by Ken Gullette
On the day I met Robb Dussliere, on a chilly, drizzly morning in the first week of April, 1995, I was a 42-year-old recovering Southern boy who had grown up with all the prejudices taught to me in the Fifties and Sixties, and the “morals” that I heard shouted from the pulpit every Sunday morning.
I did not like gay people very much.
As teens, my buddies and I swore that if a “queer” ever tried anything on us, we would beat the crap out of him, by God. We made fun of queers, prancing around with limp wrists, lisping in loud, exaggerated voices. We were not mean to any real people. We didn’t know any gay kids to bully or humiliate. It was just the kind of tough talk that was common among real Southern boys.
Robb Dussliere was the first gay man I ever really knew. Oh sure, I suspected some guys over the years, but they were so deep in the closet you couldn’t see them hiding.
Now, all these years later, Beth Wehrman, the executive director of what was then called the AIDS Project Quad Cities, asked me to come over and talk about a potential news story. I was news director at WHBF-TV in Rock Island, a stressful job leading a small news department against two stronger stations in a competitive market. Every moment I took out of my day for meetings caused a corresponding increase in stress, but for some reason, I agreed to the meeting.
The office was located in downtown Davenport, in a former motel just a couple of miles from the station, a short drive across the Mississippi River via the Centennial Bridge.
The door opened and Robb said hello, a handsome young man with a thick brown mustache. My first impressions were positive — he was friendly and cordial but not flashing the smile I would quickly find so engaging. I’m sure he was a little nervous. Nothing in his mannerisms indicated he was gay, neither his speech, the way he walked, or the way he dressed. I liked him immediately. He was a regular guy.
For an hour, he and Beth explained their idea. They wanted to duplicate locally a series of reports broadcast in Canada a few years before by Dr. Peter Jepson-Young, a physician who had contracted AIDS and spoke directly to a camera over a period of two years. As his disease progressed over 111 episodes of the Dr. Peter Diaries, the audience watched Dr. Peter’s condition deteriorate, and by the time he died, in November, 1992, his reports drew tremendous attention and raised a lot of awareness about HIV and AIDS.
On a small TV, Beth and Robb played a VHS tape of The Broadcast Tapes of Dr. Peter, fast-forwarding to selected episodes. I watched as Dr. Peter grew weaker, ravaged by the disease. It was quite moving, and the real gravity of the idea they were offering began to sink in. I sat and thought for a minute when they turned off the TV. Robb was leaning forward in his chair. Beth watched me, her kind face drooping with a look of melancholy that always seemed to be so close by.
“I think we can do it better,” I said. “Instead of having the person just sit and talk to a camera, I would like to follow him through his life, showing him as he is so we can really get to know him.”
They nodded enthusiastically.
“Do you have a patient in mind?” I asked.
“Yes,” Robb said. “Me.”
My blood ran cold, literally sending a chill through my body. This healthy-looking young man is telling me he is dying? And more importantly, he has AIDS?
I looked down at my hand. I had shaken hands with him. I needed to wash it as soon as I got the hell out of there.
Wait a second. He’s gay? He doesn’t seem to be gay.
We talked about when we would begin and what we wanted to cover, such as educating viewers on avoiding HIV, raising awareness for the isolation and poverty faced by people living with the disease, and putting a real human face on the issues surrounding AIDS.
First up, I would need to shoot some stories that introduced Robb to the community. The story had a scope far beyond the normal two to five-part “sweeps” series that we normally did during ratings periods. But May sweeps were coming up, so we had to move quickly.
I promised to call back soon and set up initial interviews and video. I avoided shaking Robb’s hand when I left, but something else happened that was very unusual.
By the time I got to my car the rain was coming down a little harder. I sat for a moment, listening to it fall on the windshield and roof. For some reason, the journey I was embarking on was there, in front of my eyes. I had agreed to record this man’s death.
I started crying, grateful that nobody was walking by to see a grown man crying in his car in the rain.
It would not the the last time I would shed tears over Robb. Rain fell as I slowly drove back to the station, trying to get my act together, my mind shifted back into professional mode, wondering which reporter I would assign to this story.
When I got to the station, I broke a land speed record making my way to the men’s room, lathering the soap on my hands extra thick, hoping that I had not been hit by the virus.
The DeLaCerda House provides support and housing to HIV/AIDS patients who have no place to turn. Robb helped launch the facility during the last year of his life. Please consider helping, even with just a few dollars, by clicking on the Donate button on the right side of the DeLaCerda House page. Your donation goes directly to DeLaCerda House.