Curiosity and Compassion: A Conversation with Steven Reigns

May 31, 2022   •   By Lois P. Jones

STEVEN REIGNS, a Los Angeles poet and educator, was appointed the first poet laureate of West Hollywood. Alongside over a dozen chapbooks, he has published the collections Inheritance (2011) and Your Dead Body Is My Welcome Mat (2001). Reigns holds a BA in creative writing from the University of South Florida, a master’s of clinical psychology from Antioch University, and is a 14-time recipient of an Artist in Residency Grant from Los Angeles County’s Department of Cultural Affairs. He edited My Life Is Poetry: An Anthology of Writings by Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Seniors (2008), showcasing his students’ work from the first-ever autobiographical poetry workshop for LGBT seniors.

Reigns has lectured and taught writing workshops around the country to LGBT youth and people living with HIV. Currently he is touring The Gay Rub, an exhibition of rubbings from LGBT landmarks, and he facilitates the monthly Lambda Lit Book Club. His newest book, A Quilt for David, published last September by City Lights, is the product of 10 years of research regarding the life of a gay dentist, David Acer, who contracted AIDS in the 1980s. 

A simple Google search of Dr. Acer’s name still populates with the vitriolic accusations of patients who believed they were infected by him. While the accusations remain, there is no conclusive evidence that proves their claims. But that didn’t stop accusers from trying to garner attention and money during a ’90s media blitz that persecuted the gay dentist in grossly homophobic terms. In A Quilt for David, by contrast, Reigns stitches together facts revealed over a decade of investigative research, offering another side of Dr. Acer’s life and the hidden agendas behind his accusers and those who sought to benefit from his tragic illness and death.

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LOIS P. JONES: What impression did the media coverage of Dr. Acer in the early 1990s make on a teenage Steven Reigns?

STEVEN REIGNS: I first heard about this story watching A Current Affair and Inside Edition. These were tabloid shows that held my interest because they included some of the only gay content I saw on TV. They had stories about men who were strippers at night and BMW car salesman by day. It was terrible and tawdry, but it was the only exposure I had. When the story about the virgin getting AIDS from her dentist came on, I didn’t question it. I didn’t have the education to question what was being said. Kimberly Bergalis’s story was compelling. At the time, I was full of questions about myself. I was teased in school for being gay, and inside I was considering whether what they said was true. Later in life, I worked for 10 years providing HIV testing, education, and counseling. I was certified in two states and presented at national conferences. One day at work, I remembered the story of the virgin and the dentist and started to investigate what had happened.

At the time of the incident, Kimberly’s warning was that what happened to her at the dentist’s could happen to any of us. Yet, after my book, it’s now clear that what happened to David Acer could happen to any of us. Someone points their finger and our life and legacy get rewritten.

During your extensive research into Dr. Acer’s life and the evolving narrative behind Kimberly’s accusation, was there an “ah-ha!” moment that led you to the conclusion that the doctor had been a victim of gay hatred and fear, or did the facts develop more cumulatively?

The facts built to my understanding. I started researching with the question, “How did that dentist infect his patients?” The initial readings were saturated with homophobia, others seemed to lack an understanding of the life of a closeted man. David lived a secretive life because he was in a small Florida town. The lack of information about him created an opportunity for people to project their own hatred, homophobia, fear, criminal fantasies, and ignorance. I saw it as my job to research the data and facts but also to explore emotionally what might have been going on for the accusers. I wasn’t interested in villainizing anyone but rather in presenting a greater understanding of what really happened. As I did more research, it became clearer to me that gay scapegoating had occurred.

One of the most impactful aspects of A Quilt for David is the sense of injustice it communicates. There was an abundance of public attention, even adulation, for Kimberly Bergalis but almost nothing was heard from Dr. Acer himself. Your research into public records as well as conversations you had with his employees, acquaintances, and patients reveal a quiet man, somewhat solitary, who was generous and kind. Does A Quilt for David seek to underscore the larger issues of homophobia that affected Dr. Acer’s life?

I think the collection does exactly what you’re saying. When I first started writing, I thought I was just telling the story of what happened in that dental office. What I was unknowingly doing was telling a story of American culture at that time. Any astute reader will begin to notice the contrast in how people were treated. The book really shows what risks the public considered forgivable and what risks were punishable. As gay men died alone in hospices, in hospital beds, and homeless across the country, the public attention to rescue Kimberly was dramatically disproportionate. 

Such a sad and painful imbalance. Having personally provided AIDS testing, education, and counseling to over 9,000 people, you discovered a pattern of deception. What was it? 

