North Carolina’s Jesse Helms was no gay hero. A look through history and even a cursory review of his record proves Helms was nothing but a bigot whose time had clearly come and gone long after he continued to hold his 30-year tenure in the U.S. Senate.
The facts, however, aren’t stopping Wingate, N.C.’s Jesse Helms Center from an attempt to sanitize Helms’ history and actions regarding LGBT people and HIV/AIDS.
The New York Times reported in March:
“Despite Mr. Helms’s storied opposition to ‘a homosexual lifestyle,’ the Jesse Helms Center in Wingate, N.C., is challenging the idea that he was a “homophobe” or obstructive in the AIDS fight.
“According to the center’s Web site, ‘It was Senator Helms who worked most tirelessly to protect the very principles of freedom that homosexuals are denied in many other nations.’”
When Helms passed away in July 2008, qnotes devoted most of its news coverage to his life and legacy. The title of the feature piece, “Burying a fossil,” served as an appropriate epitaph for a life that caused so many so much pain and trauma.
From our July 2008 coverage, below are the facts on Helms’ homophobia and racism — truths the Helms Center is ashamed to admit or acknowledge.
Top of the heap, bottom of the barrel
Excerpt from ‘Burying a fossil,’ July 26, 2008
by Matt Comer
There’s no doubt that the ’80s and early-to-mid ’90s saw Helms at his political and rhetorical height. Taking the chairmanship of the Agriculture Committee put him in a position to defend tobacco and challenge expansion of the federal food stamp program.
In fact, as a longtime detractor of welfare as government-sanctioned “bumism,” Helms fought bitterly against expansion of most social aid programs.
He explained his opposition in 1965. “It’s all very well and good to talk about ‘uplifting society,’ but somewhere along the line we must face the fact that from the beginning of time a lot of human beings have been born bums, but most of them — until fairly recently — were kept from behaving like bums because work was necessary for all who wished to eat. The more we remove the penalties for being a bum, the more bumism is going to blossom.”
In 1982, Helms pushed the Senate to permanently ban federal funding for abortion and bar federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, from hearing challenges to organized school prayer. Although both proposals were defeated, Helms was lauded by Christian fundamentalists for his unwavering “moral conviction.”
Among moderate and liberal Americans, however, Helms’ was notorious for his radically conservative and racist views. And, as lesbians and gays became increasingly visible, Helms’ attacks on the LGBT community grew in equal measure.
“Jesse Helms was first elected to the U.S. Senate while I was living in San Francisco,” Mandy Carter, a Durham-based, nationally-respected LGBT activist, recalled to qnotes. “He had already made his reputation for being a staunch segregationist during the Civil Rights movement as a commentator for WRAL-TV. Once he became a sitting U.S. Senator, his reputation for being anti-gay became equally well-known. He was well-known in San Francisco with its large gay and lesbian community.”
With the the rise of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the early ’80s, Helms became fully engaged in the fight — against the victims, demonizing them for “bringing it on themselves.”
“We spend a great deal of time focusing on the needs of drug addicts and homosexual men,” Helms said on the Senate floor in 1989. “The AZT Program has money which could be better spent on others. Even the most innocent of AIDS patients, children infected by their parents, reap no benefit from this program. If the American people have to fund an AIDS treatment program, at least let the money go to those who have contracted this disease through no fault of their own.”
In 1990 when the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act came up for debate, Helms attempted — unsuccessfully — to block its passage. During debate he decried HIV/AIDS victims’ contraction of the disease as a result of their “deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct” and said that there was “not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy.”
As if having no sympathy for the unknown victims of HIV/AIDS wasn’t enough, Helms also showed no compassion for the stricken sons of his very own friends. In June 1995, Patsy Clarke, whose husband was a friend of Helms, wrote the senator a letter describing her gay son’s battle with HIV/AIDS.
“My reason for writing to you is not to plead for funds, although I’d like to ask your support for AIDS research; it is not to [ask you to] accept a lifestyle which is abhorrent to you; it is rather to ask you not to pass judgment on other human beings as ‘deserving what they get.’ No one deserves that. AIDS is not a disgrace, it is a TRAGEDY.”
Helms response was short and far less than sweet.
“I know that Mark’s death was devastating to you,” he replied two weeks later. “As for homosexuality, the Bible judges it, I do not. … As for Mark, I wish he had not played Russian roulette with his sexual activity.”
Helms’ cold reply was a call to action and in a matter of months mothers of HIV-infected and/or gay children were standing arm-in-arm to see him defeated.
Of course, this harsh incident was nothing new for the hard-hearted public servant. In 1983, he unsuccessfully attempted to block federal legislation making Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a federal holiday by accusing King of “action-oriented Marxism” and attacking his morality.
Ten years later, he stepped into a Senate elevator with black colleague Carol Moseley-Braun and began singing “Dixie.” Turning to friend and colleague Orin Hatch, Helms said, “I’m going to sing ‘Dixie’ till she cries.” : :
Read the rest of ‘Burying a fossil’ at qnotescarolinas.com/burying-a-fossil/.