The arch-nemesis of the gay community in the United States Senate in the 1980s and 1990s died on July 4. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., 86, served in that body from 1973 until his retirement in 2002.
A 1989 Danny Sotomayor cartoon features longtime anti-LGBT activist/politician Jesse Helms conversing with Adolf Hitler. Image from the archives of Lori Cannon
He "did not have overarching and consistent principles; he had likes and dislikes. He was a bundle of prejudices," wrote political observer Jonathan Rauch when Helms retired.
Helms began his political career as a Democrat, trading upon racism in the still-segregated South. He would continue to play the race card throughout his career. He became a Republican in 1970 and was soon elected the first Republican senator from North Carolina since the post-Civil War Reconstruction.
One of his first efforts in the Senate was to prohibit use of U.S. foreign assistance dollars for anything to "provide or promote" abortion.
The National Endowment for the Arts took it on the chin for grants to provocative artists, including Robert Mapplethorpe's homoerotic photographs.
Helms was one of the earliest and loudest cultural warriors against the emerging gay-rights movement. He once said, "Nothing positive happened to Sodom and Gomorrah and nothing positive is likely to happen to America if our people succumb to the drumbeats of support for the homosexual lifestyle."
When AIDS appeared on the scene, he led opposition to research funding at the National Institutes of Health ( NIH ) , attacked meaningful messages and funding for prevention that might have helped to stem the epidemic, and was personally responsible for writing the provision that banned HIV-positive persons from traveling or immigrating to the US. That law still remains in effect.
In 1991 AIDS activists had enough, and early one summer morning completely covered his two-story red brick colonial revival home in the Virginia suburbs of D.C. with a big yellow condom that read, "A condom to stop unsafe politics. Helms is deadlier than a virus."
The Senator and his fluffy little white dog were not amused. A short five minute video of the event is available at YouTube.com/watch.
When President Bill Clinton nominated Roberta Achtenberg as an Assistant Secretary at the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1993, Helms opposed it because, "She's a damn lesbian. I am not going to put a lesbian in a position like that. If you want to call me a bigot, fine."
But fate would hold a twist for Helms, he would campaign for his granddaughter, Jennifer Knox, in 2004 when she ran as a Republican for district judge in Raleigh. Knox, now 34, reportedly is a lesbian and lives with her partner.
"I'm pretty firm about always respecting the dead," wrote blogger Andrew Sullivan. "But since he spent his life doing all he could to make my gay brothers and sisters marginalized, hated, and dead, it is hard to feel what a Christian should."
"And since he was personally responsible for removing my right to become an American [ because of Sullivan's HIV status ] , and his legacy of hatred toward those struggling with HIV is still alive, forgive me for finding forgiveness hard. But may he rest in the peace he so wanted to deny so many others, because they were different from him."