"We need protection against Helms' bigotry and ignorance. Condoms have worked pretty well in protecting against HIV, so we decided to try one on the senator." --James Serafini, one of the "TAG 7"
In the summer of 1991, Wall Street bond trader-turned-AIDS activist Peter Staley was plotting the launch of a new AIDS organization, the Treatment Action Group (TAG), to focus solely on expediting the development and approval of anti-HIV medications. He wanted to mark TAG's birth with a spectacular event that would capture the attention of the media and give the new group the gravitas and cachet that civil disobedience, with a healthy media-savvy dose of humor, can deliver.
His focus was US Senator Jesse Helms, the notorious right-wing extremist from North Carolina who had built a career on racism, sexism and homophobia and was the most outspoken opponent of safe-sex education and AIDS funding in the entire Congress. "He was our biggest enemy in Washington. Millions of words had been written and spoken against him, but no one had ever taken it to his front door, so to speak, and made it personal" Staley said.
Staley decided to take it to Helms's front door, literally. We knew each other from ACT UP/New York, where we co-chaired a fundraising committee that organized art auctions to finance massive civil disobedience actions at the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, St. Patrick's Cathedral and elsewhere.
In the summer of 1991, we were sharing a house in the Fire Island Pines, along with Kevin Sessums, the journalist and writer who was then Staley's boyfriend, and several others. Sessums was a close friend of mogul David Geffen, who was also on the island that summer.
One day shortly after Staley began planning the action, Geffen walked up to Staley on the beach and pressed a wad of $100 bills into his hand. It totaled $3,000. "Be careful" Geffen advised. Then Geffen made Staley promise not to divulge Geffen's role in financing the action.
Geffen's concern was understandable, because Staley's plan was outrageous, and irresistibly seductive, in a merry prankster kind of way, but clearly illegal. He was planning to make an enormous condom and place it over US Senator Jesse Helms's house in the Washington suburb of Arlington, Virginia.
Staley found a technical advisor, someone who had experience with complex civil disobedience actions with Greenpeace. He helped estimate the dimensions of Helms's house from a photograph and advised how to minimize the risk of anyone getting hurt.
The condom was designed -- complete with a reservoir tip -- and specifications were put to bid with several companies that make giant inflatables for promotional purposes. The low bidder was $3,500 and had the extra advantage of fast-turnaround (the high bid was $15,000). The order was placed, the condom made from a parachute-like material in California and shipped to New York.
We took it upstate, to ACT UP Treasurer Marvin Shulman's weekend house in New Paltz, where we unfolded it and timed how long it took to inflate with a portable generator and two blowers. Garance Franke-Ruta and others painted "A condom to stop unsafe politics. Helms is deadlier than a virus" on its side.
On September 4, we drove from New York to Virginia, and stayed the night in a budget motel. National and local media had been alerted that there was to be an action in the area the next morning, but they knew few details. The track records of the activists involved was enough to get their attention.
That night we drove by the house, a traditional two-story red-brick Colonial, to see if the lights were out and knock on the door to make sure no one was home. We were concerned that someone in the house might shoot us as trespassers.
Early the next morning we got up and had breakfast. I recall the adrenaline as we piled into the enclosed cargo part of the U-Haul truck. The overhead metal door was rolled down and shut tight.
Each of us had specific assignments and we were under pressure to perform them with the precision of a military operation. We estimated that we had only six or seven minutes before the Arlington police would arrive.
We pulled up in front of Helms's house and jumped out of the truck like jackrabbits, racing to unload the ladders, blowers, generator and, of course, the condom. Staley and I were the designated climbers. The ladder was positioned against the side of the roof, at its peak, and we began an awkward ascent. We struggled to carry the condom -- Staley pulling and I pushing -- without falling off and breaking a leg.
The roof had a very steep pitch, so we straddled the ridge while unfolding the yellow-beige condom. Compatriots on the ground pulled its corners to fit over the house and connect it to the blowers, which were powered by a noisy portable generator. Inflating the condom seemed to take forever, but it was only five or six minutes. It sagged lopsidedly as it expanded, inflating unevenly as it tumesced.
Fully erect, it was beautiful and huge, nearly 35' tall, covering the entire roof and front of Helms's house. We cheered, partly because we got it inflated before the police arrived.
Our spokesperson, Dan Baker (who had managed my campaign for Congress in 1990), was dressed in a suit and tie and had arrived in a separate vehicle. It was important that he not get arrested so our talking points could be delivered to the media.
They were, on local stations all across the country. The incident was that day's "cute story" that often closes local newscasts. Helms refused to comment at the time of the action, but at a later date he referenced the episode in speech.
