In his 30-year career as a U.S. Senator from North Carolina, Jesse Helms was known as “Senator No.” He vehemently opposed the end to racial segregation. He fought against other civil rights legislation including voting rights. He led a filibuster against making Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday a national holiday. He was against abortion and opposed the United Nations.
When he felt threatened by a Black candidate running for his Senate seat, Helms’ campaign released a video showing a pair of white hands crumpling a rejection letter while the narrator said, “You needed that job, but they had to give it to a minority because of a racial quota.” So, this was a hateful guy who would do anything to stay in power and to stop the march toward equality and justice for minorities and women.
I’m Peter Staley. My career as an AIDS activist began in 1987 when I joined the organization ACT UP. There, I became an active member. I planned and participated in protest actions and got arrested 10 times. In 1991, I founded a spin-off of ACT UP called the Treatment Action Group, or TAG for short.
The LGBT community was another target of Helms’ hatred. He was the most vocal opponent in the Senate for federal funding for AIDS research and treatment.
Speaking about the LGBT community, he said, “It’s their deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct that is responsible for this disease.”
He called us “perverted human beings.” In 1988, he introduced a so-called Helms Amendment, proposing to amend legislation that funded AIDS research and treatment. The amendment prohibited the use of any federal funds to ”promote, encourage, or condone homosexual activities.” It passed with only 2 objections in the Senate and only 47 “no” votes in the House.
Bigotry prevailed against sensible public health policy. An effective HIV prevention campaign for the LGBT community, which was the group most impacted by HIV and AIDS, would have included materials about how to have safe sex. Helms’ amendment endangered more lives — gay, bi and straight — because he didn’t want the government to fund anything that would recognize LGBT sexuality or even our existence.
I’d had more than enough of this bigoted, small-minded man.
A supposed public servant had contributed to the death of my friends and was standing in the way of fighting the disease. Someone needed to confront him, to make him uncomfortable. My goal was to criticize him and get people to laugh at him at the same time. And I wanted TAG to stage a dramatic action soon after we formed the organization. So, I dreamed big. A big condom, that is. Draped over Jesse Helms’ house.
We found his address through a gay man who worked in the Senate. We took photos of the two-story brick Colonial house. Once we knew the standard size of a door and did some fancy math, we knew how large the condom needed to be. We found companies that made huge inflatables like a big blow-up gorilla you might see in front of a car dealership. The lowest bid for the giant condom, made from parachute material, was $3,500. But we were a new organization with little money.
One day while vacationing on Fire Island, I’d had a fight with my boyfriend at the time, journalist Kevin Sessums. He thought my idea for this Helms project was too risky. Kevin went to his friend, music industry legend David Geffen for moral support. But instead of consoling Kevin, David agreed with me. Later that day on the beach, David Geffen handed me a wad of cash, $3,500, and told me to keep his involvement a secret. We had the funds we needed and ordered the inflatable condom.
After the condom arrived, we stenciled the front of it with a message we wanted to have front and center for all the TV cameras. It read: “A CONDOM TO STOP UNSAFE POLITICS. HELMS IS DEADLIER THAN A VIRUS.”
We did a practice run so that we knew how long it took to blow up the condom. We scheduled the action on September 5, 1991, during the Senate’s summer recess while Helms was out of town. We knocked on his door the night before to make sure no one was home. CNN and all the local TV stations were told we’d be doing a demonstration at a politician’s house. They were to meet us at our Arlington, Virginia motel early the next morning, and follow our rented U-Haul truck.
As news cameras rolled, we arrived at Helms’ house with our equipment: the giant condom in a large duffel bag, a heavy portable generator, a long extension cord, two ladders, rubber mallets, plastic stakes, one of those early clunky cell phones, a small cold-air blower for the ground, and a large blower with a custom-built stand for the roof.
We pushed and pulled the duffel bag and air blower up a 28-foot extension ladder to the roof. We unfurled the condom and connected it to the blowers. Other team members staked the bottom of the condom into the grass. Then we prayed the cops wouldn’t arrive until after we’d inflated it. The first police car arrived minutes later, just as the reservoir nipple at the top of the condom was rising over the house. One of the policemen got out of his car, took a look at the improbable scene in front of him, and chuckled.
After spending a lot of time on the radio with their bosses, the cops asked us for our driver’s licenses, wrote down our addresses, and told us it was up to the Senator to press charges or not. The condom stayed up for 15 to 20 minutes, and the press got all the photos and videos they needed. The cops allowed us to climb back up onto the house to take down the condom ourselves.
All we got was a ticket for parking the truck in the wrong direction. We were free to go and could take the condom with us. It’s now in Los Angeles at the One Archives.
That night, CNN and local TV stations around the country played short funny clips of the action. Senator Helms complained about it on the floor of the Senate a week later, calling us “radical homosexuals.” But he never pressed charges and never passed another life-threatening AIDS amendment.
Toward the end of his career, Helms supported increased funding to prevent mother-to-child transmission of AIDS in Africa, but he never supported more funding to fight AIDS in the U.S. He died in 2008.