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Kathie Hiers was born on October 5th, 1954 in Mobile, Alabama. She might have been born in Joliet, Illinois, where her family lived at the time; but Kathie’s mom, a Mobile native, didn’t want her daughter to be a Yankee; so she took the train home to give birth. Kathie’s mom was deeply religious, and her dad suffered from alcoholism, but in spite of all that, Kathie looks back on her childhood as being “pretty normal”.

In 1972 Kathie started college at the University of South Alabama, and began questioning her sexuality. When she asked two gay friends to take her to a local gay bar, they refused, not wanting to “sully” her good name. So Kathie went on her own. The bar’s name was Society Lounge, although locals referred to it as Shitty Lounge because of its slummy appearance. It was good enough for Kathie, though. On her first night there, she met a woman, and never looked back. 

In 1984, Kathie fell in love with a long-term friend, Donna, and the two started a relationship that would eventually fall under the lens of the local courts. When Donna broke the news of their relationship to her husband, a six-year custody battle ensued where both women were deemed unfit parents because they were lesbians. The kids’ dad was granted fully custody; the court decreed that Donna could not live with Kathie for a year; and Donna and Kathie’s time with the kids was severely limited. But the two women remained committed to them. Kathie and Donna eventually went their separate ways; but to this day, Kathie still remains close with both kids, and one of them works for Kathie at AIDS Alabama.

Kathie formed AIDS Alabama in 1987, in the aftermath of learning that five of her best guy friends were HIV-positive, and seeing the abysmal state of HIV/AIDS services in the state.  Some 14 years later, in 2001, Kathie formed a larger AIDS service organization called the Southern AIDS Coalition. Time and again, she saw that people living with AIDS in the Deep South didn’t receive the same treatment and funding as those in urban areas like New York. In 2009, Kathie was invited to join President Obama’s Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA). To her dismay, around this time, Kathie heard gay men from her community make racist comments about President Obama. “There’s nothing more ironic than a bigoted queer,” Kathie says with a rueful laugh. She became more determined than ever to address and eliminate systemic racism in any organization she was involved with.

After more than four decades in HIV/AIDS advocacy work, Kathie was awarded the AIDS Drug Assistance Program Individual Champion of the Year in 2014, and in 2016, after working on PACHA for several years, Kathie finally got a housing provision added to the first national HIV/AIDS Strategy.

Kathie continues to this day as CEO of AIDS Alabama. She believes her gay superpower is the ability to relate to people, despite how different they may seem from her. She is justifiably proud of the progress the LGBTQ+ community has made in the Deep South, and she continues fiercely determined to highlight the unique struggles of the HIV/AIDS community there. Going forward, she hopes there will be more conversations around racism in the LGBTQ+ community. In her opinion, change may come slowly – but it’s always worth the fight.
Mason Funk: [00:00:00] Awesome. Thank you, Kristie. And thank you Kathy, for being here today. And if you would start off simply by stating and spelling your first and last names.
Kathie Hiers: [00:00:30] All right. I'm Kathie Hiers. K A T H I E, H I E R S.
Mason Funk: Great. And can you tell us the date and the place where you were born?
Kathie Hiers: I was born in Mobile, Alabama, October 5, 1954. If you want a good little southernism, Mobile is one of those cities where if you're not born here, you can never be a native Mobilian. And in your obituary, you cannot put Mobilian.
Kathie Hiers: [00:01:00] At the time, my parents were living in Joliet, Illinois. My mother took a passenger train down to Mobile, had me in the Mobile General and then went back to Joliet, Illinois. So I could be a native Mobilian.
Mason Funk: Oh, my gosh. That's amazing. So your parents must have been from Mobile, originally.
Kathie Hiers: Yes.
Mason Funk: And they wanted you to be able to claim native status.
Kathie Hiers: That's right. They didn't want me to be a Yankee.
Mason Funk : [00:01:30] Was it mostly about being a Yankee or is there a special pride in being born in Mobile?
Kathie Hiers: If you're not born in Mobile, you can never claim native Mobilian. So that's more what it was. Yeah.
Mason Funk : What would you say defines Mobile, even within the state of Alabama? What makes it special?
Kathie Hiers: Mobile is on the Gulf coast. So it's very different from the rest of the state.
Kathie Hiers: [00:02:00] In some ways, it's more open. We have Naval ships that dock here, and a lot of people in and out. It's a port city. We also are the original home of Mardi Gras. Most people don't realize that they think Mardi Gras started in New Orleans, but it did not. The same fellow who started Mardi Gras in Mobile after the civil war moved to New Orleans and started it there.
Kathie Hiers: [00:02:30] So we're very well known as a bit of a party town, lots of music. It's a nice place to live. Small city.
Mason Funk : FYI. I'll be turning my camera off because there are people walking around my office. So you may see me nodding a lot, verbally responding at times, like people around me. Yeah, I love that. That makes me want to go to Mobile.
Mason Funk : [00:03:00] I've been to Pascagoula, Mississippi. Long story short, I worked on a film that was shooting in the Mobile area. I can't remember the name of the little town. It was bayou town. But
Kathie Hiers: Bayou la Batre
Mason Funk : Maybe. I do think that it might've actually been it. Yeah, that rings a bell. Hold on. I gotta turn one thing off, a little system of reminders. Okay. All right, well, let's get to the heart and the soul of your interview.
Mason Funk : [00:03:30] I've got a long list of questions and some of them are bolded, and I want to make sure we hit the most important parts of your story. I think a lot of people will relate to the story of you being outed as a lesbian before you even realized you were lesbian. But before we get there, I just want you to paint a little bit of a portrait of your family. We already know that it was very important to them, to your parents, that you be born in Mobile. Who were your parents, who else was in the family besides you
Mason Funk : [00:04:00] and your parents and what was kind of the overall tenor or what were the values that you would say kind of permeated your family life?
Kathie Hiers: Yeah. My father was a very brilliant gregarious drunk and my mother was on the religious side. In fact my dad was so smart, he worked at the Gulf, Mobile, and Ohio railroad. When computers were just starting,
Kathie Hiers: [00:04:30] no one knew what to do with them. So they had a contest, whoever could do the best in this contest would be the one to learn how to install the gigantic computers. And my dad won, so he installed the first computers for the railroad down here. They eventually divorced, I would say, so I have a brother who's four years older than I am and an adopted brother who's four years younger. Overall, it was pretty normal childhood,
Kathie Hiers: [00:05:00] I would say. My mother always wanted us to go to church and trying to sober up my daddy. As with all families with an alcoholic parent, there were trials and tribulations, of course. But overall I think we survived it pretty well.
Mason Funk : Are you still friendly with your brothers?
Kathie Hiers: Yeah, absolutely. And my mother is actually still alive. She's 89
Kathie Hiers: [00:05:30] and lives in Mobile. In fact, I'm in Mobile right now, going over to her house for dinner every night, which is great fun. My brother, the one four years older than I am, we actually went to college together at the same time at the university of South Alabama. He and I have always been close. He's an old hippie. Then my younger brother also lives in Mobile. About my mother's second marriage, she had yet another son who is 15 years younger than I am. He lives here as well.
Mason Funk : [00:06:00] Great. Thank you for that picture. I always want to make sure that the family gets included. Family of course gives rise to so much of who we are.
Kathie Hiers: I have to laugh these days at my mother trying to cope with everything from Black Lives Matter to pronouns. She called me up last night to say she had read the funniest thing on Facebook.
Kathie Hiers: [00:06:30] If there's no longer a Mr. And Mrs. Potato head, I guess there won't be any more tater tots, right. I'm like, Oh mom. She can't get that that's important to people.
Mason Funk : I get that. 89 years old. She's probably seeing more changes that she could possibly have imagined including having a lesbian daughter.
Kathie Hiers: That's right.
Mason Funk : [00:07:00] Yeah. Well, let's jump forward. I know we're covering a lot of time, but to this moment when ... I forget the details, I watched your prep interview with Jack, but when someone outed you to yourself in a way.
Kathie Hiers: Yes I'll never forget it. Because it was quite thought provoking. I was dating guys at the time, not really thrilled with any of them. I was with my best friend, on whom I had a hellacious crush,
Kathie Hiers: [00:07:30] although I didn't even realize it. We were in the local pub near the university of South Alabama when, in walked two guys, one that she had just dated and one that I had just dated, and neither one of us liked the other very much. She jumped over to sit beside me on the bench, so they wouldn't come sit down by us. They walked over to our table and, I forget which one, I think the guy I had dated asked, Well, let me ask you something, are you lesbians?
Kathie Hiers: [00:08:00] And we just guffawed. I have to admit, it had never really crossed my mind, but after that happened, I did start thinking about it. At the time I was the student government president up, out at the University of South Alabama, and I knew that two of the guys in the student government were gay, and they were good friends of mine. One was a Senator and one was the chief justice. And I begged them to take me down to the gay bars. I wanted to see what it was about.
Kathie Hiers: [00:08:30] They would not do it. They didn't want to ruin me or sully my reputation, and it made me so mad, I went down to the bars by myself one night and I met a woman and I never looked back.
Mason Funk : What were those bars like? We're talking about the 1970s ...
