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In Memory of Jesse Helms, and The Condom On His House

| 25 Comments

Helms condom on houseOn September 5th, 1991, I put a giant condom over Jesse Helms' house.

Why? Because, as the condom said, "Helms is deadlier than a virus." Senator Jesse Helms was one of the chief architects of AIDS-related stigma in the U.S. He fought against any federal spending on HIV research, treatment or prevention. He once said, referring to homosexuals, "it's their deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct that is responsible for the disease." Here's another choice one: "There is not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy."

By saying words like this on the floor of the Senate, Helms gave a veil of legitimacy to every parent who threw their HIV positive kid out of the house. ACT UP New York was filled with angry young men who experienced this kind of Helms-related hatred.

He proposed and passed laws that are still on the books, enshrining this stigma as official government policy. People with HIV couldn't travel to the U.S. The CDC was not permitted to spend money on preventing the spread of HIV among gay men. Our country never launched a single well-funded HIV prevention campaign because of Jesse Helms. To this day, fifty thousand Americans become infected each year in no small part due to "Senator No".

In the summer of 1991, it was bugging me that gay and AIDS activists had largely left him alone. Sure, there were thousands of angry words said and written excoriating the man for his hate-filled agenda, but no one got up-close-and-personal with a response. We needed to send a proverbial shot across his bow.

One of the best tools an activist can use is humor. If you can get folks laughing at your target's expense, you diminish his power. I wanted the country to have a good laugh at Helms' expense. I wanted his fellow senators to have a little chuckle behind his back. And I wanted Senator Helms to realize that his free ride was up - if he hit us again, we'd hit back.

The Planning

Fortuitously, I had recently met Twilly Cannon, one of the leading activists in Greenpeace - the guy that trained their new recruits in how to accomplish challenging actions like hanging banners from bridges. I told him about my idea for a house-size condom - could we cover Helms' house in less than five minutes so the cops couldn't arrive and stop us? Twilly, ever the optimist, said "no problem."

Step one: find his address. One of the many great things about being gay is that we have access to one of the largest spy networks in the world. There isn't a single organization, company, or government agency anywhere that doesn't have a gay spy willing to share intelligence with their compatriots in the gay underground for the greater good. So I just picked up the phone and called one of our spies in the Hart Senate Office Building. Helms' DC area home was in Arlington, Virginia, on South Glebe Road.

Address in hand, Twilly and I took a road trip to Arlington, and snapped a picture of Helms' simple two-story brick colonial house. Twilly showed me how you could estimate all the measurements of a house by starting with the door. Since most front doors come in a standard size - 80 inches high - we took a ruler to the picture, and did some math.

We didn't need to cover the entire house, just enough of it so that it looked completely covered from the street (where the TV cameras would be). It was a small rectangular house with a steep, salt box roof. We needed a huge inflatable section for the front side of the roof which would tower above the house once inflated, including a reservoir nipple. A long sheet of the same material would lead from the bottom of this "balloon" to the ground, ending in a second inflatable section shaped like a tube (for the unrolled bottom of our condom).

I faxed the specs off to three companies in California that specialized in custom-made inflatables, like the big gorillas in front of car dealerships, telling them that we wanted to cover a house on Long Island that was hosting an AIDS benefit. They sent bids ranging from $3,500 to $15,000.

This was going to be the first action by the newly formed ACT UP affinity group called Treatment Action Guerrillas (which split off from ACT UP a few months later and renamed itself TAG, the Treatment Action Group). We didn't have any money yet, but I stumbled on a donor I kept anonymous for many years. My boyfriend at the time, Kevin Sessums, was good friends with David Geffen. We were on Fire Island Pines that August, and Kevin told David about by plans. David walked up to me on the beach one morning, and handed me a thick wad of cash - $3,000. Problem solved.

TAG Helms SevenI started to recruit our team of activists, the TAG Helms Seven: myself, POZ Magazine founder Sean Strub, Garance Franke-Ruta, Mark Allen (who blogged about it here), Derek Link, Jim Serafini, and Jason Childers. An eighth activist, Dan Baker, agreed to be our coat-and-tie-wearing media spokesperson.

The condom arrived, and we took it up to ACT UP treasurer Marvin Shulman's country home outside New Paltz so that we could practice blowing it up. His house wasn't at all shaped like Helms', but we could use his well-hidden backyard to see how long it took to inflate. Once back in New York, Garance stencil-painted the front of the condom in big block letters, saying "A CONDOM TO STOP UNSAFE POLITICS. HELMS IS DEADLIER THAN A VIRUS."

The Action

We made sure the house was empty. The last thing we wanted was to spend our lives in jail for giving a senator a heart attack. We knew he was on the last week of his summer recess, and probably in North Carolina. We even rang his doorbell the night before to make sure no one was home.

CNN and all the local TV stations were contacted in advance, and only told we'd be putting a condom on a politician's house. They were to meet us at our Arlington motel early that morning, and follow our rented U-Haul truck.

