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April 11th, 2010

Dixie Carter’s death leaves historic AIDS legacy.

In 1987, when nurses would still flip coins to see which would enter the room of an AIDS patient and politicians debated sending those with HIV to an isolated island, something truly remarkable happened. And the passing Friday of the great Dixie Carter, 70, is a fine opportunity to revisit the courage and integrity displayed during those dark times.

dixie-carter2A television sitcom in 1987 (!) had the guts to confront the topic of AIDS, gay men, hatred, ignorance and compassion. Very little was left unsaid when “Designing Women” aired an episode in which the girls plan a memorial for a gay friend (a clip on YouTube contains a stunning three minutes from the episode of honest fear, HIV prevention information, and outright bigotry).

Dixie Carter’s character Julia is allowed her moment of righteous indignation and no one does it better (her “Designing Women” clip of “the night the lights went out in Georgia” is a classic for the ages). But Carter’s involvement with what may be the first time a sitcom mentioned AIDS is something about which she was very proud.

In 1998, Carter was interviewed by Metro Weekly, D.C.’s gay and lesbian newspaper, and talked about the show’s place in HIV/AIDS history:

MW: The show was gay-friendly in its politics and themes. And it was, to my knowledge, the first sitcom in the history of television to deal with the AIDS crisis in a compassionate setting. And that was 1987. It was…

CARTER: …Unheard of. Do you want to know something just shocking? [The show’s producer] Linda Bloodworth-Thomason’s mother died of AIDS. This was before that particular episode was written. Her mother got AIDS from a blood transfusion administered by the Red Cross. We were in the first year of the series and Linda came to me — she was crying hysterically and horrified — and she told me her mother had been diagnosed with AIDS. I had known her mother—she was a lovely, smart, adorable, wonderful woman. And she was carried away by this awful disease.

designing_women_castAlthough she always wanted to be the vanguard, Linda might not have been driven to write this show so early in the scheme of things. But she was thrown over the abyss because her mother had died and was treated in such an awful way in the hospital at the time — nurses could not be prevailed upon to go into her room.

MW: What was the reaction on the show’s set when they brought in the AIDS script?

CARTER: We were overwhelmed. We hadn’t made the connection then about how powerful these shows were going to wind up being! We had no idea. No idea. We had no idea that it would be something that people would come up to us years later on the street and say, “That show you did about AIDS meant so much to me. Thank you so much.”

Linda Bloodworth-Thomason and her lead actress, the now-late, great Dixie Carter, still deserve our thanks, for showing bravery and compassion in the worst of times.

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9 Responses to “Dixie Carter’s death leaves historic AIDS legacy.”

  1. Robert Meek Says:

    April 11th, 2010 at 4:09 pm

    A tragic loss to us all.

  2. Patrick Says:

    April 11th, 2010 at 4:16 pm

    Thanks for showing me a side of Dixie Carter that I never knew about…. very brave and caring woman…

  3. Dennis Fleming Says:

    April 12th, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    I still show the discussed clip from Designing Women in my program about HIV/AIDS stigma, and I still have to hold back the tears every time I see it. When the episode first aired, I was lying in bed with my partner; who was in the last stages of his life. He started to cry and I said, “I know, people can be so cruel.” And he said, “I’m not crying about that; I’m crying because someone cared so much to write this show and air it on prime time television.” Thank you Linda and Dixie.

  4. circleinasquare Says:

    April 15th, 2010 at 4:17 pm

    Here is a link to better quality clips from
    “Killing all the Right People”:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c2ANOaczfhk

  5. admin Says:

    April 15th, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    Duly noted and changed, circle. Thanks for the tip!

  6. Bryan Barnes Says:

    April 23rd, 2010 at 2:39 am

    I didn’t realize she had passed. I loved the show and her. Like Dennis I held back tears watching that clip and remembering those times. Seeing someone make a stand made me feel that I could get through it. I am still getting through it thanks Dixie you really did make a difference.

  7. ddamon Says:

    April 23rd, 2010 at 5:00 am

    My best friend was diagnosed in 87 and he passed in 91. It was a frightening time for people who needed love and compassion. Dixie and the show were candles in the dark.

  8. Jason Gagnon Says:

    April 24th, 2010 at 10:29 am

    As someone living with HIV, I appreciate the show in general but the one she did on HIV/AIDS took the cake. THANK YOU!!

  9. Jo Neace Krause Says:

    May 13th, 2010 at 10:14 am

    The best English teacher I ever had died from aids. Professor Donald Howard. He was wonderful. Bright. Handsome. “You can fall a long way in sunshine. You can fall a long way in rain. Those who dont take the old white horse. Take the evening train.” Robert Haas, Elegy.

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