Kathie Hiers: Thats right
Mason Funk : [00:09:00] In Mobile, Alabama. Very few people of us can imagine what gay bars or queer bars in Mobile, Alabama, in the 1970s, would have been like. Can you paint a picture?
Kathie Hiers: Sure. Well, there were basically two different ones. One was
Mason Funk : Two different what?
Kathie Hiers: Two different bars. There were two different types of bars. One called this one was the Society Lounge. And we jokingly all called it the So Shitty lounge, because it was pretty slummy. They had drag shows
Kathie Hiers: [00:09:30] and I'll never forget the first time I ever saw a drag show in there. This really older drag queen came out, singing a country song. And I was trying so hard not to laugh. I mean, she must have been seventy years old and I was just a young whippersnapper, you know? And one of my best gay boyfriends was with me and said, Don't laugh. She just got out of prison for knifing her husband. And I'm like, no, hell!
Kathie Hiers: [00:10:00] What have I walked into down here? That was kind of the rough bar where people would fight. There was a wonderful bartender there who would walk me out to my car every night that I was down there, who was just such a precious guy. But so that was the one bar. Then you had a more upscale bar. And when I say upscale, I don't really mean very upscale, but it had a higher class of drag show and different events for folks.
Kathie Hiers: [00:10:30] And that ended up being the bar where, later, I spent most of my time. In those early days, all my friends went to the Society, so that's where I went.
Mason Funk : That's great. I love both of those stories so much. And also, I just want to extend a blanket invitation. I know that you lost almost all, if not all your gay male friends today to the HIV epidemic, to the extent that you have any friends alive
Mason Funk : [00:11:00] from those days male or female or transgender or anywhere else on these various spectrums, we would love to have their names. So just tuck that away. Tell us about meeting your partner, who eventually lost her kids, when she came out as lesbian.
Kathie Hiers: Donna was my second relationship. I had a first relationship for about four and a half years,
Kathie Hiers: [00:11:30] who, by the way, I had seen at the university of South Alabama, thought she was so cute. I went to the Dean of Students office, looked up her schedule and kind of stalked her. But fast forward to Donna, we had been friends for years. I was friends with her and her husband and she had two little children and we played bridge together. We had a foursome with one of their neighbors.
Kathie Hiers: [00:12:00] I had a gay softball team that I had in Mobile for almost 20 years, and her husband started helping coach the team. Yes, you know how things happen, we just kind of fell in love, and we wanted to be honest about it. She went to him to tell him, and needless to say, that did not go well. He, not only was furious, but he basically took the children and hid them.
Kathie Hiers: [00:12:30] That was very traumatic for her because she had always been the primary caregiver, to the extent that she even took them with her to the grocery store, when she was shopping. She was the caregiver. When suddenly he had stolen the children, that was very traumatic. He filed for divorce and for custody of the kids.
Kathie Hiers: [00:13:00] We had one lawyer, ended up with a second lawyer. Long story short, his father was an attorney, so he knew the judge that we were going in front of. They were dumb enough to put it in a family newsletter that the judge had already told him not to worry he was going to give him custody.His sister in California took that family newsletter, mailed it to us, and we took it to the court and said, this judge has to go.
Kathie Hiers: [00:13:30] We got a different judge and a different lawyer, but none of it mattered. After a really ugly court case in 1985, he won full custody. As you can imagine, that was a horrible bittersweet time for us. According to the divorce decree, she could only get the children ... Well, first, she couldn't live with me for like a year or something like that.
Kathie Hiers: [00:14:00] They had even put that stipulation in there. She only got the kids every other weekend, 6:00 PM on Friday to 6:00 PM on Sunday, one week at Christmas, beginning the day after Christmas at 6:00 PM and then four weeks in the summer to be mutually agreed upon. That was horrible. But we made the commitment that when we had the kids, it was going to be all about the kids. As time went on,
Kathie Hiers: [00:14:30] we ended up spending more time with them than he did. He would pawn them off on his grandparents. As he got older, he was better with the son. There was a girl and a boy, he was better with the son than he was with the daughter, and he and the son are still close. But I'm still very close with those two children too. Donna and I split up after almost 13 years. David was a senior in high school.
Kathie Hiers: [00:15:00] I'll never forget, he came over to my house and he disappeared and I found him in our bedroom and he was just weeping that we were breaking up, so it was a very hard time. But all I can say is I wouldn't trade it for anything. I wouldn't trade my relationship with them. David, in fact, works for me at AIDS Alabama. He's been there now for about seven years
Kathie Hiers: [00:15:30] and he's really come up through the ranks. We have about 125 employees, and he's now the director of corporate compliance for all of our grants external to the agency. So he's quite an amazing fellow.
Mason Funk : Well, that is quite an amazing story, and I think hard for people of this generation to fathom.
Kathie Hiers: [00:16:00] Oh, I know. It still is hard to fathom for me that that could happen to somebody.
Mason Funk : Hmm.
Kathie Hiers: Things are better now, thank God. But it was funny, a few years ago, David's wife, Amy, was taking a paralegal course and they started studying a case, Bark V Burke, 1985. And it was our divorce case. So the case is still looked at as a precedent, I guess.
Mason Funk : [00:16:30] What must it have been like for you, specifically, as the partner having to, you know, it wasn't your kids, but at the same time, you were so intimately involved. I just want to hear a bit more about how it was for you individually in that story.
Kathie Hiers: Well, you can imagine, it's hard not to feel guilty.
Kathie Hiers: [00:17:00] I know it wasn't my fault. It wasn't anyone's fault other than the system and the ex-husband. But still, you feel the need to compensate, in some way. I spent a lot of my relationship with her trying to make up for that, and making darn sure that the kids got everything they needed. It was really funny because over the years of them growing up ...
Kathie Hiers: [00:17:30] That all happened when David was about five and Amy was almost nine. And over the years of them growing up, we still bought all their clothes, all their haircuts. We were the only ones that took them on vacations. I made sure all of that was great for them. That was kind of my way in trying to deal with it, I guess.
Mason Funk : [00:18:00] Yeah. That makes sense. Yeah. I don't want to dwell on it because it's such a dark chapter, but it takes me back to the movie Kramer vs Kramer. Can you just tell us a little bit about some of the things that were said in court? I imagine they were probably horrendous. Again, I don't want to make you relive it.
Kathie Hiers: That's okay. That part's almost funny. My nickname in my family and in Mobile is Katfish.
Kathie Hiers: [00:18:30] It always has been since I was four years old. I can tell you that story, but what's funny is, I don't know where they are now, but for a while we had the divorce transcripts and I think we counted the reference to Katfish in there, like a hundred and something times. Basically just saying we were lesbians and therefore unfit to rear the children. That was the only slam that they had.
Kathie Hiers: [00:19:00] She was a great mother and I was a nice person, so there wasn't really anything else for them to focus on. So that's all they focused on.
Mason Funk : And when you say that they swapped judges, but they said that the new judge eventually ruled the same. Was it pretty much going to be a slam dunk?
Kathie Hiers: I think so. Given the time and the conservative nature of the town, Donna did file to have it heard by the Alabama Supreme court
Kathie Hiers: [00:19:30] and it was denied and we tried to get help. We tried to get Lambda Legal and we tried to get other groups and we just couldn't get anybody interested in it.
Mason Funk : Hmm. Hmm. That just makes me think about how, when it came to HIV/AIDS laws, the South, it did feel, in some ways, like the South was kind of the part of the country that none of these big national organizations really gave a crap about.
Kathie Hiers: [00:20:00] Oh, absolutely. I often joke that the South is the last area that you can make fun of and not be chastised for being politically incorrect. I was even in a diversity training, one time, with somebody who was making fun of the South. I had to raise my hand and say, Whoa. I told him what I thought of that because it is true. I mean, yes, we have dumbass redneck policymakers down here,
Kathie Hiers: [00:20:30] and we have, clearly, people that are putting them in office. But the part that always, as we say down here, got my goat is by punishing the South for being conservative, you're punishing the people that are living with HIV or the people who need the services. So you can't look at it like that. I will say that in the HIV world, I was the first person to really start screaming
Kathie Hiers: [00:21:00] at a national level about the South. In fact, POZ magazine does this POZ 100, every year or two. And in one of the early versions of that, they said, I was the first to ring the clarion bell about the epidemic in the South. And it was just so frustrating to me because in those days, this was right after the meds came out and people were starting to get better,
Kathie Hiers: [00:21:30] we have a thousand people on a waiting list for antiretrovirals here in Alabama, and with the same funds in New York and San Francisco and other places, they were able to spend on lots of other good things, but other things, not just meds. Things like vitamins and water filtration systems and acupuncture and all kinds of good stuff, but we couldn't even get medications.
Kathie Hiers: [00:22:00] So yeah, I made it my business to scream that at the top of my voice, at every federal gathering that I could. Eventually, in 2001 ended up forming the Southern AIDS coalition which gave us some more of a concerted effort across 17 jurisdictions to try to change some of the laws.
Mason Funk : [00:22:30] You're going to have to walk me through this? Why does this happen? Why was this happening if the South was systematically and people in the South who were just as sick and just as human and just as in need, as people in big cities like New York and San Francisco. Why? Spell it out for me? I don't know.