I’m not sure there was a pattern, but I did gain a greater understanding and empathy for the emotions people were experiencing when diagnosed. This unique and intimate view gave me a greater perspective. With such a diagnosis, it’s initially easier to blame someone else than to look at our own level of responsibility. I suspect this is what happened for some of David’s accusers. Kimberly’s initial accusation created an easy narrative and a monster to point a finger at.

My experience working in the HIV field is specific to the testing sites I worked at. I hesitate to offer broad generalizations. I first worked doing testing, counseling, and education in bars and underserved urban communities. My last employment was working at a community clinic for the uninsured. The patients I saw were varied, but I don’t want to act as if they were representative of the entire testing population.

If Dr. Acer knew he had AIDS, should he have stopped treating patients? 

No is the short answer to that question. Dentist-to-patient HIV transmission is virtually unheard of. David had several lesions and feared that he was positive. He was so scared of being outed that the drive he’d normally take to Fort Lauderdale to socialize was instead an opportunity to seek medical help. The distance offered him the privacy and secrecy he wanted. It was to one of these doctors he confided his identity and profession. We know more now than we did then, but even at that time, it was clear HIV was not casually transmitted. He made an understandable choice to not tell his patients.

Kimberly and her high-powered lawyer spoke to Congress advocating for mandatory disclosure from health-care workers. Failure to do so would result in punishment and an exorbitant fine. This ultimately did not pass as legislation, but if it had, it could have affected the livelihood of health-care workers across the country — some of them seroconverting due to job exposure.

Though she advocated for transparency, as I reveal in my book, Kimberly did not disclose her HIV status to the dentist or dental hygienist she saw after David, when she knew she was positive.

Your book points to the terrible disparity in treatment between those of differing sexual orientations, alongside our tendency to villainize others and assume the role of victim. As Williams Carlos Williams famously said, “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.” Did it seem to you that poetry was the best way to alchemize Dr. Acer’s story?

Yes. As I did my research, it became clear to me that facts and data were ignored. The press and the public had an emotional reaction to Kimberly’s allegations — data didn’t move perception. Poetry is the language of our emotions. I thought poetry was the perfect form for telling this story. Poetry could handle the laborious task of counteracting decades of misinformation and overemotional reactions. The narrative was already saturated with so much fiction and speculation that I chose to only use details I learned from my research. I wasn’t interested in adding musings or fiction into the poetry. I wanted to guide the reader to the facts I’d found. This unfolding story line creates a tension and keeps the reader turning the page. I’m so pleased with the positive feedback the book has received. It was not an easy book to write.

Was there any information you purposefully omitted from the collection?

I had additional poems that focused directly on the other accusers. This, though interesting, seemed to weigh down the narrative and asked too much of the reader to keep track of everyone. I also thought that, by specifically focusing on a few individuals, the story is still preserved, and more succinctly. When the book was already at the printer, I located the contact information for a hospice nurse I tried numerous times to find. We spoke on the phone, and she shared stories of treating David. She still remembered him. Though he was admitted under another name, she recognized his photo from the newspaper. She recalled David calling the nurses’ station for help. There was a man in his room aggressively asking questions. They ushered the intruder out and did not know who he was. She suspected a journalist. Her memory was incredible and corroborated what I already knew — that he was soft-spoken, was in great physical pain, and died shortly after his parents left the hospice.

A Quilt for David reads like a book-length prose poem. We find the beautiful titular poem fairly early in the narrative. In some ways, it is the lyric condensation of the tenderness and compassion you would have offered Dr. Acer had you had the opportunity — a kindness society failed to offer. Have things changed?

I really appreciate your words about the book. Yes, these are not desperate works. They are to be read in order. This book is my memorial quilt panel for David Acer. Though the book centers on him, it isn’t a hit piece on the accusers. I hope this text can serve as a model for how we can investigate, call in instead of call out, and write with a sense of curiosity and compassion.

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Lois P. Jones’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Plume, NarrativeVerse Daily, and Poetry Wales, as well as in the volume New Voices: Contemporary Writers Confronting the Holocaust. Her awards include the 2022 Sarah Tremlett Prize for her filmpoem collaboration, La Scapigliata, the Lascaux Prize and the Bristol Prize (judged by Liz Berry). She was a winning finalist for the Terrain Prize (judged by Jane Hirshfield). She is poetry editor for Kyoto Journal and a screening judge for Claremont University’s Kingsley-Tufts Awards. Her book Night Ladder was published in 2017 by Glass Lyre Press.