The Damien Center: AIDS In Indianapolis, 1981-?

The two-story brick building, located at 26 North Arsenal Avenue, is the current location of the Damien Center, which has provided HIV/AIDS health and counseling services to Hoosiers, gay and straight, since 1987. Here in this century-old building, Indianapolis’ resources in the fight against HIV/AIDS find the people who need them most. The center is named after Father Damien, a Catholic priest who worked in Hawaii with people with leprosy in the late 1800s. The AIDS epidemic in the United States began in 1981. Gay men in New York City and San Francisco began developing strange symptoms: extreme exhaustion, fungal infections of the throat and lungs, and purple lesions on the skin. This new disease was devastating and almost inevitably fatal. Men and women watched helplessly as loved ones became ill and died;and no one could figure out why or how to stop it. Because AIDS appeared first in urban gay men, it became known as a gay cancer,and people stricken by the disease were stigmatized by Americans who considered it a consequence of a risky lifestyle. Many politicians refused to acknowledge the existence of the disease, health organizations could not get funding to research and treat it, and the media largely ignored the growing epidemic. LGBT+ communities all over the United States quickly realized that help would have to come from within. In Indianapolis, a group of gay men nicknamed the Bag Ladies” put together an annual fundraiser, the Bag Lady Bus Tour, to raise money for local people with AIDS. The city’s LGBT+ publications, like The Works and The New Works News, printed monthly updates on national developments and the number of local cases.

Research and treatment efforts escalated nationally and locally in the late 1980s, and the Damien Center was established here in April of 1987 to help combat the disease. Founded by retired minister Earl Conner and staffed almost entirely by volunteers, the center represented a partnership between Indy’s LGBT+ community and local churches, including Christ Church Cathedral and the Cathedral of Saints Peter & Paul. Conner reached out to several Indy organizations, including the Bag Ladies; the Buddy System, a counseling and support group; an LGBT+ run AIDS helpline; the Indiana Youth Group; the Indiana State Board of Health; and the Marion County AIDS task force.

While the Center’s Christian ministry sometimes clashed with the broader goals of Indy’s LGBT+ communities, AIDS was common ground. The Damien Center continues to offer care and support to people living with AIDS even as the face of the disease is changing. While gay and bisexual men remain affected, this disease affects people in all demographic groups. Because of advances in treatment, however, and places like the Damien Center, HIV diagnosis is no longer a death sentence.

Images

The Damien Center

The Damien Center

In 2006, the Damien Center moved from Pennsylvania Avenue to its new location here at 26 North Arsenal Avenue. The neighborhood, Holy Cross-Westminster, was listed on the State Register of Historic Places in 1984. The building reflects classical elements in the facade and also contains terra cotta details below the cornice. This larger building allowed the center more space to provide HIV testing, treatment, and counseling services to Indy residents. Photography by Kurt Lee Nettleton '© 2015 | Creator: Kurt Lee Nettleton View File Details Page

First Damien Center Location

First Damien Center Location

In April of 1987, the Damien Center opened in the old archdiocese building at 1350 N. Pennsylvania Avenue, in the Old Northside historic district. The building boasts Neoclassiscal elements. Although the partnership with local religious organizations was vital, it also caused problems—in 1992, the Catholic Archdiocese objected to the distribution of condoms in the building, forcing the Damien Center to temporarily focus on AIDS treatment rather than prevention.Image courtesy by Kurt Lee Nettleton © 2015. | Creator: Kurt Lee Nettleton View File Details Page

Rev. Earl Conner (L) accepting a donation from the Bag Ladies, 1987

Rev. Earl Conner (L) accepting a donation from the Bag Ladies, 1987

Founded in 1981 the Bag Ladies financially supported the Damien Center. The Bag Ladies turned their annual Halloween party into an AIDS fundraiser, and they continue to raise money in Indy for the Center and other AIDS organizations. Image courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society. | Source: Assorted Images from IHS Collection, Indiana Historical Society View File Details Page

<em>The Indianapolis Recorder</em>, September 1987

The Indianapolis Recorder, September 1987

By the mid 1980s, Indianapolis’ black community noted with concern one major risk factor of AIDS—poverty, which limited access to healthcare, quality housing, and sex education. African American men also experienced the stigma of being gay or bisexual especially keenly, making them less likely to seek out AIDS diagnosis and treatment. This frank ad ran in the city’s black newspaper, The Indianapolis Recorder illustrating its growing commitment to talking about AIDS. Image courtesy of IUPUI Digital Collections. | Source: Indianapolis Recorder Digital Collections, IUPUI University Library Special Collections and Archives | Creator: Indianapolis Recorder View File Details Page

Wall of Dignity in the Damien Center

Wall of Dignity in the Damien Center

This wall in the Damien Center remembers some of the Indiana men who died early in the battle against AIDS. The Center™s mission is to “to empower persons in Central Indiana affected by HIV/AIDS to move forward each day with dignity.” In the 1980s, the stigma attached to homosexuality and to AIDS made this a revolutionary message. Image courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society. | Source: Indiana Historical Society | Creator: David Turk View File Details Page

Indiana AIDS Memorial, Crown Hill Cemetery, 2012

Indiana AIDS Memorial, Crown Hill Cemetery, 2012

This memorial to those who have died of AIDS was dedicated in Crown Hill Cemetery in 2000. The Indiana AIDS Walk now takes place in Herron Morton every September, but in its early years it was held in Crown Hill—a somber reminder of loss. Image courtesy of the Indiana Historical Society. | Source: Indiana Historical Society View File Details Page

Ryan White, 1989, at an Indianapolis fundraiser

Ryan White, 1989, at an Indianapolis fundraiser

In 1985, Indiana made national headlines when Kokomo teenager Ryan White was diagnosed with AIDS and barred from attending school. A hemophiliac, meaning his blood did not clot and that even tiny injuries could result in severe blood loss, White was infected through one of his weekly blood transfusions. Via Ryan™s case, many Americans learned about AIDS for the first time. Photo courtesy by Howard County, Indiana, Memory Project. | Source: Wikipedia | Creator: Wildhartlivie, Wiki Commons User View File Details Page

Bag Ladies Bus Tour, 1982

Bag Ladies Bus Tour, 1982

The Bag Ladies Bus Tour, pictured here on Halloween night, 1982, raised money for sufferers of HIV/AIDS in Indianapolis. They later became a key fundraising partner of the Damien Center. View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Meghan Hillman, “The Damien Center: AIDS In Indianapolis, 1981-?,” Discover Indiana, accessed September 22, 2017, http://indyhist.iupui.edu/items/show/84.

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