Kathie Hiers: I can spell it out for you. There's no doubt that when the epidemic started, it was in the bi-coastal areas, the urban areas. New York and California just had a horrible epidemic
Kathie Hiers: [00:23:00] and that's where it was. And so the initial laws were structured to mainly service those areas. For example, most of the Ryan White and the housing laws, they sliced a certain amount off the top of the appropriation and gave it to those large urban areas. Then they only counted AIDS cases because at that time, the difference between HIV and AIDS wasn't very relevant.
Kathie Hiers: [00:23:30] All HIV cases became AIDS cases. Unlike today, where a person can stay HIV positive for many, many years, and hopefully never progress to an AIDS diagnosis. So they only counted AIDS. But the clincher was, they counted every AIDS case from the beginning of the epidemic, including all the deceased folks. Now that is just an artificial way to keep the money in the areas where the epidemic historically began.
Kathie Hiers: [00:24:00] And why does that happen? Because nobody ever wants to give up any money. I can remember during the heat of one of the Ryan White reauthorizations, I was having just a battle with Hillary Clinton's office in New York. I love Hillary Clinton, don't get me wrong, but I was trying to change these formulas to count living HIV/AIDS and quit punishing the South. And I got letters, we sent letters back and forth, and she basically told me
Kathie Hiers: [00:24:30] I needed to make the pie higher, not take money away from areas that had done a good job. And I don't disagree with that, but that's a lot easier to say when you have my portion of the allocation. That's kind of the brief history, but I will say that as these laws were reauthorized over the years. Whatever legislator had their finger in the pie always wrote in some weird little language that helped them.
Kathie Hiers: [00:25:00] For example, when Frist was from, I think he was from Tennessee, he wrote something that helped Tennessee. Depending on who was writing the legislation, do you know the Ryan White law itself is over 200 pages long? It's the most convoluted, complicated thing you've ever seen in your life? I'll never forget during one of the reauthorizations. I think it was the really nasty one in 2006, when we finally got it changed.
Kathie Hiers: [00:25:30] Ted Kennedy's health person, her name was Connie Garner. We were all in a big room and she said, You know, I see that people have made new friends over this legislation, and I see others that have lost friends over this legislation. There's something inherently wrong with a piece of legislation that does that. I couldn't have agreed with her more because it was very unfair.
Mason Funk : [00:26:00] You obviously have walked people through this topic before.
Kathie Hiers: I have. Yeah
Mason Funk : [crosstalk] so good at it.
Kathie Hiers: Well, thank you.
Mason Funk : Thank you. Before we move on into more story, talk about the role of racism in everything that you just portrayed and everything in the story you just told.
Kathie Hiers: Well, I think it's pretty clear, and finally, white America is waking up to it, that our nation has always been filled with systemic racism.
Kathie Hiers: [00:26:30] And that's really hard for people like my 89 year old mother to understand. In fact, I just thought I was gonna crawl under the sink the other day, I had a black Workman here at my house, and she was here and she said, David, you're a black man. Let me ask you a question. Do you think there's a lot of racism out there? And I was like, Oh, mom, stop, please stop. But you know,
Kathie Hiers: [00:27:00] older people don't get it. But even here in Alabama, I mean, my God, the Tuskegee trials were still going on in the 1970s. The racism around housing and red lining and all the history of that is very clear. I mean, it's really hard to fathom how people don't see it and the fact that all black parents have to have the conversation with their children, especially their male children,
Kathie Hiers: [00:27:30] about how to stay safe is very, very sad. I have found, over the years, that even within the gay community, there's a lot of racism. I guess I didn't really realize that until after Barack Obama was elected, and I started hearing some of my white gay friends say things that I just couldn't believe were coming out of their mouths. I have to kind of just roll my eyes and laugh a little bit
Kathie Hiers: [00:28:00] because to me there's nothing more ironic than a bigoted queer. It's like one oppressed group who has to oppress another group. We deal with all of this in our everyday life. And we try really, really hard at my agency, at AIDS Alabama, to make sure that we're trying to eliminate as much of that systemic racism as we can. So that, at least, the place where people work can be a safe zone for them.
Mason Funk : [00:28:30] As a side note, I think my personal hero, maybe in the world of nonprofits and in this work, is Bryan Stevenson of Equal Justice Initiative.
Kathie Hiers: Have you been to his new museums in Montgomery?
Mason Funk : I took a little pilgrimage down there a couple of years ago. I went to Birmingham. I started there, I went South to Selma and across to Montgomery [crosstalk]. And then I went across into Georgia and heard Jimmy Carter teach Sunday school.
Kathie Hiers: [00:29:00] Oh, what a wonderful trip.
Mason Funk : It was a highlight. I will never forget it. I read Bryan Stevenson's book. I like, not just him as a person, but the organization and how they've started so small and become this incredibly influential organization, what they're doing.
Kathie Hiers: It's amazing. And I just think the part of the museum with the pillars, with the lynchings on them just takes your breath away.
Mason Funk : [00:29:30] Totally. I told everybody I knew. I was like, I mean, it's a bit of a trip, but you gotta your way down there. I still tell people to this day.
Kathie Hiers: Well, if you ever come back to Birmingham, you must let me take you out to eat because we have fabulous food in Birmingham.
Mason Funk : I most definitely will. That's a pledge. Okay.
Mason Funk : [00:30:00] So, Now back to your story, you told the anecdote of you still living in Mobile and five of your friends coming back from Pensacola and all having tested positive. This is all by way of saying, in fact, maybe you could start by placing yourself where you were at that time in your life, in terms of what you were doing professionally and the trajectory that you thought your life was on, and then how that changed.
Kathie Hiers: [00:30:30] Okay. When, when the HIV epidemic first began, I always joke that Mobile is always a year or two behind everyone else. It actually did start a little later here than in most places, but in 1985 Donna and I had been together for about a year. My life path had not gone the way I expected,
Kathie Hiers: [00:31:00] I always thought I would go into politics or be an attorney, and I hadn't given that thought up. But then when I realized I was gay, I knew that would be a harder path. A friend of mine had started a construction company, so I became his partner in that. We were mostly renovating old antebellum homes in Mobile, Alabama, during that time period. He did all the work in the field.
Kathie Hiers: [00:31:30] I did all the hiring and firing and ran the company. That's what I was doing at the time. Donna and I were sitting in, I believe it was a Denny's in Mobile when five of our gay boyfriends came in. They had all just been to Pensacola where you could test then anonymously. And I remember them giggling over, I was Daisy duck and I was Minnie mouse, as they had tested, but unfortunately all five were positive.
Kathie Hiers: [00:32:00] And during that time, as you well know, it was a death sentence. We were pretty shocked. It was really interesting and dismaying to see how the five of them handled the news as well. I don't know if you've seen that new show, It's a Sin, but it reminded me so much of that time period. You had some guys who basically withdrew or hid.
Kathie Hiers: [00:32:30] You had others that were out there doing everybody they could get their hands on. I'm not sure if they were repressing the whole thing or if it was an anger thing, but it was a very volatile time. Those five guys, only one of them is still alive today. I went through a period where I lost just about every gay guy I knew.
Kathie Hiers: [00:33:00] I lost my best friend in February of 1996, Dwight Sawyer, which is a funny story. Remind me to come back to who he is. But he died right before the medications came out. One of my friends in that group of five died in 1995 before the meds came out. We started a small nonprofit in Mobile, Alabama called the Lee Simmons fund for people living with AIDS. And it was basically sort of a Make-A-Wish foundation for people living with HIV,
Kathie Hiers: [00:33:30] so we would help their families to have one last Thanksgiving together or buy Christmas presents for the kids or visit them in the hospitals because they were segregated into separate wards. And the hospitals wanted you to gown up and glove up before you could even go in the rooms. We started that when Lee passed in 95 he and his sister, Donna, and several of us.
Kathie Hiers: [00:34:00] We did that for quite a few years. But it was a horrible time. But then fast forwarding in the epidemic, I lost my second best male friend in 2007 from HIV. He had managed to hang on, got the meds and all that. But I think a lot of people don't fully understand how policy can filter down to people's real lives.
Kathie Hiers: [00:34:30] Because what happened to Steve was, it was during the Bush administration and the Medicaid donut hole had happened, legislatively. Which meant that if you were on Medicaid and you reached a certain point in your coverage, you had to come up with several thousand dollars out of your pocket before your coverage started back up again. Steve reached that point and he was embarrassed. He had worked all his life. He had never asked anybody for a dime and he didn't want to tell us.
Kathie Hiers: [00:35:00] He just quit taking his meds because he couldn't afford the donut hole, and he was dead within six months. That was in September of 2007. I mean, I literally threw away an address book that I had because it just broke my heart because so many people I knew were no longer living because of HIV.
Mason Funk : [00:35:30] You know, it's so hard for people today to understand. I was thinking when you were talking about that window from 85 to 96 and how at the end of that window one year made a difference. Here we are going to be with COVID for one year now, and you were living in this state for 10 years. The whole nation was living in this state for 10 years,
Mason Funk : [00:36:00] when effectively that HIV diagnosis was a death sentence. I don't know what anybody can say to make that more understandable, what that was like.
Kathie Hiers: I know, I remember quite a few years back, I had a bunch of young gay social workers at AIDS Alabama, and that movie Angels in America came out. One of the older gay social workers had them over to his house to watch it. They were like, Ah, that's not the way it was, that didn't happen.
