The two-story brick building, located at 26 North Arsenal Avenue, is the current location of the Damien Center, which has provided HIV/AIDS health and counseling services to Hoosiers, gay and straight, since 1987. Here in this century-old building, Indianapolis’ resources in the fight against HIV/AIDS find the people who need them most. The center is named after Father Damien, a Catholic priest who worked in Hawaii with people with leprosy in the late 1800s. The AIDS epidemic in the United States began in 1981. Gay men in New York City and San Francisco began developing strange symptoms: extreme exhaustion, fungal infections of the throat and lungs, and purple lesions on the skin. This new disease was devastating and almost inevitably fatal. Men and women watched helplessly as loved ones became ill and died;and no one could figure out why or how to stop it. Because AIDS appeared first in urban gay men, it became known as a gay cancer,and people stricken by the disease were stigmatized by Americans who considered it a consequence of a risky lifestyle. Many politicians refused to acknowledge the existence of the disease, health organizations could not get funding to research and treat it, and the media largely ignored the growing epidemic. LGBT+ communities all over the United States quickly realized that help would have to come from within. In Indianapolis, a group of gay men nicknamed the Bag Ladies” put together an annual fundraiser, the Bag Lady Bus Tour, to raise money for local people with AIDS. The city’s LGBT+ publications, like The Works and The New Works News, printed monthly updates on national developments and the number of local cases.
Research and treatment efforts escalated nationally and locally in the late 1980s, and the Damien Center was established here in April of 1987 to help combat the disease. Founded by retired minister Earl Conner and staffed almost entirely by volunteers, the center represented a partnership between Indy’s LGBT+ community and local churches, including Christ Church Cathedral and the Cathedral of Saints Peter & Paul. Conner reached out to several Indy organizations, including the Bag Ladies; the Buddy System, a counseling and support group; an LGBT+ run AIDS helpline; the Indiana Youth Group; the Indiana State Board of Health; and the Marion County AIDS task force.
While the Center’s Christian ministry sometimes clashed with the broader goals of Indy’s LGBT+ communities, AIDS was common ground. The Damien Center continues to offer care and support to people living with AIDS even as the face of the disease is changing. While gay and bisexual men remain affected, this disease affects people in all demographic groups. Because of advances in treatment, however, and places like the Damien Center, HIV diagnosis is no longer a death sentence.