C. Everett Koop, who died today in New Hampshire, did a lot throughout the course of his 96 years, including play football at Dartmouth, help put into motion the war against second-hand smoke, and launch an ultimately failed medical website, DrKoop.com, in the primeval internet age of 1997. But Koop, who also moonlighted as a spokesperson for the Life Alert company, will perhaps be most remembered for introducing millions of Americans to—and destroying stereotypes about—AIDS, the deadly disease that started to rear its head in America the year before he took office in 1982.
AIDS continues to be a go-to anti-gay talking point for zealots like the Westboro Baptist Church, but in its earliest days the conversation around the illness was inundated with that kind of ignorant bigotry. Reverend Jerry Falwell once told his congregants, "AIDS is not just God's punishment for homosexuals, it is God's punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals." And wackjob political activist Lyndon LaRouche called for the quarantine of all AIDS patients, saying, "[A] person with AIDS running around is like a person with a machine gun running around."
In an effort to help cut through a lot of the bigoted nonsense, in 1988 Koop authored an informational pamphlet called "Understanding AIDS" and mailed it to all 107 million households in the United States. Despite his personal Christian conservative beliefs, Koop's pamphlet dispatched a lot of paranoid misinformation swirling around AIDS in favor of frank talk about sex and prophylactics. For instance, while "Understanding AIDS" advocated abstinence and monogamy as "safe behaviors," it also heralded condoms, recommended early childhood sex education, and suggested Americans do whatever they could to help AIDS patients in need "without fear of becoming infected." What's more, all of this came during a time when President Reagan himself would hardly mention AIDS, let alone say "the rectum is easily injured during anal intercourse," as "Understanding AIDS" noted.
Koop would suffer criticism from his fellow conservatives for putting out "Understanding AIDS." Some of them would be scandalized by his support of condoms, and others by his support of sex education. But ultimately Koop was steadfast, believing that educating the public about AIDS was the best defense against the disease in lieu of a cure. Today, California Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman, whose district includes the heavily gay West Hollywood, said Koop "saved countless lives through his leadership in confronting the public health crisis that came to be known as AIDS." "Understanding AIDS" was a big part of that confrontation.
[Image via AP]