LIGHT ON THE AIDS CRISIS

Tracy Ellingson

Gina Gough, a College of Liberal Arts junior, keeps a scrapbook full of news clips, photos and stickers. As she turns each page, the items inside all invoke a memory, tied together by two common threads — her father and AIDS.
In 1993, when Gough was 17 years old and just about to start her senior year in high school, she found out her father, Dan, had AIDS.
Gough, who was living in Wisconsin with her mother at the time, learned of her father’s illness during a summer visit to Minneapolis. Gough had come to tour the University, where she hoped to attend school, and to be closer to her father.
“I thought that (going to school at the University) would be a great opportunity for me to have a better relationship with my father,” said Gough, who had only seen her dad one or two months each summer after he divorced her mother in 1982.
While in town, Gough called her father and was told by his roommate that he was unavailable, but would call her back. Dan returned the call and told Gough that he had moved and was now living in a nursing home in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis.
Gough asked her father what was wrong and why he wasn’t at home. He told her that he was sick and asked her to come see him.
“The only thing I remember out of that conversation,” Gough said, “(is) hearing the word ‘chemotherapy’ and my mind triggered, ‘Oh my gosh, he has cancer.'”
But when Gough arrived at the nursing home she soon realized it was a medical facility for AIDS patients, and she knew the situation was worse than she had originally imagined.
“I sat down and the first words that came out of his mouth were, ‘Gina, I have AIDS,’ and I proceeded to flip out for about five or 10 minutes,” Gough recalled.
Gough said her father appeared extremely thin and his skin was unusually dark. She said his AIDS medication had reacted with the sun, creating an unnatural skin tone.
Stunned, Gough asked her father about his illness and how it would affect her. He told her he had known for five years that he had AIDS, but hesitated telling her out of fear that she might reject him.
“He said that the reason why he didn’t tell me earlier is because he didn’t want my love for him to be lost,” Gough said. “He felt that if he would have told me when I was younger that I would have disowned him.”
Gough made regular visits to Minneapolis that fall to see her father, where they made plans for his funeral and talked about his homosexuality, which was unknown to Gough and her mother until then.
“Every time I would come (to Minneapolis) it would take so much energy for me to face the fact that my father was dying and to just see him being eaten away by this disease,” Gough said.
“You always think that your parents are going to be around forever, and to lose one of your parents at 17 is really scary.”
On November 16, 1993, Gough’s father died, just three months after she learned he had AIDS.
Since 1982, more than 30 million people worldwide have been diagnosed with the HIV virus that causes AIDS. Since then, 6.4 million people worldwide have died of AIDS.
When Gough looks back, she remembers what she used to think about AIDS before she found out about her father.
“I rationalized in my head that it wasn’t going to happen to me,” Gough said. “And then I went above that and rationalized that it wasn’t going to happen to any of my friends … I kind of made this bubble around all my friends and my mom, and I totally left my dad out of this bubble and forgot about him. He kind of burst my bubble.”
Gough’s experience led her to participate in an AIDS awareness organization in her high school and outreach programs in her Wisconsin community.
When Gough enrolled at the University in 1994, she intended to continue working to raise community awareness of the disease, but found the school did not have an AIDS organization.
“I was so shocked that an institution this big wouldn’t have an educational outreach group on campus to fight the battle against AIDS or any other disease,” Gough said.
Boynton Health Service sponsors some AIDS educational programs, but, Gough said, those programs don’t focus solely on AIDS.
During Gough’s first two years at the University, she became involved in numerous campus organizations and activities, but always held on to the dream of starting her own AIDS education organization.
In March, Gough and a group of about 40 students formed an official campus organization called Students Teaching About AIDS and Reaching Students. Gough hopes that, once the group has become more established, it will receive more student recognition and become a powerful educational tool.
“I think STAARS has taken steps to do something no one else has done to bring AIDS to the forefront of campus attention,” said Sara Laird, a CLA freshman and member of the group.
Laird said she joined the group because she had a friend who died of AIDS about two years ago. The group, she said, gives her an opportunity to show her appreciation for her lost friend.
Gough said only about 20 percent of the group members have actually had personal experience with AIDS victims. Most members, she added, join because they want to get involved in community-oriented volunteer work.
Ryan Suchomel, CLA freshman and vice president for the organization, said he became involved with the group because he is interested in AIDS education and support for friends and family of those who’ve died of the disease.
“The most rewarding thing (about being involved in the organization) is seeing so many people participate,” said Suchomel. “The purpose of STAARS is to give hope to other people.”
The group sponsored an AIDS-awareness candlelight vigil Sunday night in front of Northrop Auditorium. The group also plans to display a portion of the Names Project AIDS Quilt next October.
Until she graduates, Gough said she would work to expand the group’s goals on campus and around the community, and added that she would also continue to educate people about AIDS.
“Just fighting the battle against AIDS helps bring me closer to my father,” she said.