Overcoming Stigma: Ryan White, Hamilton Heights, and Tony Cook’s Educational Crusade

Ryan in the hallway of Hamilton Heights High School, 1987, courtesy of Time & Life Magazine.

In the early years of the AIDS crisis, when fear and misunderstanding accompanied any mention of the disease, schools across the nation faced a decision: whether to allow students diagnosed with AIDS to attend classes. In October 1985, a New York school district barred children from attending classes after officials learned that their mothers’ boyfriends had been diagnosed with the disease. When a different New York district admitted a student with AIDS around that same time, attendance dropped by 25%, despite the fact that the specific school the child was attending was kept confidential. In Swansea, Massachusetts, school officials decided to “do the right thing” by admitting a teenager living with AIDS—only two families decided to keep their children from school after the decision. A year earlier, in late 1984, a Dade County, Florida school admitted triplets who had been diagnosed with AIDS, but kept the siblings isolated from the rest of the students.

The (Elwood) Call-Leader, Oct. 04, 1985, 1.
Ryan White’s physician listens to his lungs while his mother, Jeanne White, looks on, courtesy of Time & Life Magazine.

While new controversies sprung up around the nation, one school in Central Indiana shot to the forefront of the debate in the summer of 1985. Ryan White, a 7th grade student in Howard County, was diagnosed with AIDS in December 1984 after contracting the disease from a contaminated hemophilia treatment. For several months, he was too ill to return to school, but in the spring of 1985 he began voicing his desire to return to his normal life by resuming classes at Western Middle School. When his mother met with school officials to talk about this possibility, she was met with resistance. Concerns about the health of other students, and that of Ryan himself, whose immune system had been ravaged by his illness, gave officials pause. In one of the earliest news articles about the issue, Western School Superintendent J.O. Smith asked:

You tell me. What would you do? . . . I don’t know. We’ve asked the State Board of Health. We’re expecting something from them. But nobody has anything to go by. Everybody wanted to know what they’re doing in other places. But we don’t have any precedent for this.

These two headlines ran within one day of each other in October 1984. Top: York Daily Record, October 11, 1984, 23. Bottom: San Francisco Examiner, October 10, 1984, 15.

He was right. While a few schools had faced similar situations, the issues surrounding a child with AIDS attending school, namely, the risk this posed to other students, were far from settled. At this time, new and conflicting information came out at a dizzying pace. Most reports held that AIDS was not transmissible through casual contact, but others implied that you couldn’t rule out the possibility of it being passed through saliva, which would have made it a much bigger threat. With so much information—and misinformation—in the news cycle, the desire to hear from health authorities on the topic was understandable.

Three months later, the Board of Health released a document containing detailed guidelines for children with AIDS attending school:

AIDS/ARC children should be allowed to attend school as long as they behave acceptably . . . and have no uncoverable sores or skin eruptions. Routine and standard procedures should be used to clean up after a child has an accident or injury at school.

Despite this recommendation, Western School Corporation officials continued to deny Ryan admittance to class. Instead, they set up a remote learning system. From the confines of his bedroom, Ryan dialed in to his classes via telephone and listened to his teachers lecture. He missed out on visual aids, class participation, and sometimes the lectures themselves, as the line was often garbled or disconnected.

Ryan participating in the Western School Corporation’s remote learning system from his home, courtesy of Getty Images.

A November ruling, this time by the Department of Education, confirmed the Board of Health’s assertion that Ryan should be admitted to class:

The child is to be admitted to the regular classrooms of the school at such times as the child’s health allows in accordance with the Indiana State Board of Health guidelines.

Ryan returned to school for one day before the school filed an appeal and he was once again removed from class. A series of rulings, appeals, and other legal filings followed, ultimately ending when the Indiana Court of Appeals declined to hear further arguments and Ryan finally got what he and his family had fought so hard for—returning to classes for good. However, upon his August 25, 1986 return, Ryan faced intense discrimination from classmates and other community members. Addressing the Presidential Commission on the HIV Epidemic in 1988, Ryan recalled some of the more poignant moments from his time in Kokomo:

Some restaurants threw away my dishes, my school locker was vandalized inside and folders were marked ‘fag’ and other obscenities. I was labeled a troublemaker, my mom an unfit mother, and I was not welcome anywhere. People would get up and leave so they would not have to sit anywhere near me. Even at church, people would not shake my hand.

Because of these negative hometown experiences and his desire to evade oppressive media coverage, Ryan asked his mother if they could move out of Howard County. When the family decided to settle in Cicero, they couldn’t have known how drastically different their lives were about to become.

Ryan poses with students from Hamilton Heights Middle School, along with principle Tony Cook (right), courtesy of the Hamilton County Times.