Besides opening the rented ladder in the motel parking lot, we never did an actual walk-through as practice. But we talked it through at length, and everyone had their specific tasks and equipment to manage, including a heavy portable generator, a long extension cord, two ladders, rubber mallets, plastic stakes, one of those early clunky cell phones, a small cold-air blower for the ground, and a large blower with a custom-built stand for the roof.

Sean Strub and I were the roof guys. The condom was made of parachute material, so when carefully rolled up, it fit into a large duffle bag, which I pulled and he pushed up the 28 foot extension ladder. We unfurled it on the roof, connected it to the blower, and prayed the cops took at least five minutes to get there.

As it began to rise, all the guy wires were quickly staked into the lawn on our four sides of the house, while Mark and others used the other ladder to guide the front section past electrical wires and the front door awning.

The first cop car arrived just as the reservoir nipple was beginning to rise, a little over seven minutes after we had arrived. We had done it!

A crazy neighbor started yelling at us. One of the TV crews filmed her complaining to the police, saying "You guys don't want to tangle with these people because you don't want to get AIDS, I know." I heard just yesterday that someone watching the video below recognized her. She's supposedly Becky Norton Dunlop, and was the wife of Helms' administrative assistant (see her Heritage Foundation bio).

I actually saw one of the cops chuckling when he got out of his car. They didn't know what to do at first. Shoot the thing? They spent quite a while radioing their superiors, and eventually asked us for our driver's licenses, wrote down our addresses, and told us it was up to the senator to press charges or not. After the press got all the pictures they needed, I asked the cops if they wanted us to take down the condom, and they let us back on the property to reverse the whole process.

All we got was a parking ticket for parking the truck in the wrong direction. We were free to go, and could take the condom with us. It's now in Los Angeles at the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives.

That night, local TV stations around the country played short funny clips of the action. Senator Helms complained about it on the floor of the Senate a week later, calling us "radical homosexuals."

He never proposed or passed another life-threatening AIDS amendment.

Robert Hilferty, an ex-boyfriend of mine, filmed the action, some of the planning, and a few interviews, and created a wonderful short documentary called TAG Helms. I also uncovered some raw footage from one of the TV stations, and it shows the action from beginning to end.

In loving memory of this special moment in AIDS activism, I'm posting both here for your viewing pleasure.

TAG Helms:

 
Raw footage:



Peter on:

25 Comments

Show Comment(s)

Comments on Peter Staley's blog entry "In Memory of Jesse Helms, and The Condom On His House"

Dear Peter,
When I saw his obit the other day I thought about you and that wonderfully fun day back in 91. Thanks so much for your post--it made my morning coffee absolutely perfect.

Twill

Peter

What a great story to read and be motivated by. Couldn't help but think of The Night Before Christmas...But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,

"With a little old Type A, so athletic and quick,

I knew in a moment it must be St. Dick.

More speedy than snakes his assistants they came,

And he whistled, and cat-called each one by first name;

"Now, Sean, now Mark, now Derek, and Jim, now Garance, Jason and Dan, lest we not forget him! "

Anyway, an inspirational read to be sure.
Thank for your activism then and now.

THANK YOU for conceiving and executing this then long-overdue action and for the details of how it all happened! $3000 in cash on the beach from the hand of a member of "the Gay Mafia"? Now there's a novel plot starting point much more interesting than Elton John popping up in a restaurant to warn Will on "Will & Grace"!

I linked to your account in a post in a thread about the action on today's Towleroad where, of course, Kevin sometimes posts, but, alas, many, in an earlier thread about Helm's death, clucked clucked about how insensitive those of us who celebrate his passing are.

With apologies to Pete Seeger: where have all the balls gone?

Peter,

I worship you. History books, if ever one is printed that has any truth in it... will list you as one of history's most brilliant, audacious, and effective activists.

Thank you for posting such a "fitting" tribute to the distinguished Senator from the great state of North Carolina.

Humbly,

Bruce

Peter--I somehow missed this brilliant bit of theater/community activism when it happened, but as a native North Carolinian and a longtime opponent of all things Helmsian, I must commend you and your crew. Bravo!

Best,

Peter Cashwell
Proud Graduate of the University of Negroes and Communists

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nT5eWtao9X4

I have lived with HIV for at least 24 years. I have lost my life partner and way too many friends. Having lived with this virus for so long and seen all the horrors associated with this pandemic, I find it incredibly sad and disgusting that people like Ronald Reagan, Jerry Falwell and now Jesse Helms are being "martyrized" the way they are. This is as twisted as if Hitler or Mussolini were being praised for their good work. There are so many heros around AIDS, many of them dead, who should be held up as an example of heroism and are not. My only regret when I saw that the evil Helms had died, was that he did not suffer more. Does it sound like I am angry? You bet.

Dear Peter, The greatest day of my life was the day Jesse Helms. Trent Lott called him " a great gentlemen" will consider the source.

Peter,

Thanks for the clips, I remember the story well. Always admired the work you do, especially the past few years with the Meth problem. I did a few demos back in the 80's but was doing a lot of work with GMHC and the Task force back them.

Whenever my friends Wayne Kwadler, Steve Panepinto , Martin McElinhiney or Adam said they needed a few extra bodies I did my best, but you guys were the real deal.

Keep up the great work, glad to see you are still in the fight sir.

