Speaking in voices, learning to talk: The spoken and written culture of the AIDS Foundation of Houston


AIDS has become the most controversial issue to enter the American public discourse in the recent past. AIDS arouses a passionate response in Houston as elsewhere because it lies at the intersection between competing discourses. Contemporary debates on sexual identity, gay politics, sex education, drug use, and health care are changing the shape of public discourses on sexuality, identity, Christianity, public health, and law. The founders of the AIDS Foundation of Houston recognized the need to create a way of speaking about and understanding AIDS which could challenge unsympathetic points of view. The AIDS Foundation of Houston began its organizing and educational activities in 1981. It has become a key player in local political battles over what course Houston's response to the AIDS epidemic would take. As part of their efforts, local groups like the Foundation use a counter-discourse which portrays PWA's not as dangerous sources of contamination or AIDS victims but honestly represented as caring, responsible people who are actively involved in decision making and shaping public policy. This essay explores several aspects of this counter-discourse including both its oral and written aspects. Volunteers and staff at the AIDS Foundation speak about AIDS with a Foundation "etiquette" which protects the secrecy and dignity of persons with AIDS (PWA's) while loudly insisting on a more caring response by the city and state. PWA's, their lovers, friends, and family publicly talk about what it is like to have AIDS in oral narratives as well as through written autobiography and biography. These narratives express the suffering and passion of people with AIDS while also speaking to the political nature of life-threatening illness. These stories confront negative representations with a language of compassion and acceptance. The AIDS Foundation also has a more conventional form of public discourse which is less emotionally intense but is persistent in demanding improved services and AIDS education. The AIDS Foundation of Houston has been successful in creating alternate forms of AIDS discourses, challenging unsympathetic discourses, expanding local services, and teaching their way of speaking to people from all walks of life

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