Neighbors arrived before the police. Some were amused, but one woman was especially angry with us. "Senator Helms hasn't disrupted any of your neighborhoods" she angrily told us. If only she knew how much Helms's bigotry had not only disrupted, but devastated, our neighborhoods.
When the cops arrived, this same woman told them "you guys don't want to tangle with these people because you don't want to get AIDS, I know."
That woman, it turned out, was Becky Norton Dunlop, the wife of a senior member of Helms's staff who is today the Vice President for External Affairs for the Heritage Foundation. She also sits on the board of the American Conservative Union, Reagan Ranch Board of Governors and other conservative groups. Her husband is today Deputy Assistant Army Secretary.
We called ourselves the "TAG Helms 7" and fully expected to get arrested. The first officer who showed up could not help laughing as she got out of her squad car. I remember her saying "I haven't even had my coffee yet". When she realized whose house it was, she radioed her superior. Soon the scene was full of neighbors, cops and the media.
The cops ordered us to turn off the generator (it was noisy) and when the blowers lost power the condom began to wilt and go limp. Under the eyes of the police, we took it down, packed it up. They let us take it home with us.
We stood around while the police brass tried to figure out what to do. I recall that they were trying to reach Helms at his office and ultimately were advised not to arrest us because it would make it a bigger news story (which was what we wanted). Instead, they took down our names, addresses and driver's license numbers and we had to promise to never again set foot in Arlington, Virginia.
The only official citation that day was a parking ticket we got for parking the U-Haul truck facing the wrong direction on the street. In addition to Staley and me, the others involved in the action were James Serafini, Mark Allen, Jason Childers, Garance Franke-Ruta and Derek Link.
The antipathy towards Helms and what he meant to people with HIV is difficult to overstate. In November of 1996, I published a controversial column in POZ Magazine. It was titled "Jesse Helms Must Die" and was written by a beloved activist, Stephen Gendin, who put in dangerous words the bitter and intense anger many of us felt towards Helms:
"When the Treatment Action Group put a giant condom over Jesse Helm's suburban Washington home, I wish Helms had been in it and suffocated. I've never met Helms, but since he's put so much energy into making my life difficult, I think I have the right to hate him. I wish I had the right to kill him. Ideally, to inflict a lingering death. But I would settle for a quick, sure thing. Like five or six rounds right into his chest. Watching him bleed to death would be one of my life's high points, way up there with eating chocolate cream pie or wrestling my boyfriend to the ground. A primal feeling of satisfaction. I know I sound psycho... (but) Helms's career spent vilifying and destroying the lives of people with HIV fills me with a terrible rage. That rage percolates day after day. No amount of activism makes it go away.
"I don't think I'm clever enough to escape so I have to be prepared to spend the rest of my life in jail. So I want to make sure I'm on my final decline when I pull off the action. It's a tricky balance, really: Sick enough to not have much to lose, strong enough to ensure my success. If I'm blind from CMV, I'd have a hard time getting him in the line of sight. Or if I'm taking amphotericin B, it could cause me to shake like crazy. Maybe wiring myself to a bomb would make more sense. But then I wouldn't be around to watch the aftermath.
"Thinking rationally, killing Helms doesn't seem like the greatest of ideas. Still, there is something exciting about striking fear into the hearts of homophobes.
What killing Helms is really about is taking charge and no longer accepting the role of victim. As empowered as I am, I still experience much of my life as held hostage by HIV and people like Helms. HIV is a terrorist's bomb lurking in my body and I never know when it's going to blow something up. And Jesse Helms is the one who keeps trying to light the fuse."
Gendin died in July of 2000. Helms is now just as dead as Stephen and the millions of others Helms's bigotry helped to kill. The Treatment Action Group has a multi-million dollar budget (much of it from the Gates Foundation). Staley disclosed Geffen's role as part of TAG's 10th anniversary commemoration; presumably it is now a source of pride for the billionaire. The condom was donated to the One Institute, the National Gay and Lesbian Archive in Los Angeles.
The action at Helms's house in some ways represented the end of an era. TAG, the new group, split treatment activism into its own distinct effort, separate from ACT UP's broader political agenda. By the time of the action at Helms's house, some of the national media had gotten tired of and felt manipulated by our street theatre antics. It had become more difficult to get press coverage and tougher to focus the public's attention on the epidemic.
Helms's authority and leadership on AIDS issues in the Senate may have already started to wane. We did not know it then, but at the time we put the condom on his house, Helm's greatest homophobic and AIDS-phobic hits were mostly behind him. His identity as a bigot had finally begun to compromise his position as a policy-maker. Maybe the condom helped.
Follow Sean Strub on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BodyCountsBook