Kathie Hiers: [00:36:30] They just didn't believe that it was like that, but it really was like that.
Mason Funk : Shoot, what was I going to ask you? It was related. Okay. Well, it flew out of my head. We are going to get back to Dwight. I have notes about Dwight.
Kathie Hiers: [00:37:00] That's actually kind of an ironic thing. I'll tell you right now. I don't know if you're familiar with the sodomy case in Georgia, the Hardwick case. Dwight and his partner, Joey Potter, who lives in Atlanta -- who would be an interesting person for you to talk with -- they were moving to Atlanta and Dwight went ahead to scout out an apartment for them. Well, you know how gay guys are.
Kathie Hiers: [00:37:30] He met a bartender at Backstreet, the big bar there, and they hooked up and they had gone back to his house when the cops burst in, supposedly looking for drugs, there weren't any drugs, but they caught him making love and arrested them both for sodomy. So Dwight was the bottom half of the Hardwick case.
Mason Funk : Wow. That is historic.
Kathie Hiers: I know. I know.
Mason Funk : [00:38:00] For those unfamiliar, in our audience, tell us, I definitely know about the Hardwick case. I know it was decided, I think, 1996.
Kathie Hiers: Yeah. Well, the gay community lost that battle. It wasn't until later that we were able to overturn the sodomy laws. It was just an excuse to punish gay people. I mean, sodomy was illegal. I don't know that a whole lot about it other than it was challenging the sodomy laws
Kathie Hiers: [00:38:30] and they lost, but it was funny cause Joey recently lost his partner, his current partner -- that was Dwight's boyfriend -- and he sent me a bunch of articles that Dwight had interviewed with some of the gay newspapers there in Atlanta. It was fascinating to read all that.
Mason Funk : Wow. Okay. So as a side note, us being in the archive business,
Mason Funk : [00:39:00] those letters or those articles rather, do you have a place ... Do you know the organization Invisible Histories, I would assume?
Kathie Hiers: The one in Birmingham.
Mason Funk : Yeah.
Kathie Hiers: Yeah.
Mason Funk : Okay. I just want to make sure those ...
Kathie Hiers: But I haven't given them to them. Let me see if I can get better copies of them from Joey. Because what he sent me, it was most of it and I took photo shots of most of it,
Kathie Hiers: [00:39:30] which is what I have. But yeah, I need to get those to Josh at the Invisible Histories.
Mason Funk : Great, great. Because we are, as part of this community of archivists, we don't collect a physical memorabilia here at OUTWORDS, but there are organizations that do, and I just want to make sure those items end up in someplace where they'll be safe.
Kathie Hiers: Im going to make a note.
Mason Funk : Yeah. Good. Thank you for that.
Kathie Hiers: [00:40:00] You bet.
Mason Funk : Okay. I still feel like there was this question that I can't let go of, but I don't know what it was. But I do have in my notes, finding out about Dwight on your 40th birthday. Can you tell us that story? [crosstalk] Dwights story a little bit.
Kathie Hiers: [00:40:30] Of course, Donna and I were still together then, and there were eight of us that were real close lesbians and we would all celebrate each other's birthdays. It was my day, for my 40th. We always went to this fabulous place called the Grand Hotel in Fairhope, Alabama. Had the brunch and drank until they closed the place down. And so we were getting I was actually in the tub,
Kathie Hiers: [00:41:00] getting ready to go to my birthday party at the grand hotel when the phone rang. It was Dwight, and he told me he was positive. I wasn't shocked, but I was awfully upset, because he and I have been best friends since I was in high school. In fact, he was the boy that I thought I had the crush on. When we had to have dates for events,
Kathie Hiers: [00:41:30] we were each other's dates, and all of the different events that you go to in high school. I was valedictorian in 1972, he was valedictorian in 1973. We had just always been close. We had lost contact with each other right after high school, but then we bumped into each other at a gay bar and just squealed with delight upon discovering that we were both gay. Actually, Dwight came to work for me at the construction company for awhile
Kathie Hiers: [00:42:00] and he was going to Spring Hill college. He was just such a brilliant, wonderful person. He used to always be at our house for Christmas. I remember when David was little, he was about five or six and he had such a crush on Dwight and Dwight was spending the night and we woke up to the smell of something cooking. I thought Dwight had gotten up and started cooking, went into the kitchen and David,
Kathie Hiers: [00:42:30] at five or six years old, was making pancakes for breakfast in bed for Dwight. I'll never forget that. I thought that was quite hilarious, and of course, Dave turned out to be just as straight as he could be. But he did have a boy crush on my good buddy, yeah. I mean, when you think of all the Dwight's and multiply that by the millions of people that we've lost, it's really a sad thing.
Mason Funk : [00:43:00] Yeah. I don't know if you've ever come across the guy over in Jackson, Mississippi named Jack Myers who ran gay bars in Jackson for 50 years. He's one of our interviewees. But he and a friend also started like a home for gay men whose families had just rejected them. And I think it's also important. I would love to have you talk about the phenomenon of
Mason Funk : [00:43:30] many, many families ... Well, the rejection, of course, but families also just finding out that their son was gay because their son was dying, and what that is like, what that does to families, what that does to the individual who has HIV/AIDS and what you witnessed, the stories you witnessed about that. I don't want to like, again, make you go too much in the way of painful memories, but for the historical record.
Kathie Hiers: [00:44:00] Yeah. Well, in those days when guys died of AIDS, most of the families did not put that in the obituary. For Dwight, I think they said it was cancer. It reminds me of Al Pacino in Angels in America, It's liver cancer. But they just would never put that in the obituaries which is sad
Kathie Hiers: [00:44:30] that they were ashamed and made their sons ashamed. It's a lot of guilt for people to deal with when they're dying. And that should be the last thing on their minds, but that was very much the reality. And there were a few families that embraced their sons, but not very many. And even later, I remember in the nineties
Kathie Hiers: [00:45:00] when I was running the agency here in Mobile, Alabama, Mobile AIDS Support Services, my board chairman was a handsome young gay man and he got HIV and didn't tell any of us. He was driving to Birmingham from Mobile to get his care so that people would know. He ended up dying because he wasn't taking good care of himself because he wasn't getting regular care. And that's what shame does, shame kills people.
Kathie Hiers: [00:45:30] We've certainly come a long way in the epidemic. I know you're probably familiar with the U equals U campaign. Do you know what that is? Okay. Now for the last few years, this has been a big campaign that's taken off since they've done all the research and discovered that a person with HIV who is on medications and has a suppressed viral load cannot sexually transmit HIV to anyone else.
Kathie Hiers: [00:46:00] A man in New York, Bruce Richmond started this campaign U equals U undetectable equals untransmittable. And it's just swept the world. There are all kinds of countries that have signed onto this campaign, and it's really a stigma buster because you know, people living with HIV can look at themselves in the mirror and not think of themselves as a deadly weapon anymore. They can love people and not have to worry about hurting people. It's a wonderful campaign.
Kathie Hiers: [00:46:30] I'm proud to say I was able to get the Jefferson County Health Department in Birmingham to be the first Southern health department to sign on to the campaign. Things have certainly changed for the better, but those were bleak days.
Mason Funk : Yeah. Yeah. There's an organization out here in California call The Body Electric, and their whole purpose was to help gay men reimagine themselves and their bodies as not just disease vectors,
Mason Funk : [00:47:00] not like stealth missiles or even worse. Because for so long, that was the shame, that was the stigma.
Kathie Hiers: Yep. Absolutely. I meant to ask you, have you ever seen deepsouth?
Mason Funk : No, I saw it in the notes or in your questionnaire or maybe heard you reference it.
Kathie Hiers: [00:47:30] Right. Yeah. Back to the trying to challenge the systemic oppression of the South. That's what that documentary is about, my part in it. Trying to do this HIV work when nobody wants to hear it.
Mason Funk : Yeah. It's just such an important theme. And of course, it has ripple effects into our entire national fabric.
Kathie Hiers: Absolutely.
Mason Funk : [00:48:00] Okay. Well, we will probably end up getting back to that. I would love to hear you talk about ... You referenced the Ryan White law. First of all, again, we're trying to tell a story here, [crosstalk] good to have you say, what was the Ryan White law, and then talk about the six year battle that you fought to get this provision changed. If you're able to weave in the 14 year battle to get the housing provision [crosstalk].
Mason Funk : [00:48:30] Because what I loved about your story around that is that advocacy can be slow. I think it's just really important wisdom to transmit to anybody who is trying to get something changed. Can you kind of weave all that into kind of a story?
Kathie Hiers: I think so. When the antiretrovirals came out and the Ryan White legislation was created,
Kathie Hiers: [00:49:00] Senator Ted Kennedy was the original author of that bill, and you probably recall who Ryan White was. He was a young boy who had acquired HIV through a blood transfusion and he and his mother Jeanne White-Ginder went on Phil Donahue and all the talk shows, trying to educate people about HIV because Ryan had been kicked out of his school in Indiana.
Kathie Hiers: [00:49:30] He ended up, I think, moving to Florida, he got really famous in a short period of time. He was an amazing young man. I'm still friends with his mother, she's carried on the work. He became friends with Michael Jackson and Elton John. When Ryan died, Ted Kennedy did this legislation to try to provide care for people living with HIV.