Regards,

Patrick Barker

This is the first time I saw this video. What a fantastic act of activism! When I heard that Jesse Helms died, I couldn't help but think that his spirit now understands the damage he did in the US and the world. Helms, Regan, Bush, Frist, Delay, Coburn and many other "leaders" have only perpetuated this virus through their ideology and ignorance. Let's hope that another ideologue is not elected.

Hi everyone, Senator Helms is dead and gone. Lets not look backwards, but continue to move forward in this fight to end AIDS!


Sincerely,

Tony

NOT KNOWING YOU STATUS COULD EQUAL DEATH!

TEST TO LIVE!

I was living in N.C. during the Helms reign, I remember when I would visit out of state and get asked about senator Helms. Most of the comments were anti-helms, I experienced some really tough times as well. I lost my partner to AIDS in 1996. One part of me is happy that he is gone!. but I am human, and better than him. I will celebrate his demise though...

Too bad Jesse wasn't at home when this happened. At least that "know it all Bigot Lady" shown on film was there shouting about private property. She said Mr. Helms hasn't come onto our private property and that's when I said whoaa. Mamm, he has invaded all of the GLBT's by coming into our home by way of TV and with lots more press.
So of course a man on his death bed wants to say he is sorry, because he's dying and he's realized that he was wrong. I feel he could've done a better job of it. Just goes to show, don't mess with us because we have lots of tricks up our sleaves. ha.

Best Regards
Steven Holcomb
3257 Louisville Road
Louisville,TN 37777
hopeintn@charter.net

You Sir, are my Hero!

:P

It's difficult to understand what could cause so much hate & bigotry in a person's heart & for him to have established so much political gain for so many years doesn't say much for politics, but I would prefer to leave that in the past, look at how far we have come & strive to see those issues continue to improve.

thank you... 18 years and i am still alive and kicking... i outlived the old son of a bitch and YOU HELPED!!! thank you from the bottom of my heart. you and activist like you are literally responsible for the fact that i am still alive by the results of your actions. there are no words to tell you how i feel, seeing the films and thinking of the actions of people like you.... it's just glorious... and you are magnificent! bless you real hard!!!
xoxo

Thank you for posting the, "How did they do that?".
Thankfully helms is gone.

Just for the historical record, that was Becky Norton Dunlop in the video. I sent an e-mail to her attention at the Heritage Foundation and she responded from her own e-mail account. My note ironically congratulated her on the bigotry she displayed on the raw footage (e.g. suggesting that the police had reason to fear catching AIDS from the activists).

Her response in full: "I always did believe property rights was important."

Well, um, sure.

WHAT A GREAT STORY. I AM PROUD THAT YOU ARE MY SON! LOVE, MOM

I used to think that even the worst among us had some redeeming quality- but over the years I have given up that line of thinking. The truth is, Jesse Helms hated gays and thought they deserved to get AIDS. He thought this, not because he was simply ignorant, but because he was completely devoid of a single ounce of actual humanity. He went out of his way to make a horrible situation even worse. he chose to not only stay ignorant, but used his power and podium to spread his heartless message. Honestly- I'm glad he's dead. I only wish that he had died sooner- of something that would have stigmatized him and caused undue pain and suffering to him and his family.
This kind of feeling, is what his real legacy is. It overshadows any percieved good he ever did on any other issue. It makes me want to buy a whole pack of house-sized condoms and go door to door covering houses of the people in this world who still choose to be ignorant and spread hate and indifference.

I, for one, am more than happy so see the Old Bastard dead and gone. I hated the man when he was alive, and I see no reason to pretend anything else now that he IS dead. I feel the same way about Ronald Reagan, as a matter of fact.
Having said that, I think it's important to remember that there are STILL people out there who feel the same way. Who was it that said that perhaps Heath Ledger deserved to die because he "played gay" in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN?

Peter -- It's great to read the background on this and to see proof that positive action has real results. We are not powerless; activism works. I am sad about Helms, not that he passed, but that he inspired in me such fear, anger, and hatred. I want to be a better person than he seemed to be. I will never know him, but I choose to believe he too was loved by someone (everyone's got a mother, right?). I hope my anger motivates me to take action to fight for my and other people's rights. But I don't want him, even in death, to spoil my day. Let him pass on, and let's make this a world where people like him, with their hate and divisiveness, no longer have such power.

I had forgotten this! Thanks for the reminder and behind the scenes disclosure.

His neighbor was right about one thing, it did belong on the Capital! The shape of the dome would have worked well and the exposure on the quad would have been incredible! Can you imagine the view President Lincoln would have had! His marble cheeks would have cracked with the grin. But at $3k for his house, the Capital would have taken some serious bucks!

Since I was forced to retire for not lowering our lab flags to honor Helms, I’ve been humbled by many of the stories of the people I’ve heard from. But Peter, I truly can say (as I bow to you with my hands uplifted), I am not worthy!

Great stunt. Helms was a very bigoted, dangerous man and I had the personal satisfaction of pissing on his grave.

Why do I always get cut out of this story? *I* did press work on this too! ;-p

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Staley published on July 8, 2008 9:49 AM.

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