When the HIV/AIDS crisis came to Mankato

When I first saw “Rent” on Broadway when I was in high-school, I was mezmerized  by the rock opera. It was the sort of thing, growing up in a small town in Upstate New York, that I had never gotten a chance to experience.

Recently, the Minnesota State’s theater department staged “Rent” and I was able to experience the play for a second time. It was just about as good as when I remember seeing it on Broadway.

“Rent” was written by Jonathan Larson in the 90s. The reason it became a cultural touchstone was because of its willingness to address the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Multiple characters in the play are diagnosed or described as being HIV positive.

In Mankato, the HIV/AIDS pandemic had a significant impact, and it especially had a significant impact on the LGBTQ community here. 

In the 80s and into the 90s, being diagnosed with HIV was considered a death sentence. While treatments have been developed to treat HIV and prevent its spread, the early years of the pandemic were a scary time for the LGBTQ community.

However, when local activist Jim Chalgren was diagnosed as HIV positive, he refused to describe himself as dying of HIV. He instead insisted that he was in fact living with HIV.

As the number of people diagnosed increased, the local LGBTQ community rose to the occassion. The Alternative Lifestyle Office (the forerunner to the Jim Chalgren LGBT Center) held educational forums and started distributing condoms.

The crisis would also help push Chalgren and his supporters to make a second effort to push for an ordinance to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in Mankato. The first effort was in 1977 and ended after the Mankato city council voted to simply table the issue.

With the HIV/AIDS crisis in full swing, the need for such an ordinance had never been clearer. At the time, the AIDS/HIV epidemic was used to whip up homophobic and transphobic bigotry by anti-LGBTQ groups. It was certainly a particularly popular subject for the vile Chick Tracts by Jack Trick. 

This would result in the 80s becoming perhaps the most volatile and violent era for the local LGBTQ community.  No less than three murders of gay men took place during that decade in the area.

Henry “Bud” Quimby was murdered in his home in North Mankato in 1981 before the AIDS/HIV crisis had entered the public consciousness. However the murders of Bill Schaefer in New Ulm and David Wagner in Mankato both took place in 1987, during the height of the AIDS/HIV crisis.

However, the efforts to push for a non-discrimination ordinance in 1987 would fail a second time, causing Chalgren to leave Mankato for St. Paul.

Today, HIV is still a serious issue and people should take steps to protect themselves and others. PREP and condoms are both means that help prevent the transmission of HIV during sexual activities and it’s important for people who are at risk of contracting HIV or other sexually transmitted infections to get tested regularly.

After all, we are all living right here, right now, whether we have been diagnosed with HIV or not.

Courtesy Jeremy Redlien

Write to Jeremy Redlien at Jeremy.redlien@mnsu.edu

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