany Place did not disrupt any of the power structures that Our Place shook up. Bethany Place perpetuated white Christian values, was not founded by queer folks, and did not have specific language that tied it to serving LGBTQ populations. As we continue to fill in the significant gaps in historical records of LGBTQ communities in southern Illinois/metro-east St. Louis, we must be aware of what organizations and communities were deemed acceptable by the state, and which ones were targeted due to homophobia, racism, classism, and so on. Only then can we more fully understand why certain resources are lacking today.

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About the author

Miranda Rectenwald is Curator of Local History, Washington University Special Collections. More info.