Tony Cook, who was the Hamilton Heights High School principal in the 1980s and is now a State Representative, heard through informal channels that Ryan’s family was moving into his school district in April 1987. The degree of media coverage surrounding Ryan’s battle to attend classes meant that Cook was well aware that his community’s reaction to the White family’s arrival would be heavily scrutinized. Thus, he set out on an AIDS educational crusade the likes of which had not been seen before.

With the backing of his superintendent and school board, Cook quickly made the decision that not only would Ryan be admitted to the school, but there would be no restrictions placed on what Ryan was able to do in school (while in class in Western Middle School, he was not able to attend gym, used a separate restroom, and ate off of disposable trays with plastic utensils.) After gathering AIDS-related materials from the Indiana State Board of Health, the Center for Disease Control, major newspapers, and scientific journals, Tony Cook turned what was supposed to be his summer break into a months-long educational campaign.

Throughout the coming months, Cook spoke about AIDS at Kiwanis groups, Rotary Clubs, churches, and to any group that asked. He sat in living rooms and at kitchen tables throughout the community, personally addressing the concerns of fellow citizens. The school developed a collection of AIDS education materials that could be checked out by students. Tony contacted members of the student government to ask them to act as student ambassadors, advocating on Ryan’s behalf with their fellow students and the media. The school staff went through additional training to prepare them for the possibility of a blood or other biohazard spill. By the time the school year came around, Cicero, Arcadia, and the surrounding area had some of the best informed populations when it came to AIDS.

The first few days of the 1987-1988 school year at Hamilton Heights High School were peppered with convocations in which Cook addressed each grade level to assuage any remaining concerns over sharing classrooms and hallways with Ryan. Students were encouraged to ask questions and support was provided for any feeling uncomfortable with the situation. Administration also offered to change class schedules to avoid conflict.

Ryan with classmates at Hamilton Heights High School, courtesy of Britannica.com.

On Ryan’s first day of class, which was a week after school started, the campaign seemed to have been successful. As the press surrounded him on his way out, he smiled and said, “It went really great—really. Everybody was real nice and friendly.” Later, when speaking in front of the Presidential Commission on the HIV Epidemic, Ryan attributed his positive experiences at Hamilton Heights directly to the education campaign:

I am a normal, happy teenager again . . . I’m just one of the kids, and all because the students at Hamilton Heights High School listened to the facts, educated their parents and themselves, and believed in me . . . Hamilton Heights High School is proof that AIDS education in schools works.

When reflecting on the experience in a recent interview, Representative Cook spoke to the power of education to overcome even the most intense fear, “Yes, there were some folks that were uneasy and nervous, but we did see education overcome. And we saw a community that . . . trusted us.” One obstacle Ryan and the school faced was the sheer amount of publicity surrounding his move to Hamilton County. Hamilton Heights High School was an open campus–students traveled between three different buildings throughout the day–which would have made having members of the media on campus both distracting and potentially dangerous. But restricting access all together also wasn’t possible, as Ryan was a nationally-known figure by this time. The compromise was to have weekly press conferences during which Ryan, student ambassadors, and faculty could answer questions and update the press about the goings-on at the school, a practice that persisted throughout Ryan’s first full semester at Hamilton Heights.

Ryan in April 1988, courtesy of Time Magazine.

After that first semester, the media began to lose interest in the story as it became more and more apparent that a mass walk-out or other dramatic event would not take place. The first time Tony Cook met Ryan, Cook asked why Ryan wanted so badly to attend school. During our interview with Representative Cook, he recalled that the fifteen-year-old Ryan, who by that time had been in the middle of a media storm for nearly two years, replied “’I just want to be a normal kid . . . I may die. So, for me, it’s important that I try to experience the high school experience as well as I can.” At Hamilton Heights High School, Ryan was able to do just that.

In the years following Ryan’s acceptance into Hamilton Heights High School, Ryan, Tony Cook, and others who had been involved in the educational program traveled around the country advocating for increased AIDS education. By August 1988, just one year after Ryan’s first day at Hamilton Heights, the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis began developing an exhibit centering on the issue:

While Ryan White zips around the country speaking out for AIDS education, the students of Hamilton Heights High School are telling children visiting The Children’s Museum in Indianapolis what it was like accepting Ryan into school . . . ‘I think everyone was uneasy at first,’ said one student on the videotape about Ryan’s coming to the school. ‘Education eased a lot of people’s minds,’ said another student.

Sixth grade students listen to Heather Stephenson, a high school friend of Ryan, about bullying in Ryan’s room at the Power of Children exhibit, courtesy of the Washington Times.

