AIDS and ostracism

WHEN Robert Doyle, a construction worker living in Baltimore, was diagnosed as having AIDS, his world fell apart. Doyle lost his job, and his panicky roommate tossed him out of their apartment. Doyle's family would have nothing to do with him. He was briefly hospitalized, then discharged, with no money and no one willing to care for him. There were days when Doyle was entirely alone, totally forgotten and unable to help himself.

The only thing that makes Doyle's story special is that it got some attention in the local press. Many AIDS victims get hit doubly. First, there's the diagnosis. Then there's the social ostracism.

Item: School officials in Kokomo, Ind., insist that a 14-year-old hemophiliac, diagnosed with AIDS, be kept home from school.

Item: A New York City doctor is slapped with an eviction notice by the building where he maintains his practice. Residents of the apartment house are upset by the fact that he treats AIDS patients.

Item: In a People Magazine article, a New Orleans writer starkly describes how his life has been made over by his fear that he might -- just might -- have AIDS. The day after the magazine appears on the newsstands, the writer is fired from his job.

Fear plays a big part in these reactions. Those Kokomo parents worry their children might catch AIDS on the playground; that's why they insist the school banish the victim. Office workers call AIDS hot lines wondering whether they can get the disease from sharing a phone extension with someone who has AIDS. The remedy for these fears is telling the public the facts. AIDS isn't spread casually. No one has caught it from sitting next to an office-mate -- or from giving a hug to a friend. Ostracism is not only inappropriate, it's inhumane.

Prejudice is the darker side of the story. All too often, hostility to AIDS victims is just hostility to the homosexual men who are its chief victims. They use this malady as a rationalization for discrimination.

You don't have to endorse the homosexual life style to agree that it's a terrible idea to turn AIDS victims into social lepers. And you don't have to be a sentimentalist to believe that AIDS patients, homosexual or heterosexual, are people with civil rights. That's the motivation behind an ordinance recently adopted by the Los Angeles City Council which outlaws discrimination based on AIDS. It's why the family of the Kokomo teen-ager is in court arguing that their son be allowed back in school.

AIDS victims suffer most directly from this discrimination. The disease itself is debilitating enough without the added psychological assault of being shunned or banished. But the rest of the community -- that's us -- suffers too. Civil rights laws are only statements about how a just society treats its members. How we respond to those in need tells us a lot about who we are. It's a way of seeing ourselves in the mirror.

``Raise the drawbridge'' is the rallying cry of those who respond to AIDS out of panic or prejudice. But compassion -- for the Rock Hudsons as well as the child born with AIDS -- is a far better standard to maintain. When Robert Doyle's plight became news in Baltimore, a communal group volunteered to take him in. ``The Book of Matthew says you take care of your neighbor,'' said one of Doyle's hosts, ``so we've decided to take the risk.''

David L. Kirp is a professor of law and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

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