“Billy was a magnet.”
“Billy was a leader.”
“His finesse made everyone comfortable, no question.”
“Billy had an extraordinary public relations gift.”
These are some of the many remarks in remembrance that I heard one night last spring when I attended a meeting of the steering committee for the Billy R. Cox Endowed Scholarship for the UAB School of Public Health. The official name of the group belies the intimate connection that each member of the group shared with Billy Cox — still shares with him 15 years after his death. On the night that I met with Judy Bridgers, Brian D. Vaughn, Bob Burns, David Blake and Nancy Wagnon, they were gathered together to handle committee minutiae: brochures to fold, a mailing list to approve, fundraising letters to sign by hand and envelopes to stuff. But the presence of a stranger — my presence — gave the small assembly another purpose, too. By sharing stories of Billy’s life and death, and of their own lives before Billy and after, the group was going to convince me that the scholarship created in honor of their late friend was more than mere financial aid. Rather, it was a gift. A potent and purposeful gift, not only given in Billy’s honor but in a way given by him, too, as its purpose is something for which Billy, in the end, gave his life.
The Billy R. Cox Endowed Scholarship will be dedicated in a public ceremony this Friday, Aug. 14, at 2:30 p.m. in the Herman Lehman Jr. Auditorium (Room 407) at the UAB School of Public Health. The scholarship is earmarked for support of public health students who demonstrate an interest in public health issues for the gay, lesbian, bi or trans-gender populations. According to Dr. Max Michael, dean of the school of public health and also a member of the steering committee, the scholarship may be the first of its kind in the United States.
“There are 15 to 18 named scholarships at the School of Public Health, and of course, each of them has a particular focus because the honorees and donors have different interests,” Michael says. “This scholarship is clearly unusual in its focus, however. As far as we know, there is not another public health scholarship in the country with a focus on these issues.”
The life & the legacy
The youngest of three children, Cox grew up in Bessemer, Ala. He graduated from McAdory High School, where he was the president of the class of 1975, and later earned a business degree from the University of Montevallo. He went to work for Richard Tubb Interiors in Birmingham, and during the 1980s was at the center of Birmingham’s burgeoning gay community.
Billy tested positive for HIV in 1987 and developed AIDS about four years later. At a time when the illness was considered a “gay plague” and the diseased silenced and marginalized thousdands of people, Billy became a kind of crusader. He served as chairman of the board of directors for Birmingham AIDS Outreach (BAO) and was one of the founders of Celebrate Inc, a local non-profit organization that raised money for AIDS-related causes.
According to Bob Burns, BAO exists today because of Billy and people like Billy. “He was unquestionably a leader,” Burns says. “And he was energetic and optimistic in a desperiate time. We made things happen because of him.
“We took being gay and said, ‘What are the positive stereotypes about being gay?’ What we came up with was, ‘Well, we can dress, we can dance, we can decorate and we can throw a party. Any event we had, Billy would get all of his prettiest young friends and put them on the front line. We focused on the positives, instead of the fact that so many of us were sick, dying, poor and afraid.”
In 1989, Billy helped bring the AIDS Memorial Quilt to Birmingham and in 1993, he served as the Grand Marshall for the Alabama AIDS Walk. During the last six months of his life, when AIDS was ravaging his body, Billy was the focus of a three-part, 15,000-word series by Birmingham News journalist Bob Carlton. It was an unprecedented piece of reporting in Alabama – shame surrounded the subject of AIDS, but Billy was candid. Who Billy was on the outside, as an AIDS victim, was obvious: Anybody could see the eye patch and the garden-hose size tube inserted into his lung. Who Billy was on the inside was revealed in the series: Carlton wrote a portrait of a man whose jovial spirit was undiminished even as disease wrought havoc on his body.
His friend Judy Bridgers remembers Cox as both diplomatic and imaginative, consistently frank about what he needed.
“He started teaching people how to take care of him,” Bridgers says. “To acknowledge that you’re sick, to acknowledge that you need help – these are very difficult things. But Billy did it. And in response, we learned how to take care of people.”
Listening to Bridgers and her fellow committee members describe the informal, all-volunteer patient care teams that were organized for AIDS patients such as Billy Cox, Adrian R. Daniels and others, it’s easy to get the sense that the palliative care and hospice movements owe a significant philosophical debt to the gay community.
“When people began to get so sick, we organized support teams,” Bridgers remembers. “It wasn’t just about nursing duties and medications, although there was some of that, too. These people would provide practical help — they went shopping, they mowed the lawn, they did housework. Someone who was sick might have 10 or 12 people.” She pauses, then adds, “Of course, Billy probably had a hundred.”
Fellow steering committee member Brian Vaughn laughs and assures me she’s not exaggerating: “We always had a waiting list for his care team.”
From 1992 to 1996, arguably the peak of the AIDS epidemic, Bridgers remembers that she and her husband attended a seemingly endless array of funerals and memorial services, sometimes as many as four or five a week. It was a devastaing period of time, and one that totally changed her life. Vaughn recalls the period with a similar sense of grim disbelief: “Who would think that at 32, you’d be an expert at planning funerals?” he asks. “Everybody was so young.”