Kathie Hiers: [00:50:00] Now it didn't really become critical and uneven in how it was being distributed to any great extent until the antiretrovirals came out. But when they came out in 1996 in a widespread fashion, clearly, everybody needed those to stay alive. We had a waiting list of a thousand people in Alabama, the longest oldest waiting list in the country. I started going to national conventions
Kathie Hiers: [00:50:30] trying to explain to people what was going on. I'll never forget. I was at one and a guy from San Francisco stood up and told me we should be grateful for what we get off the work that they did in the original hours of the epidemic. And I said, but how does that help the people living with HIV in Alabama now? The Southern AIDS directors across the South were discovering the same problem
Kathie Hiers: [00:51:00] and they decided to start a group called the Southern AIDS Directors. And there were 16 states and Washington, DC that formed their own little group, separate from the national group of AIDS directors. Well, it didn't take them very long to realize they couldn't do much because as government employees, they couldn't advocate. So they said, Oh my God, we've got to bring the community into this. So they invited different leaders across the South that ran community organizations.
Kathie Hiers: [00:51:30] We became the Southern AIDS Directors, Southern AIDS Coalition. But then we realized that that acronym was SAD, SAC. Acronyms are important in the HIV world. We decided we couldn't be SAD SAC, so we just shortened it to the Southern AIDS Coalition. And we started a determined campaign to change these laws, the Ryan White law
Kathie Hiers: [00:52:00] and the HOPWA law were written to very much favor the urban areas. A certain percentage came off the top to go directly to them first. Then they only counted AIDS cases, they didn't count HIV cases. In the South, because we had a newer epidemic, we had a higher HIV to AIDS ratio than New York. In fact, I looked at it and it was substantially higher than New York, for example. And so by not counting HIV, you're punishing any newer areas where the epidemic has moved.
Kathie Hiers: [00:52:30] And then they also counted every person who had ever lived, who had AIDS, even if they were deceased. By doing that, you artificially keep the money in the areas where, historically, the epidemic began. We put together slideshows, we'd go to all these conferences. I remember at one US conference on AIDS, I was telling the story about Evelyn Foust was the AIDS director of North Carolina.
Kathie Hiers: [00:53:00] She had been to New York to visit, and they very proudly brought out this gold lame poetry book, all the poems were by people living with HIV. And she said, Oh, this is beautiful. She opened it up and it said, Paid for by Ryan White consortium. And she went ballistic because in the South we couldn't even get meds and they're spending their money on a gold lame poetry.
Kathie Hiers: [00:53:30] Which is a lovely thing. I love poetry. I'm an English major, I love poetry. But when you have a choice between poetry and antiretrovirals to stay alive, there's really not much decision there. We continued, and we ended up gaining some very unlikely allies. I'll tell you a story that will really make you laugh; I had been going to Jeff Sessions' office as my state Senator for many, many years.
Kathie Hiers: [00:54:00] And as you can imagine, I got very little traction. Well, I discovered one day, in talking with him, that his pet peeve was Alabama getting short changed on federal allocations. Well, once I discovered that, I started educating the man and I explained to him all of the way the law was written and he just couldn't believe it. He didn't think he would probably be able to do much about it,
Kathie Hiers: [00:54:30] but he formed a little coalition of Republican senators. The main four were Jeff Sessions, with whom I disagree with about 99.9% of everything he's ever done, but on HIV, he was pretty good. Burr, out of North Carolina; Coburn, out of Oklahoma; and Enzi out of Wyoming. Those four senators became the cheerleaders on the Senate floor for changing the Ryan White law.
Kathie Hiers: [00:55:00] Sessions even mentioned to me on the Senate floor, on the record, that he had learned that from me and it was unfair and yada yada yada, well, to make a long story short, we fought and we fought and we fought. And finally in December of 2006, I'll never forget because I was in a hotel room, live streaming C-SPAN. It was the very last thing on the agenda in December of 2006.
Kathie Hiers: [00:55:30] And it passed, with the changes that we had been recommending. It wasn't a perfect bill, as no bill is. The piece of legislation itself is still ridiculously long and complicated, but it did change to a living HIV and AIDS count. That happened in 2006, and in fact, Senator Sessions sent me a nice copy of the bill with the red line around it, framed for me.
Kathie Hiers: [00:56:00] So that was one bill down, but in my mind, I had one more to go, and that was Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS, because it was the same mess, counting all deceased AIDS cases, the slice off the top as a bonus to the big cities. Ryan White is a much bigger piece of legislation. For the much smaller Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS or HOPWA,
Kathie Hiers: [00:56:30] it was harder for me to garner support around that one. For a long time, I was kind of the lone wolf crying about the way that bill was written. In 2010, I got appointed to president Obama's president's advisory council on HIV and AIDS. Well, that gave me a better platform, and I really started pushing the HOPWA issue. At the time too,
Kathie Hiers: [00:57:00] people still didn't want to talk about the South and how the epidemic was just rampant in the South. We had half the new infections and the case numbers were growing while they're going down everywhere else. As I was working on the PACHA, the President's Advisory Council, we were writing the national, the first national HIV/AIDS strategy. And I wanted to get two things in there.
Kathie Hiers: [00:57:30] I wanted to get the story of the South and the epidemic, and I wanted to get housing in there because housing is so important for people living with HIV. Well, as you can imagine, that was an uphill battle. I was fighting with the New York AIDS director at the time when Alberto Cruz and other folks from the urban areas who just did not want me to talk about the South. I'll never forget one fellow Greg Millett, who's a brilliant guy, he's changed his tune since then,
Kathie Hiers: [00:58:00] but at the time he told me I shouldn't talk about the South because it would balkanize the community. I had to go home and look up balkanize. Once I looked up balkanize, I realized he meant I was going to divide the community into hostile little groups, which that was not what I was trying to do, but I wanted my brothers and sisters in the urban areas to care about the people living with HIV in the South, especially in the more rural areas. So in the national HIV/AIDS strategy,
Kathie Hiers: [00:58:30] if you go back and look at it, the one that came out originally under Obama in 2010, the only way I ever got them to put anything about the South in there, one day I did what I do when I get really, really angry, I cry. I was so bad on this particular day and I just was crying, and so they finally agreed that they would mention the South, but only if every time they mentioned the South, they said, and the Northeast. If you go back and read
Kathie Hiers: [00:59:00] the national HIV/AIDS strategy, and it talks about the disproportionate epidemic in the South, it always says, and the Northeast. But at least I got it in there and I did get some housing stuff in there, and I did get them to invite HUD to the table so that they're working on the plan. But you know, history repeats itself. Right now, while everybody's working on ending the epidemic, they left HUD out again. So we had to connect the Trump administration
Kathie Hiers: [00:59:30] with the HUD folks to try to get the housing piece in there. It's the piece that always gets left out, and yet, if you don't have a safe, stable home, it's very hard to be healthy. Anyway, all that to say that finally in 2016, I believe it was July of 2016. We got that changed. And I have to give a lot of credit to the National AIDS Housing Coalition, and some of my colleagues in that group,
Kathie Hiers: [01:00:00] even from New York, my good friend, Gina Quattrochi, who ran Bailey House in New York. Was one of the first to really get on board with me because it was a social justice issue, she fought at my side. Gina has passed now from cancer, but she was an amazing ally to have in New York. And it's because of all those collaborations and partnerships that we were able to get it passed.
Mason Funk : [01:00:30] I'm going to ask you to make a little paragraph where you say, advocacy can be slow, because I definitely want that. But I also mentioned we interviewed Eric Sawyer. He's one of our [crosstalk].
Kathie Hiers: Oh, I love Eric.
Mason Funk : Yeah. I have to send you a link. Unfortunately, we didn't know you at the time that we did an event last December on world AIDS day, we brought six of our interviewees together in the field of HIV/AIDS activism. Eric is one of those [inaudible] a little video to introduce all of it.
Kathie Hiers: [01:01:00] It's so funny. You mentioned him right now because when Gina, my good friend that ran the housing agency in New York was dying of cancer. I was in New York and Eric was there. We had gone to a meeting with Hillary Clinton and he was there and he decided to cook Gina dinner that night. Eric and I caught the subway to Gina's place and he went out and bought groceries and cooked her dinner. It was wonderful. He's a nice man.
Mason Funk : [01:01:30] Yeah. I'll send you the link, a little video where we introduce the six. I can send you the link to the entire panel.
Kathie Hiers: That'd be awesome. Thank you.
Mason Funk : Great. Well, so let me just get you to sort of say, in summary
Kathie Hiers: Yeah. In summary, the Ryan White law, it took us over six years to get that one changed. The housing law, it took almost 15 years to get that one changed.
Kathie Hiers: [01:02:00] So if I learn one lesson from this it's that advocacy is slow. It can be grueling, but you can make a difference. In my opinion, and I find this to be particularly true in a very conservative place like Alabama, you've got to be the little energizer bunny who never gives up. You keep plugging away and plugging away and plugging away until you make the change that you want to make.
Mason Funk : [01:02:30] Fantastic. That was a great summary. Again, you've done a lot of this and you're a natural, or maybe you've become natural because you make it look easy. This is a perfect time, I think, to take a little five minute break.
Kathie Hiers: You get you something to eat, Mason.
