In this essay, Robin Helms Allen weaves her way through a discussion of the politics around the LGBTQ community, and in particular AIDS, in the late twentieth century in North Carolina. In Allen’s story, we get a glimpse into how the region’s mythic stance on the LGBTQ community is not monolithic. The title comes from a quote by African-American civil rights attorney Buck Colbert Franklin.
“Right is slow and tardy . . .”
by Robin Helms Allen
In 1973, when I entered graduate school at North Carolina State University to earn a Master’s in Education, Jesse Helms was serving in his first year as our state senator. His congressional office offered top-notch constituency service for four terms. Nevertheless, he was not my guy.
In the ’80s, Helms railed against homosexuality, fighting to restrict the Ryan White CARE (Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency) Act. His actions delayed the CARE Act until August 18, (my birthday) 1990 when a fellow Republican, President George H.W. Bush, signed it into law. It caused a double celebration for me that year. But that legislation was only a small step toward helping the thousands of gay men, including my hairdresser, who were dying of AIDS.
To my good fortune, Stephen knew how to cut cowlicks, but that was the least of his service and goodness. For our nation, he had transported body bags while serving in Vietnam. Stephen was the best of the best, and I loved him. Sadly, Stephen died in 1992.
Stephen’s story affected me personally and had turned me against the supporters of Jesse Helms. I couldn’t stand Helms’ homophobic rhetoric and felt the people who supported him were a lost cause. Then I met Patsy Clarke.
Patsy was in a local theater production of On Golden Pond. The play is about a cranky old father spending the summer on the lake with his wife. Their daughter, who is worlds apart from her father, comes for a visit. The visit with her father doesn’t go well. Eventually, with the help of her caring mother, she realizes that she needed to repair their broken relationship. Patsy played the part of the remarkable wife in this story.
At the curtain call, the audience jumped out of their seats to award a standing ovation. I stayed for the roundtable discussion afterwards. Patsy had mesmerized me, and I told her so. She kindly and unexpectedly asked for my phone number and promised to call me. I was ecstatic when she invited me for afternoon tea and looked forward to learning more about Patsy’s life and her talents.
Over tea, she told me about her stage career and her work preparing witnesses for testimony in court. I told her about my work teaching children with reading problems. As the conversation moved to books, she shared a book that she and her friend Eloise Vaughn had written together with Nicole Brodeur, Keep Singing.
I was even more starstruck when I realized I was sitting with a published author, yet another achievement on her long list of accomplishments. Patsy explained how she and Eloise came to be best friends:
“One day Eloise and I were at lunch,” Patsy said. “She was a southern Democrat. I was a Republican and a staunch supporter of Jesse Helms. You might think we were worlds apart, but we shared something that brought us together. We had both lost sons named Mark to AIDS.”
Patsy continued, “That day at lunch, Eloise hesitantly handed me a copy of an editorial about Jesse Helms and what he’d said about AIDS. She also shared other clippings, quoting Jesse saying, ‘sodomy was a filthy, disgusting practice.’”
She went on, “I couldn’t believe Jesse would say such awful things. Jesse was a friend. He had called me late at night when my husband died in 1987, with words of comfort. These things that Eloise showed me went against what I knew of Jesse.”
At that point, Patsy abruptly stopped her story, looked at her watch, and said, “I wish we could talk longer but I have an appointment soon. I hope you will read our book. It will explain the rest of what happened.”
I thanked her for a wonderful visit and headed straight to the bookstore then home to read. I couldn’t believe what was in those pages.
Fifteen months after Patsy Clarke lost her son to AIDS, and a few days after Eloise had opened her eyes to Jesse Helms’ feelings on homosexuality, she wrote him a letter dated June 5, 1995. Her letter asked for his compassion. She thought that, maybe if Jesse knew of her devastating loss, he would soften his tone. She didn’t ask that he “accept a lifestyle abhorrent to him.” She didn’t plead for funds, except for research. She asked him not to pass judgment on other human beings “as deserving what they get.” She implored him to “share Mark’s memory in compassion.”
Patsy got a response from Helms on June 19, 1995. His letter stated, “As for homosexuality, the Bible judges it, I do not.” It ended, “I wish Mark had not played Russian roulette with his sexual activity.” He offered sympathy for her and for Mark with the caveat that “there is no escaping the reality of what happened.”
Patsy and Eloise joined forces to write Keep Singing as a way to counteract the negativity they found coming from Jesse Helms and his supporters. Their book was published in 2000. The title came from the lullaby Patsy sang to Mark when he was very sick. “Rock-a-bye and don’t you cry. Rock-a-bye, little Mark. I’ll buy you a pretty gold horse to ride, all around your pasture.”
One day, just a few days before Mark’s death, she’d stopped singing because she questioned the appropriateness of singing a lullaby to a grown man who was over six feet tall and thirty-one years old. Mark’s nurse, a wise woman, encouraged her: “Keep singing, Patsy. He can hear you.”
Her loving song was much more appropriate than the tune Jesse sang back in 1993 when he joined Carol Moseley-Braun in the Senate elevator. She was a Democrat from Illinois and the first African American female senator. His tune which he later described as a good-natured exchange was “I wish I was in de’ land of cotton . . .”
Maybe Jesse got a laugh, but not the last laugh. In Jesse’s letter to Patsy he had mentioned “the militant homosexuals” who hoisted a giant canvas condom on his housetop. I remember when that happened. I thought it was hilarious!
Patsy and Eloise went on to found Mothers Against Jesse in Congress (MAJIC). They preached brotherly love. Their messages appeared in People magazine and on the political pages of The New York Times. They held rallies, rode in Pride parades, and rooted for gay rights in the halls of Congress. They attended the Democratic National Convention and took the stage with Senator Ted Kennedy. After returning to their seats, the three listened to the stories of other mothers.
On the back of their book, the Reverend John Shelby Spong wrote this testimony: “Patsy Clarke and Eloise Vaughn are heroes who sought to slay the dragon. They succeeded only in wounding him, but history will ultimately complete their task.”
History has not looked kindly on Jesse Helms’ brand of politics. In July 2020, the “Christian educational institution” Chowan University removed the name of Jesse Helms from a building on campus, sighting his opposition to civil rights, including the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. The facility has been renamed the Hawks Athletic Center.
Born and raised in Goldsboro, Robin Allen now calls Raleigh home. Robin is a retired special education teacher and used her experience to participate in two successful lawsuits against two different North Carolina school systems on the behalf of students with learning disabilities. She’s now using her talent for research as she delves into her family’s history and explores the culture and race relations of Goldsboro during Jim Crow and the later years of segregation.