“The initial conversation was kind of disbelief: ‘There’s no such thing as gay cancer, it’s not possible,’” Aliberti said. “And a little bit of shock: ‘Oh my god, is this for real?’ It was pretty much decided that afternoon that we needed to do something.”
Graham Bruton had been the social coordinator for this group of friends, planning card games and lake outings. Now he was leading gay Atlanta’s grassroots response to the disease that would soon be known as AIDS.
“He was full of energy all the time,” Aliberti said. “Graham immediately sent off to New York and got a lot of pamphlets and brochures from [the Gay Men’s Health Crisis], and Graham really coordinated all of that.”
Bruton became the president of the new organization — AID Atlanta — that the friends had started to raise awareness about the new disease, with Aliberti serving as vice president.
“Graham was always a visionary,” said.
Mary Jenks, another founding member of AID Atlanta. “He was always trying to figure out what the next step would be, and look way ahead to see where things needed to go.”
As the organization marks its 30th anniversary this year, it will show its appreciation to its founders at the AID Atlanta Honors party, slated for June 14 at Schwartz-Goldstein Hall at The Temple. Tickets begin at $35 for the gala evening of awards and celebration, with higher donor levels available.
The founders of AID Atlanta will receive the “Georgia Honors” that evening. The event also recognizes the contributions of Kevin Fenton, director of the HIV/AIDS division at the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (National Honors), as well the employees of Gap Inc. (Community Honors), Autotrader.com (Corporate Honors), and Tom Roeck, former chief financial officer of Delta (Kenneth F. Britt Service Award).
‘No one had ever heard of safe sex’
Aliberti recently visited AID Atlanta’s offices for the first time in years, and was amazed by the size of the organization and the scope of services provided. The founders of AID Atlanta had a single mission in the earliest days: simply make people aware of the possibility that a new disease was on the horizon.
Their morbid warnings were counter to the spirit of sexual liberation that lingered from the 1970s, and encountered resistance from some.
AID Atlanta leaders wanted to produce their own informational brochure on the disease, and following the lead of a group in San Francisco, they wanted it to promote condom use.
“That was quite controversial,” Aliberti recalled.
“No one had ever heard of safe sex.”
At one point, several gay bar owners asked to meet with AID Atlanta organizers to discuss the new group’s goals.
“It basically was yelling and screaming at us because they told us, ‘You can’t tell people to have safe sex, you can’t tell people how to lead their lives,’” Aliberti said.
After AID Atlanta printed its brochures in early 1983, they were placed in racks inside most gay clubs and bars, but the message was either being ignored or sabotaged.
“The stands started disappearing,” Aliberti said. “People started stealing them, people who didn’t want the word about safe sex to get out there, so we had to post guards at some places.”
However, opposition to AID Atlanta’s efforts was far from universal.
“It’s important for people to understand that, immediately, a lot of people came forward to help get this started,” Aliberti said. “There were entertainers, Charlie Brown helped us raise some money in the very beginning, a couple of the club owners.
The women’s community came forward very fast, they were the first bar to do a fundraiser for us [at the former lesbian bar The Sports Page].”
Gratitude and sorrow
Aliberti and Jenks both have bittersweet
feelings about the 30th anniversary of the organization they helped found: gratitude for the services it continues to provide, and sorrow that it’s still necessary.
Within a year, the plague that they had been warning about marched through gay Atlanta with a viciousness that would have given General Sherman goose bumps. Aliberti estimated he lost more than 100 friends in the subsequent years.
“And these were like friend, friends – not just people you passed on the street,” he said.
Friends like Graham Bruton, who died in 1993, but not before saving thousands of lives.
“If Graham hadn’t done it when he did it, how long would it have taken somebody before they did this?” Jenks wondered. “Who would have stepped up and done it? It’s the same type of thing today — you can’t rely on the government to do everything. If you want something done, then do it. That’s just who Graham was, and that’s the power of what one individual can do.”
Top photo: Left: Among those being celebrated June 14 at AID Atlanta Honors are the CDC’s Dr. Kevin Fenton (National Honors) and the founders of AID Atlanta (Community Honors). The founders include (pictured right) Graham Bruton, Brian Clark, Peter Aliberti and Mary Jenks. (Fenton photo courtesy CDC; founders photo courtesy Mary Jenks)