Mason Funk : I'll run to the restroom, Ill grab my lunch and microwave it, and I'll meet you back here. Kristie, if you want to just cut the recording then we'll resume back here in about five minutes.
Mason Funk : [01:10:00] Kathie, if you would tell us about the party you hosted in Mobile for 40 years [crosstalk] then migrated up to Birmingham in some way, shape or form. That's a story I think for the ages [inaudible] make sure we capture.
Kathie Hiers: [01:10:30] Yeah. Okay. One thing that I'm well known for in Mobile and now in Birmingham is a big free for all party that I throw every year. It's not a typical party, it's pretty much anyone who wants to come comes. At its peak in Mobile, I would say we would have 500 people. Some years, 200.
Kathie Hiers: [01:11:00] Always in that range. In Birmingham, it's not quite that big. It started on my 21st birthday, my brother gave me a birthday party and had me invite all my friends. And then he moved out of the house he was living in, I moved into it and we decided to keep it going. I had that party. Later, of course, I had two partners and moved several times, but wherever I was, the party went with me.
Kathie Hiers: [01:11:30] We had it every October, it was called the Libra party. I had that party in Mobile, Alabama for 40 years without missing a year, which is pretty incredible. When I moved to Birmingham, I didn't have it up there the first few years, but for about 10 years, I had it in both places, which was a lot of work. I decided, after the 40th in Mobile,
Kathie Hiers: [01:12:00] since most of my friends were old and had back problems, and it was hard to get the manual labor I needed to put this big event on. I quit having it in Mobile after 40 years. The final t-shirt was 40 years of beers, because one of the signatures of the party was a giant canoe full of every kind of beer you can imagine. And of course, a full bar often. I had a little middle-age lesbian retro rock and roll band in Mobile.
Kathie Hiers: [01:12:30] We would play at it sometimes. All of my friends were exceedingly sad when I quit having that party in Mobile after 40 years, but I've been having it in Birmingham now for about 15 or 16 years. And it's quite the gay event in Birmingham as well. I do find a difference in the communities. In Mobile, I think the males and females are more integrated than they are in Birmingham.
Kathie Hiers: [01:13:00] I guess, as you get into larger urban areas and there's more to do, then they separate more. But I am proud to say that finally in Birmingham, that's been a tough nut to crack because I like gay guys. I think the world would be a very sad place without gay guys. It took me years, when I finally have found a really good core group of fellows that I go to dinner with every Thursday night, we have a Thursday night supper club.There are about eight women in it and about 20 guys.
Kathie Hiers: [01:13:30] We'd go to a different restaurant every Thursday night. That's been fun. I still have that party in Birmingham. Of course, this year was a little different with COVID. I had a very small party in the backyard with just my supper club and there were about 10 of us. And we all sat away from each other and ate and drank and partied and had a good time, but I didn't want to break my streak since I've done it since I was 21 years old.
Mason Funk : [01:14:00] That is awesome. That is so awesome. Again, it feels like something that's hard for us city folk to really understand the value of a party that happens every single year, year in, year out. It feels like something very, something that would happen much more easily in a place like Birmingham, Mobile than Los Angeles.
Kathie Hiers: Yeah, because I don't even have to call anybody, word just spreads. I put it out on Facebook and then I have 300 people
Mason Funk : [01:14:30] Tell us about your little band. That sounds like a [inaudible].
Kathie Hiers: I had a blast in that little band. I'd tell you, when I left Mobile, the two things that I was the saddest to leave behind were my middle-age lesbian retro rock and roll band called Drago Moon, and my softball team that I had managed and coached for 20 years. The band was great fun. I played the keyboards, have a really talented musical friend who's in a Mobile pop symphony,
Kathie Hiers: [01:15:00] and she was like our band leader and she coordinated all the music for us. We had a bass player. Susie was lead guitar, the leader, and then we had a drummer. So there were four of us. And we got pretty darn good. I kept my day job, but we were playing in bars and bands and weddings and stuff like that, so it was a lot of fun. I did hate leaving that behind when I moved to Birmingham.
Mason Funk : [01:15:30] I can imagine. I can imagine. Now, briefly on softball, my ears perked up when you mentioned that in your prep interview because well, it's a theme. It's a theme in the lesbian community, the softball leagues. I'm working with a company, they're called Team Snap, and they're an app. They basically exist to help parents
Mason Funk : [01:16:00] and their kids stay organized around their kids team sports, which apparently is a thing. Anyway, I'm working with this company to try to create maybe a program for them that features queer elders, in language they can understand, sports, amateur sports. So just give us an overview of your track record, so to speak, in softball, and what role those leagues played in your life, and then by extension the larger lesbian community
Kathie Hiers: [01:16:30] As a young child, a tom boy, there was nothing I liked better than playing, at the time, baseball out in the street. I lived on a street with about 70 children and I will admit I was a good ball player. If I walked outside, they would fight over who got me, I was a good little hitter. I was fast, and I did dearly love it.
Kathie Hiers: [01:17:00] I really became obsessed with baseball and collecting baseball cards and Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris and all that good stuff. As I grew older, I think in my teen years, I kinda gave it up because I was not very coordinated in my teen years, and I didn't really want to play high school softball, so I didn't really continue it. But then when I started college, I formed an intramural team at the University of South Alabama called the SGA trolls
Kathie Hiers: [01:17:30] the Student Government Trolls, and we had a little softball team and that kind of got me back into it. I started a local intramural team with the city after I realized I was gay. Softball is a major part of the lesbian community, or at least it was for us back then. With my new friends in Birmingham that I've met, it was with them too.
Kathie Hiers: [01:18:00] For some reason, those friendships forged during softball leagues, those are the ones that have lasted. I would say over the course of my team's history, we were called Third World. It was kind of a joke because we didn't want a sponsor telling us what to do, so we didn't have a sponsor. We were like a poor third world nation always begging for donations to pay for the fees and the uniforms and the balls.
Kathie Hiers: [01:18:30] Third World was in existence for over 20 years. Over that time, I think there were about 300 different women that passed through that team. In fact, one time I was thinking about having a Third World reunion and the list got so long. I just couldn't believe how many people had played on the team. It was a lot of fun. We were never the best team, but we had a great time.
Kathie Hiers: [01:19:00] I did have one claim to fame in all of that 20 years, we never forfeited a game. If there was one thing I was not going to do, it was give away a game. Now I will admit, we did grab somebody out of the stands and put a shirt on one time to keep from doing that. But 20 years without forfeiting a game is pretty amazing. It's like herding cats, anytime you run a softball team. Trying to always make sure everybody's there, especially your good players.
Kathie Hiers: [01:19:30] I had a couple of dingbats on the team that could never remember their cleats or their shoes or their glove. I had one girl, inevitably, if the ump starts yelling, Third World, where's your batter? The whole team would go, Angie. I'm still friends with all of those people to this day. It was a lot of fun. I did hate leaving that behind when I moved to Birmingham as well.
Mason Funk : [01:20:00] Well, that part about herding cats, that's going to be right up the alley of this company. Because that's what they basically are trying to do, is make it easier to herd the cat. That's a great story. Thank you for sharing. Okay, let me go back. One more thing I wanted to ... You talked about Birmingham black pride and how just the ongoing reality of there being essentially white pride events,
Mason Funk : [01:20:30] then there's systemic exclusion, or there's no welcome. And eventually the black folks say, you know what, let's do our own pride, which is great, but at the same time, the intersection that we're all looking for is not happening. Can you talk about that a little bit? Just tell us the story about how that all came to exist and kind of what the bigger takeaway is from that?
Kathie Hiers: [01:21:00] Birmingham has an interesting history of the two AIDS service organizations and that kind of fits into this story. The two organizations are AIDS Alabama, which is the one I run and Birmingham AIDS Outreach. They were formed within a month of one another, but from very different origins. Birmingham AIDS Outreach was the white gay male community trying to rise up and deal with the epidemic AIDS.
Kathie Hiers: [01:21:30] Alabama started with the clergy and the University of Alabama at Birmingham collaborating to try to deal with the epidemic. So we have very different beginnings. But as you well know, as the years have gone by, and both organizations have been around for almost 35 years now, we serve all the same people, and the epidemic has become more and more people of color.
Kathie Hiers: [01:22:00] I've always found that most of the gay support in the Birmingham area still is aligned with Birmingham AIDS Outreach because of that early history of how the two organizations began, although that's changed some, I've been at AIDS Alabama now for 20 years. Particularly in the lesbian community, I think people are much more aware of AIDS Alabama than they used to be, but I always joke that we're not very good at marketing ourselves.
Kathie Hiers: [01:22:30] If there's one thing AIDS Alabama is not good at, it's throwing a party. We put out damn fine services, but we're just not real great at special events. Never have been, that's never been our thing, but we bring a lot of money into the state. My agency's budget is about $15 million now, and we share that all across the state, we share it with Birmingham AIDS Outreach. From my point of view, if we can help somebody in Pineapple, Alabama who has very few resources,
Kathie Hiers: [01:23:00] that's a good thing. It's kinda like the whole issue with the South and its place in the nation. Then within a state like Alabama, you've got these real rural areas that have very, very few services. If I can help those rural areas at the same time that I'm helping in Birmingham and Mobile, then all the better. All that is, sort of, the backdrop for the pride organizations.