“Most people with AIDS were extremely isolated,” Bridgers says. “It took somebody like Billy to step up and show how to do it. It wasn’t about helping them die but helping them live as long as they could, as well as they could.
“The people who died, those people taught the rest of us, who survived, how to live,” Bridgers says.
Philosophies & policies
Terry Gunnell, former director of public liason and communication for the UAB School of Public Health and a longtime friend of Billy’s, came up with the idea to create the scholarship. Seed money for the scholarship fund came from Dr. Lee Howell and the Billy R. Cox Foundation. Another member of the scholarship steering committee, Howell was Billy’s partner of seven years and one of many family members and friends who helped care for him during his battle with AIDS. In honor of his beloved partner, Howell has committed $10,000 a year to the scholarship endowment. (Other members of the scholarship steering committee include Gunnell, Joan Ohrn and Rep. Patricia Todd.) As for the Billy Cox Foundation, it was established in 1994 as a 501c3 non-profit organization with an explicit mission to “create a positive difference in HIV/AIDS prevention and care and to reduce the misconception and prejudice in the greater Birmingham community, as well as in central Alabama, by leveraging resources from the community to support these activities.” Before he died, Billy handed over the final disability check that he received to establish the coffers for his namesake foundation. He was determined that there would be change in the treatment of AIDS patients and in the treatment of gay people, even if he wouldn’t live to see it.
Quoted in the News in 1994, Bob Burns said: “Billy not only was willing to talk to the general community about AIDS, but he was willng to share the fact that he had AIDS and put a human face on the epidemic at a time when people with AIDS were living in hiding. Billy shared his humanity with hundreds and thousands of people.”
Now, Burns recalls the pervasive fear about the disease and the inevitable sense of isolation that gay people felt as a result.
“You have to remember, at that time, people were afraid of people with AIDS,” he says. “And social service agencies weren’t set up to take people with AIDS. You couldn’t get into nursing homes.”
“You couldn’t get into funeral homes,” Blake adds.
“So much of the challenge was getting people to say anything at all,” Burns says. “Billy was so good at helping people be able to talk about AIDS at a time when AIDS was defined as a gay disease. To talk about AIDS then was to talk about gayness, to talk about homosexuality and the unspeakable things that gay people did.”
Burns is emphatic that the positive understanding of gay male health issues as relates to HIV needs to be extended to the large array of distinct health concerns of gays and lesbians, pointing out the effects of homophobic violence and discrimination. He has conducted two different surveys about violence and discrimination in the gay community, interviewing several hundred people in each survey.
“Roughly one third of the GLBT people we interviewed had no recollection of experiencing violence, harassment or discrimination,” Burns says. “A not uncommon response to questions was astonishment that such things happen at all. A similarly sized group would be able to name one or two instances. Then there was a group — roughly 30 to 40 percent that had been targeted multiple times in various ways and knew others who had.”
That targeting might include a range of experience from mistreatment by parents to mistreatment by police, from physical assault to gun violence to rape.
“A gay kid is inherently an at-risk kid,” Burns argues. “There is a higher rate of substance abuse, a higher rate of suicide risk, higher rates of domestic violence and violence in the community. Young lesbians are more likely to become pregnant teenagers. Young people who are gay are more likely to be victims of violence and of discrimination and are less likely to report it. Even now, as much progress as there has been, social service agencies are not set up to handle these kids.”
"Gay people have sex differently than heterosexuals and that has public health implications, too, and not just as relates to HIV" Burns says. "It's important that public health professionals consider issues of the group, of gay people as a distinct group, with focus, in the same way they would focus on the different issues that apply to Latinos or African-Americans; how the service needs might be different and or how to recognize needs that present themselves in different ways - particularly among young people who have been taught to be ashamed of themselves."
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the establishment of the Billy R. Cox Endowed Scholarship is that in the same way Billy Cox taught people how to take care of him, public health professionals can be taught how to take care of an entire population — in his name.
“We have needed to do something to honor him for a long time, but nothing was quite the right fit until this,” Burns says. “Doing an AIDS-only project wasn’t quite right because Billy was about more than that.
“The larger message is that even a despised minority deserves enlightened treatment. Billy had the charm – the skill — to put across that message. With this scholarship, some kid is going to look at this and say, ‘This is exactly me,’ and is going to be very empowered by this.”
The Billy R. Cox Endowed Scholarship will be dedicated in a public ceremony this Friday, Aug. 14, at 2:30 p.m. in the Herman Lehman Jr. Auditorium (Room 407) at the UAB School of Public Health. The UAB School of Public Health is located in the Ryals Public Health Building, 1665 University Blvd. Parking is available in UAB Lot 15T. Anyone interested in making contributions to the Billy R. Cox Endowed Scholarship Fund can do so on the School of Public Health website: www.soph.uab.edu