To the students who were unaware that Stephen Plumb was dying, his physical condition would have quickly revealed the truth. Upon his 1991 return to the Hilltop, Plumb weighed 50 pounds less than he did at his graduation. He coughed frequently, with his halted speech on display that day as he shared his experience.

Stephen Plumb had AIDS, and he was dying.

AIDS had claimed victims among Georgetown’s students before Plumb and continues to plague our communities today. But when Plumb arrived at Georgetown in 1984, AIDS did not sit nervously on the tongues of students, tainting even casual encounters. The menace only unmasked itself to Georgetown in November 1986, when an investigation by The Voice revealed that two students had died of AIDS the previous year.

Many students expressed shock that AIDS — a disease marginalized alongside the LGBTQ communities with which it was associated — had found a place at Georgetown. They had misunderstood the crisis severely.

If AIDS still could shock students, it could not instill the same surprise in medical professionals. Early on in the crisis, the Centers for Disease Control had begun pushing aggressively for widespread condom use and availability. Georgetown administrators moved with less vigor.

When The Voice revealed the presence of AIDS on campus in 1986, then-Dean of Student Affairs John J. DeGioia admitted that the university’s Catholic identity impeded his understanding of what steps the university would take to combat AIDS beyond the ongoing formation of an education plan.

Some students moved to take matters into their own hands. In a 2001 interview, longtime Director of Student Health Education Services Carol Day recalled being approached by students who had found previous presentations on AIDS unpalatable. Alongside the Georgetown University Student Association and the Office of Residential Living, these students would pilot the program that ultimately became Georgetown’s Peer Education program.

Throughout the 1990s, Peer Education counselled students on sexually transmitted infections, sexual assault and condom use and demonstrated proper contraceptive use, even making condoms available to students during the sessions.

The first peer educators were not the only students to attempt to supplement what they viewed as inadequate university response. One Friday night in 1993, H*yas for Choice, the unofficial result of Georgetown’s steadfast refusal to provide contraceptives on campus, sprang into action at popular spots on campus, passing out condoms to Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex.”

If HFC was the troublesome child, Georgetown convincingly played its part as the patronizing parent.

In 1991, Students of Georgetown Inc. attempted to sell condoms at its now defunct Saxa Sundries location. An informal GUSA poll found that The Corp had the backing of students by a margin of 11-1. But that did not persuade the university.

Addressing a GUSA meeting on the issue, DeGioia let his impatience flicker.

“[I cannot] accept that the campus is really far removed from condoms, when they’re only an eighth-mile walk away,” he said. “Nobody complains about walking to Dixie’s to get alcohol, but they can’t walk [the same distance] for condoms?”

Those words worked to diminish the seriousness of the public health threat, and they implicated the victims of AIDS in their own suffering. They also provided an early signal that Peer Education occupied an imperiled position.

In 1998, this position would become even more precarious. A group of students concerned that the single instance of condom distribution taking place at Georgetown injured Georgetown’s Catholic heritage formed the Committee to Reform Peer Education. Although that distribution was geared specifically to protect students from AIDS and other STIs, the committee began a campaign to halt condom distribution through Peer Education.

By way of a letter from a concerned parent, the committee’s campaign drew the attention of the Archdiocese of Washington. At the urging of then-Cardinal James Hickey, who had previously convinced Georgetown to bar a gay Catholic group from using university space, the university decided to bar condom distribution at Peer Education. The only exception to the university’s longstanding policy crumbled.

While this decision wounded many, it surprised few. Those suffering from AIDS had always felt Georgetown’s response inadequate. The undergraduate whose death exploded the issue in 1986 had hidden his illness, not checking into the hospital until the day of his death.

Stephen Plumb had a chance to offer his perspective more publicly.

“I appreciate that Georgetown is a Catholic university,” he said. “I understand that university’s concern over selling condoms, but I consider condoms protection, not birth control.”
Georgetown had inflicted a stigma upon Stephen Plumb.

“[Most] victims aren’t proud of their disease,” Plumb, who would succumb to AIDS in 1992, said, “but at least they aren’t made to feel guilty about it.”

Matthew QuallenMatt Quallen is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Hoya Historian appears every other Friday.

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2 Comments

  1. I really like these historical columns.

  2. Mathewwww!!! this was great! So proud of you! -Mash

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