Kathie Hiers: [01:23:30] Central Alabama pride in the Birmingham area has done a pride parade since the very early days. I don't know that they do a lot else other than the gay pride events. But my staff at AIDS Alabama is about 80 to 85% people of color, and I heard over and over from them that they just didn't feel included.
Kathie Hiers: [01:24:00] They tried, they would make some suggestions and none of their suggestions ever came to fruition. And so they got frustrated. My prevention director, who really is an amazing guy, too. You talk about somebody from Alabama that you might want to talk to. He's incredible. He's written a book now. He is well-known in the country, his name is Tony Christon-Walker. He came to me and said, Kathie,
Kathie Hiers: [01:24:30] I just can't deal with Central Alabama pride anymore. Can we start a black pride? And I said, Well, of course, I mean, you don't have to ask me that but I'll be happy to support you in it. He did, and man, it has taken off. It's a big event now and much looked forward to in the black community. I think it's been a good thing for Birmingham. Birmingham proper is majority black.
Kathie Hiers: [01:25:00] It's one of those cities where you have the white flight into the burbs. We actually have 23 little cities that surround Birmingham, each with their own school system and their own government, so it's really a convoluted mess. But it's frustrating for the black community in the gay community to not feel a part. This has been really great for them.
Mason Funk : [01:25:30] I mean, I agree, it's great that they now have a place that they feel like they own. But I guess it partly goes back to the whole theme of like how ironic is it that there's discrimination and bigotry within the queer community.
Kathie Hiers: Right.
Mason Funk : Sometimes it feels like it's going backwards to have separate organizations,
Mason Funk : [01:26:00] separate pride events. Youve had a front row seat now for however many years, what do you feel like are some of the ways in which ... Because OUTWORDS is all about trying to create more linkage between not just LGBTQ organizations, but any organization fighting for social justice, and I'm sure that's your orientation as well. So when I see these organizations forming separately, I think it just doesn't feel like forward progress.
Kathie Hiers: [01:26:30] No, it doesn't. I couldn't agree with you more. I feel the same way about that as I do about the 23 cities surrounding Birmingham. If they all would put their resources together and have a decent public school system then that would really improve the situation for people going to school in the area. It makes me go back to a line
Kathie Hiers: [01:27:00] I use often that it's all about the money. A lot of times, as we're all looking for resources, my personal belief is I would much rather share resources than try to hoard resources. I just believe it's a better use of the money. With any resources, I find that to be the case,
Kathie Hiers: [01:27:30] but with money that people don't want to let go of. People also don't want to let go of power. The same group has run that pride organization all these years, and they're not really interested in changing it. If you can't get a group to change, then you have to go outside of that group.
Mason Funk : It's 12:30 so I want to begin gradually winding down. Jack asked you a question in the prep interview that I thought was brilliant.
Mason Funk : [01:28:00] When they asked you, how do you keep going? What keeps you going? For the years and decades of work you've done, and the enormous loss youve experienced in your lifetime, you seem like a very, just can do, positive. Now, I haven't seen you cry because you were so [inaudible] angry, but it just feels like you have a kind of a sense of
Mason Funk : [01:28:30] something about you that seems optimistic. I would love to know, what has sustained you through all these years of battles and loss?
Kathie Hiers: [01:29:00] Yeah. Well, in the HIV arena, I can tell you that I am in a very enviable position in that I get to help shape policy, but at the same time, I get to see the frontline work and see how we are actually helping people live better lives,
Kathie Hiers: [01:29:30] healthier lives. You talk about something that'll charge you up is seeing somebody buy a house for the first time, or seeing someone graduate from our substance abuse programming and move on to some productive job. I'll never forget when we first opened a facility in Birmingham, it's called JASPER House,
Kathie Hiers: [01:30:00] it's for people living with HIV who also have a severe mental health diagnosis. One of the first residents that we had there, Larry Wayne was his name, and he was wheelchair bound. He was about, I'd say 45 years old, but had total dementia. I found out he was living with his 80 year old mother, and she wasn't really able to take care of him, and he wasn't taking his meds regularly. Once we got him in our facility
Kathie Hiers: [01:30:30] and he had three good meals a day, and we monitored his medication intake, within three months, he had gained about 30 pounds. Within six months, he was out of the wheelchair, beating everybody at cards in the common room. He got the first job he had had in 10 years. Now, it was as a drag queen, but that's okay. I went to see his first drag show at one of the gay bars in Birmingham. I was so proud of him.
Kathie Hiers: [01:31:00] Getting to see that, that'll keep you going. I've seen a lot of developments over the years and we've added a lot of programming that really has helped people lead healthier, more independent lives. And then, of course, the occasional advocacy win helps too. To think, particularly with that housing HIV law, that I was the main person in the country
Kathie Hiers: [01:31:30] who pushed for it. That's pretty damn exciting, that one person out of sheer force of will and garnering collaborations can make a huge difference. That's what you have to remember. And I'm not saying I don't ever have bad days, I was having my knee replacement, I was in the hospital, on the day that Trump was elected and I remember just boo-hooing in the hospital
Kathie Hiers: [01:32:00] and my mother just could not understand why I was so upset. You know, what difference could it possibly make to you? I was like, well, mom, if I don't have a job in a couple of years, you might think differently. But you're gonna have those ups and downs. You've just got to hang on to the wins and keep pushing for more wins.
Mason Funk : Yeah, that's brilliant. That's just a great takeaway. Thank you for that.
Kathie Hiers: Absolutely.
Mason Funk : [01:32:30] I'm already editing the short video that I want to make for these, these words of inspiration for someone who has been on the front lines going on 35 years towards 40. Okay. In the spirit of wrapping up, you mentioned three people that you wanted to talk about. One is Patricia Todd. We don't have a whole lot of time, give us a minute or two on Patricia.
Kathie Hiers: Patricia Todd is probably someone you should talk with.
Kathie Hiers: [01:33:00] She was the first out elected official in Alabama to the state legislature. She's just an advocate at heart. We've always teased her because when she was young, she was on some public radio show and scrolling across the bottom as she was talking was Patricia Todd, lesbian advocate; Patricia Todd, lesbian advocate. We always tease her that on her tombstone, it's going to say,
Kathie Hiers: [01:33:30] Patricia Todd, lesbian advocate. But she is someone who's not afraid to be the token gay person in the legislature, for example. And she really made a difference down there. A lot of times, especially with people who don't have much experience with the gay community, once you get to know somebody who's gay and, you know they're gay, it does change the face.
Kathie Hiers: [01:34:00] I just think Patricia has always been brave in that way. I think she's kind of an icon in the Birmingham community.
Mason Funk : Awesome. Next, Neil Aldridge.
Kathie Hiers: Neil Aldridge was one of the most talented young men I ever met. He was so good in the arts and drama
Kathie Hiers: [01:34:30] and dancing and choreography, all of that stuff. I mean, he could have been a star in New York. He was one of the first guys to start the gay Mardi Gras society in Mobile that has endured since. It's been around a long time now, Osiris. I remember the very first Osiris ball. He was the King and had just an unbelievable Tableau,
Kathie Hiers: [01:35:00] as you could imagine. He was the arts guy in Mobile, Alabama, and he was one of the very first people to die from AIDS. It was really a shocking blow to the gay community to lose someone like Neil who was so admired and envied. I don't want people to forget how important some of these folks were to their communities, and Neil certainly was.
Mason Funk : [01:35:30] That's great. Thank you. Thank you for remembering his name or saying his name. Then lastly, Dr. Patricia C. Stephens and Lana Silverthorn.
Kathie Hiers: Okay. When I started college, that would have been 1972, 73.
Kathie Hiers: [01:36:00] I quickly discovered that there was one professor that everyone was in love with. Her name was Pat Stephens and she was one of those lucky people that just had it all going on. Was beautiful. Just about the most brilliant person I've ever met in my life. There's not a subject that you could come up with that she wasn't just an expert on. She was just absolutely amazing. Boys and girls, it didn't matter, everybody fell in love with her. Everybody that ever met her fell in love with her.
Kathie Hiers: [01:36:30] I quickly discovered that she had a partner. For the early to mid seventies, the fact that they were fairly open about it was pretty surprising. Her partner was also a teacher in the English department, Lana Silverthorn. I found out that Lana had been engaged to another male professor, and when she met Pat, she dumped Buddy, and that was the end of that. Everybody knew Pat and Lana were together.
Kathie Hiers: [01:37:00] People were so obsessed with Pat. I remember one student, one time -- Pat had this Corvette -- I don't know where she stole all the roses from, but she left a trail of roses from her Corvette out in the parking lot into the humanities building, up the stairs to her office. things like that were always happening. There was one student who had made a pass at her and I don't think Pat responded well.
Kathie Hiers: [01:37:30] She had a kite flying from her office window and that student snuck in and cut the kite. She was so angry that she wouldn't be with her, but they were amazing. They had always sort of kept to themselves, even though everybody in the English department knew they were together, but I somehow broke that wall that they had up, and we became really good friends.
Kathie Hiers: [01:38:00] When they became friends with me, then they became friends with all of my little circle of lesbians and it kind of opened them up to the community. They started coming to my Libra parties. It was just amazing to everybody that Pat Stephens was coming. They were just an incredible couple that really were mentors to a lot of us that went to the university of South Alabama. They both passed now.