Ryan White died on April 15, 1990 after being admitted to Riley Hospital for Children with a respiratory tract infection. In 2001, Ryan’s mother, Jeanne, donated the contents of his bedroom to the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, where it has been painstakingly recreated as part of the “Power of Children” exhibit.  The museum also houses thousands of letters written to Ryan and his family throughout his illness. You can read the letters and even help transcribe them here.

Gloria Frankel & The Seahorse: The South Bend LGBT Club’s Fight for Gay Rights

In 2015, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend announced in a South Bend Tribune op-ed that he was gay, making him Indiana’s first openly gay mayor. Four decades before Buttigieg’s announcement, the city reportedly outlawed same-sex dancing. In 1974, Gloria Frankel and her gay club, The Seahorse Cabaret, withstood police harassment, challenged regulations against LGBT individuals, and endured a firebombing. In this post, we explore the fight for gay rights in the Michiana area and the intrepid woman who lead the charge.

Gloria Frankel (right) and friend, circa 1950s, courtesy of LGBTQ Collection, Michiana Memory, St. Joseph County Public Library.

According to Ben Wineland’s “Then and Now: The Origins and Development of the Gay Community in South Bend,” Frankel opened South Bend’s first gay club in the early 1970s. Its opening followed the famous Stonewall Riots of 1969, in which members of New York City’s LGBT bar community responded to a police raid with a series of violent protests. The riots immediately forwarded the gay liberation movement and the fight for LGBT rights in America. LGBT individuals in smaller cities capitalized on the momentum by opening bars that fostered gay communities and provided them with a relatively safe space for entertainment, dialogue, and activism.

Frankel filled this role in South Bend with The Seahorse. She hosted shows and events, and distributed fliers for them, an act “which embodied the new kind of confidence and visibility that the Stonewall riots helped to create.” Also like those who frequented the raided Stonewall Inn, patrons of The Seahorse encountered an intimidating police presence, in which officers would “‘walk around and make people nervous. ‘Cause it was a gay bar'” (Wineland, 74). In 2005, Frankel recalled “I always wanted to open a bar where gay people openly socialized with each other. Back when I first opened the bar, people were ashamed of who they were and frightened of the severe consequences if they were found out. And at the time, being caught in a gay bar would land you in jail and lose you your job.” Wineland contended that The Seahorse was considered a threat by law enforcement because it “became more than just a hole in the wall, it looked to the opposition like hope; a hope for visibility, mainstream appeal, and a point of organization for the gay movement.”

Lambda Society of Michiana, newsletter, February 1975, courtesy of LGBTQ Collection, Michiana Memory, St. Joseph County Public Library.

According to oral history interviews with Seahorse patrons-conducted by Katie Madonna Lee, producer of a forthcoming documentary about the club-a city ordinance prohibited same sex dancing until 1974. One interviewee recalled that if men were found dancing or being affectionate they would be arrested, escorted to the police station, and charged with a lewd act. According to these interviews and Frankel’s obituary, Gloria combated this by successfully challenging the City of South Bend to allow same sex dancing. More research should be undertaken regarding her reported legal battle. The Lambda Society* of Michiana was also concerned with laws discriminating against the gay community, urging newsletter readers in 1974 and 1975 to write their legislators.

Lambda Society of Michiana newsletter, p.4, February 1975, courtesy of LGBTQ Collection, Michiana Memory, St. Joseph County Public Library.

In a May 1974 newsletter, the organization noted a desire to evolve from social objectives to those also involving advocacy. It noted that the organization was founded “because gay is more than sexual preference, and because gay can be more than just an alternative life style. Lambda has struggled through nine months offering little more than social functions as an alternative to the bars, baths, and bus station.”

Newsletter articles about the 1974 Indiana Gay Awareness Conference in Bloomington, Indiana give a window into the origins of mobilized political action for Michiana’s LGBT community. One article noted that after discussing issues that gay individuals encountered with their families, police, landlords, and employers, the decision was made to “address the problem, which is not that we are criminals, but how to help others deal with their problems with homosexuality.” There was a panel discussion regarding “Gayness and the Law” and efforts were made to aid attorneys handling related cases. When discussing Indiana laws “hope was expressed that in the re-codification of our criminal code, consenting adult acts will be eliminated.” Notably,

mention was made that Illinois and Ohio have already removed consenting acts by adults from the criminal statues, that legislation is now pending in Michigan, and Kentucky is also considering some similar action, leaving Indiana ‘an island of persecution’ (perversion?).

Cover of TIME.com, September 8, 1975, a year of national conversation about gay acceptance.

