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.
A 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 motherâ€”she was a lovely, smart, adorable, wonderful woman. And she was carried away by this awful disease.
Although 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.