Kathie Hiers: [01:38:30] Pat died in 1999 of cancer. Lana always had lupus, and she taught Flannery O'Connor who also had lupus. It was kind of ironic that she ended up dying from the same thing that one of her heroes had died from. But they were just amazing women, and very much beloved in the gay community.
Mason Funk : That's wonderful. That reminds me, we have an interview subject, a lesbian couple. We interviewed them together,
Mason Funk : [01:39:00] one of the few times you've done this, named Louise Young and Vivienne Armstrong in Dallas. Louise is from Ada, Oklahoma. When she and Vivienne got together in their twenties, Louise's parents took them in as a couple. Then they went on to have their respective careers, Louise in business and Vivienne as a nurse. We interviewed them in 2017, we got together on the phone a few weeks ago,
Mason Funk : [01:39:30] and they told me about a lesbian couple at East Central Oklahoma state university; very similar, lesbian couple, but there are of this generation. They were encouraging me to interview this couple. And I'm all about it. [inaudible] to provide the intro. That's a great story, thank you for sharing that. Okay. We're at, what I sometimes call the final four. We have four short questions that we ask all of our subjects.
Mason Funk : [01:40:00] They're obviously intended to be kind of short, straight from the cuff. The first one is, if you could tell your 15 year old self, Katfish Hiers, anything, what would that be?
Kathie Hiers: Well, if at 15, I could have told myself that there was another world out there filled with gay people
Kathie Hiers: [01:40:30] that sure would have saved me a lot of trouble because I really was naive. There weren't any gay people in my family. I'd never been around gay people. I just didn't understand that that was a reality. Looking back with 2020 hindsight, I can see the pattern so clearly. I always had the best friend over whom I was completely obsessive. I always had the female teacher that I just couldn't get enough of,
Kathie Hiers: [01:41:00] but it never crossed my mind, that I might be gay. So if I could have told my 15 year old self that that was a possibility I think that would have been amazing.
Mason Funk : Fantastic. I like to ask our people if you identify with the notion of there being sort of a queer superpower,
Mason Funk : [01:41:30] something that is innate to all queer people. I don't know about all, but maybe all. That is, what enables us to survive and rise above and what ultimately is the greatest gift we can give to the world. Do you relate to that idea at all? And if so, what would you say our queer superpower is?
Kathie Hiers: Wow, that's a hard one. All right, say it one more time. Phrase it for me one more time.
Mason Funk : [01:42:00] Do you think there is such a thing as a queer superpower that just enables us to not only survive, but actually thrive in the world, and is ultimately arguably our greatest gift to the world, to the heteronormative, very gender binary world? And if so, what is that thing that weve blessed with?
Kathie Hiers: [01:42:30] Well, I don't know if I could say this is true for the whole gay community, but for me I think my gay super power is the ability to relate to people. Even if they're totally different from me, if they're like Jeff Sessions. If they're straight, conservative, where I'm far more liberal and left wing,
Kathie Hiers: [01:43:00] yet I think you can find common ground. The ability to find common ground, I think that's certainly missing from our politics these days. I wish more of those folks had that superpower. But I do think that that's something that a lot of gay people learn to do because especially in my youth, a lot of what you are is secret, so you find ways to relate to people and to communicate with people
Kathie Hiers: [01:43:30] that takes them off the offensive. That's what I think would be mine.
Mason Funk : Great. That's a great answer. Thank you for that. Your story has been documented fairly widely and you've received some accolades, but here you are sharing your story with OUTWORDS, and I'm very appreciative. I know your whole organization [inaudible]. Why is it important to you to share your story?
Kathie Hiers: [01:44:00] Well, first, I think it's important historically for people to understand the progress of both the gay community in the United States and the HIV epidemic. They have separate histories, but they're interwoven. I happen to be someone that's kind of in the middle of both of those.
Kathie Hiers: [01:44:30] A lot of the HIV history has been written, but only from one point of view mainly. Mainly from the white gay male point of view, which is a very important point of view. Thank God for those Act Up guys and the people that were willing to step out there and change things with that slow advocacy work.
Kathie Hiers: [01:45:00] But there are other parts to the story that aren't as frequently told, and I think the Southern story is one of those. I think it's more well-known now than it was 10 years ago, but even still, I don't think a lot of my colleagues in some of the urban areas really have a clue what it's like to live in rural Alabama, where you don't have broadband internet and you don't have transportation.
Kathie Hiers: [01:45:30] I remember one time I was at the U.S. conference on AIDS and I was sitting at a big table with all Alabama people and Greg Louganis and his partner were telling about how if they get depressed or if they get the blues, they go to their local LGBTQ center and find comrades there. And we all looked at each other and said, Wow, I wish we had one of those. Just at the time, there wasn't one, even in Birmingham.
Kathie Hiers: [01:46:00] So yeah, the history is important, but I think we need to look at it from a lot of different perspectives.
Mason Funk : That totally makes sense. The final question, well, then I have one more, which I always do, but the final question is very similar to the one I just asked you, which is what do you see as the importance of a project like OUTWORDS, that effectively is trying to blanket the country, collecting interviews like yours
Mason Funk : [01:46:30] with LGBTQ people of all stripes, every possible variation you can imagine? If you could mention OUTWORDS in your answer.
Kathie Hiers: Yeah. I am particularly excited about the work that OUTWORDS is doing, because I think you're going to be able to capture the fact the gay community is not just one monolithic thing. It's so diverse in and of itself. I think by capturing different stories
Kathie Hiers: [01:47:00] from different age groups, different ethnicities, different geographical locations, you're going to get a lot of different stories. And I think all of that together makes the mosaic of what we are. So thank you for doing this. I'm very excited about your work.
Mason Funk : Well, thank you. I'm excited about it too, but thank you for your supportive words.
Kathie Hiers: Absolutely.
Mason Funk : [01:47:30] Now last, before we go, I didn't want to miss the opportunity to have you talk about what it's like to be a single lady, a single lesbian in Birmingham, at this time in your life. Just in case anybody's watching is like, Oh, I always wanted to go to Birmingham. So just tell us about that. You mentioned that that's just something that's not always easy to figure out.
Kathie Hiers: Yeah, well, as a vintage lesbian in the deep South being single is not always easy.
Kathie Hiers: [01:48:00] Unfortunately most of my gal pals are paired up. And so oftentimes I'll not be a part of something that is pretty much a couples thing. It's slim pickings out here, my friend. I had to laugh one time, my friend, Patricia Todd said, Why don't you get on match.com or something? And that's how I looked on there, and I just hooted, because there were seven lesbians on there and I knew them all.
Kathie Hiers: [01:48:30] Patricia was one of them. I had found that being an older lesbian single, it's very hard to find people today. I would certainly be open to a relationship but I don't want to be in a relationship just to be in a relationship. I want it to be someone with whom I have things in common. That's hard to find.
Mason Funk : [01:49:00] Sure, well, I wish you the best on that regard, and of course, on every regard. I would love for someone to pop up on the radar or pass through, or, you know, maybe they live somewhere relatively close by. So you don't have to put up with her all the time, but just when you want to. I do hope it happens for you.
Kathie Hiers: Thank you so much, Mason.
Mason Funk : Well, listen, this has been just nothing but a joy
Kathie Hiers: For me as well.
Mason Funk : [01:49:30] And I've learned so much. All of this history, you know, we're doing this interview thanks to Gilead and a grant that they provided us to record [inaudible] HIV/AIDS activists.
Kathie Hiers: Who do you work with there, Korab?
Mason Funk : No, his name is Darwin Thompson.
Kathie Hiers: I know Darwin. He did great work in Atlanta before he joined Gilead and he still supports my prevention guy. Tony Christon-Walker. He's helped him to set up a clinic and everything. So yeah, Darwin's a great guy.
Mason Funk : [01:50:00] Fantastic. I think I've maybe been on a Zoom with him once, mostly just phone calls. Even on Zoom, he tends to not have his camera on, whatever the case might be. But listen, Gilead, they provided one grant last year that supported these interviews and some other things, and then they gave us a capacity building grant. So we are all about Gilead.
Kathie Hiers: Awesome, thats so great.
Mason Funk : [01:50:30] There's someone who's always CC'd on the emails, although I don't remember her name right now, maybe Darwin's boss. But anyway, they've been terrific.
Kathie Hiers: Kate? Is it Kate somebody? I know all those people.
Mason Funk : I'll tell you real quick. It'll just take a sec.
Kathie Hiers: But they've certainly been generous with the Southern AIDS coalition too.
Mason Funk : Yeah. Good, good. Yeah. We went out and tried to found subjects,
Mason Funk : [01:51:00] but then he came through and provided some more names. So it's been a real pleasure. And I'm so glad that thanks to them, stories of people like you in the South are being recorded. And I hope we can continue doing more, because one of our first big road trips was Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana. Oh wait, Kristie's just asking if she's still recording. Just one second. Kristie, can you hear me?
Kristie Taiwo-Makanjuola [01:51:30] Yeah. Yeah.
Mason Funk : You can actually cut to the recording.
Kristie Taiwo-Makanjuola All right. Cool.

Interviewed by: Mason Funk
Camera: Kristie Taiwo-Makanjuola
Date: March 03, 2021
Location: Home of Kathie Hiers, Birmingham, AL (Remote)