The conference also held sessions about topics such as “Telling Your Parents,” “Professionals,” and “Racial Problems.” One newsletter author reflected candidly that “to say that this conference produced any dramatic changes or systems for dramatic changes, would be wrong.” However, it planted the seeds for unified efforts to change perspectives about homosexuals. The newsletter article noted that the conference showed “groups and individuals that there are others in our state willing to meet and try for change. As with all new associations, time and experience with each other and ourselves will cement the relationship into a working coalition for change.” The author concluded by stating “I learned more about others and my own attitutes [sic] towards homosexuals and straights. . . . we all joined hands in a circle, raised them high, singing We Shall Overcome – I was frightened – I was thrilled – I couldn’t have done that 24 hours earlier.” A 1975 newsletter illustrated some community support, printing an invitation from the Michiana Metropolitan Community Church, whose objective was to “better relationships amongst ourselves and within the community around us.”

Sea Horse II, moving announcement, 1975, courtesy of LGBTQ Collection, Michiana Memory, St. Joseph County Public Library.

Frankel too sought to forward the rights, identity, and well-being of the gay community. This may have been the motive behind someone stealing her car and setting it on fire in 1975. That year, a “Concerned Patron” wrote to the South Bend Tribune that the bar had to board its windows due to “rock and bottle throwing incidents” and that patrons only entered through the front door as a safety precaution. Nevertheless, Frankel’s Seahorse hosted Michiana Lambda Society events and successfully grew the local LGBT community, underscored by having to open The Seahorse II to accommodate an increase in patronage. Frankel also served as an unofficial mentor to others in South Bend who established gay bars, such as Jeannie’s Tavern and Vickie’s. She advised her “bar children” and had significant input regarding their businesses.

The Seahorse suffered a blow in 1982, when it was firebombed by an unidentified arsonist at 6:30 a.m. Residents who lived in apartments above the bar fled and one was hospitalized. Although firefighters contained the flames to the front of the building, it suffered approximately $90,000 worth of smoke damage.

The Seahorse after firebombing, 1982, courtesy of The Seahorse Facebook page.

Though devastating, the bombing demonstrated the solidarity of the South Bend’s LGBT community. According to code, the bar would be shut down if it could not get back to standards within ten days. Members of the community rallied to repair and clean it, shocking officials by getting the club back to code and reopening within the allotted time. They celebrated by hosting their annual anniversary party.

In the mid-1980s, the city used code enforcement to stymie Seahorse operations. This included denying the routine renewal of a liquor license and challenging the acquisition of a parking lot for customers. The Seahorse perceived these actions to be discriminatory, while the city insisted they were not.

Frankel continued to serve as a pillar of South Bend’s gay community when she led the local fight against HIV/AIDS in the early 1990s, funding AIDS ministries and making The Seahorse a cite of free HIV testing. Frankel stated “At that time gays were being terribly discriminated against, and many were afraid to go [to] the health department to get tested. So with the help of some friends, we cleaned up the back garage and turned it into a counseling center.”

The Seahorse continued to be foundational to South Bend’s LGBT community until 2007, when Frankel passed away. The club closed shortly thereafter and Jeannie’s Tavern became the home of Seahorse patrons and performers. However, Frankel’s pioneering efforts established South Bend’s enduring LGBT community.

The Seahorse Cabaret stage, courtesy of The Seahorse Facebook page.

*Lambda Legal Non-Profit Organization was founded in 1973 as “the nation’s first legal organization dedicated to achieving full equality for lesbian and gay people.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this blog, citing an oral history, suggested the profession of the arsonists. Also citing the same oral history, the blogger stated that Frankel erected a wall around the bar for protection. Former employees of the bar at the time of the arson have called into question the veracity of the oral history’s claims on these two points. In an effort for us to present an accurate account of the historical events, we have edited the blog accordingly.

Sources:

Conversation with Margaret Fosmoe, a South Bend Tribune reporter who graciously searched the newspaper’s archive for articles for this post.

Conversation with Katie Madonna Lee, producer of a forthcoming documentary about The Seahorse. Lee has conducted interviews and done extensive archival research about South Bend LGBTQ history.

Diane Frederick, “Homosexuality Laws Vary Widely,” Indianapolis News, August 22, 1975, 1, Indiana State Library, Clippings File-Homosexuality.

The South Bend Tribune, September 4, 1975, accessed Newspapers.com.

“The Seahorse,” The South Bend Tribune, September 11, 1975, accessed Newspapers.com.

Kathy Harsh, “Arson Suspected in Tavern Fire,” South Bend Tribune, November 26, 1982, Indiana State Library, microfilm.

St. Joseph County Public Library, Michiana Memory, LGBTQ Collection of the Civil Rights Heritage Center.

“Frankel Reaches 2 Milestones,” The South Bend Tribune, April 28, 2005, accessed Newspapers.com.

Ben Wineland, “Then and Now: The Origins and Development of the Gay Community in South Bend,” Indiana University South Bend Undergraduate Research Journal of History, vol. VI (2016): 69-79, accessed scholarworks.iu.edu.