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About this Exhibit - Introduction |
AIDS Emerges |
Poised to Respond |
New Programs: Working Together |
Responding to Fear |
The AIDS Prevention Project |
A Leader in Research, Education, and Housing |
| Expanding Outreach | Needle Exchanges | The AIDS Omnibus Act: New Mandates | Safer Sex: The New Normal? | The Legacy | Gallery | Oral Histories | References and Resources
The AIDS Omnibus Act: New Mandates
In March 1988, Washington State Governor Booth Gardner signed into law the AIDS Omnibus Act. Because of its sweeping scope, public health orientation, substantial civil rights protection, and statewide approach to providing AIDS care services, the Act was considered the most comprehensive and progressive statewide approach to AIDS policy in the United States at the time. It served as a model for legislation in other states.
Expanding Education: Condoms in Schools
The AIDS Omnibus Act required AIDS education in public schools for grades 5 through 12. The Seattle-King County Department of Public Health, which had supported outreach programs to schools since the mid-1980s, now undertook new initiatives.
The AIDS Omnibus Act required school curricula to focus on “the dangers of sexual intercourse, with or without condoms” and to promote abstinence, while also providing accurate information on AIDS prevention. When Washington State’s Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS recommended that condom use be included in AIDS education, the Department found itself in the middle of a public debate.
Educational programs and materials provided detailed information to promote accurate understanding of condom use and STD prevention. Many saw these campaigns as encouraging teen sex. Some objected to teaching condom use in schools with the argument that condoms were ineffective in preventing HIV infection. The Department challenged this view with a report distributed throughout the Seattle School District in 1992.
Controlling HIV while protecting civil rights.
Discrimination due to the stigma of being HIV-positive was so potentially damaging that lawmakers saw the need to change long-standing public health policies. With other diseases, there had been less concern for protecting patient privacy. Practices such as reporting names to local and state health offices, forced testing, and notifying partners of an infected individual were standard.
From the beginning of its response to AIDS, the Seattle-King County Department of Public Health had held firm that protecting patients’ privacy was critical to an effective program. They argued that if people trusted the Department and its community partners, they would be more likely to get tested and engage in prevention efforts.
The AIDS Omnibus Act created standard, statewide rules in an effort to balance civil rights and patient privacy with public health and safety. In practice, implementation could still prove challenging.
The Steven Farmer Case
In 1987, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office charged Seattle resident Steven Farmer with felony exploitation of a minor for taking inappropriate photographs of teenage male prostitutes. (The subjects were 16 and 17—the age of sexual consent in Washington State. The state’s exploitation law, however, protects individuals under 18.) The photos had been seized in what was found to be an illegal search, causing the charges to be reduced to a misdemeanor in a plea bargain.
After receiving a tip and corroboration from Farmer’s acquaintances that Farmer had told them he was HIV-positive, prosecutors sought to increase his sentence, accusing him of deliberate endangerment. Farmer denied he was HIV-positive.
Amidst an increasing public outcry, the court ordered that Farmer be tested for the virus without his consent. The results (positive) were presented in open court by the head of the Public Health Department’s STD Program, Dr. Hunter Handsfield, who appeared at the request of the presiding judge.
The test in question was not performed by Seattle-King County Public Health nor by the AIDS Prevention Project. But the court-ordered disclosure of Farmer’s HIV status by a Public Health official caused people to question whether the Department was protecting patient confidentiality. APP staff worked to rebuild trust and reassure critics that case records were indeed maintained in confidence.
The State Supreme Court later found that the judge had acted outside his authority. In 1994, when he was dying of AIDS in jail, Farmer was granted clemency by Governor Mike Lowry.
The case highlighted legal and civil rights questions around forced testing, rules for which were set out in the AIDS Omnibus ACT. The prosecution was seen by some as deliberately targeting Farmer amidst a wave of anti-gay/AIDS hysteria, with media coverage stoking the public’s fear. Prosecutors held that the case was about protecting vulnerable minors from sexual exploitation and endangerment.
A Softer Approach
Some felt that public health agencies should take a more aggressive approach to testing, tracing contacts, notifying partners, and reporting HIV infections. The Seattle King County Department of Public Health argued that a softer touch worked better to keep people engaged and to fight HIV’s spread.
Next: Safer Sex
Responding to AIDS
Content warning: The archival records featured in this exhibit discuss sexual behavior and illegal drug use. Please direct questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright King County Archives, Seattle Washington, June 2016.
Please note: This exhibit features historical materials relating to HIV/AIDS. For current health information, please visit Public Health, Seattle & King County - HIV/AIDS and STD Prevention and Education.
Oral histories produced with support from a 2015 4Culture Heritage Projects Grant.