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Honolulu Editor Bill Cox Combats the Stigma of AIDS by Breaking His Own Story

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When Bill Cox—a seasoned, energetic newspaperman—was hired as managing editor of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 1984, he told his new boss, “I want to make a difference.” It wasn’t long before the irrepressible Kentuckian, now 37, had revitalized Hawaii’s biggest newspaper with a string of hard-hitting stories. “He elevated the paper,” says executive editor John Simonds. “Editors didn’t say ‘no way’ anymore. He programmed that out.” In the final reckoning, though, Bill Cox will likely have made his biggest mark in a way he did not anticipate and would only have imagined in his darkest moments.

On Labor Day the Star-Bulletin ran a column by Cox in which he announced both his resignation and the reason for it: his failing health due to AIDS. It was a spare, powerful statement whose resonance has been felt keenly, and far beyond Honolulu. “I have spent my career trying to shed light in dark corners,” he wrote. “AIDS is surely one of our darkest corners. It can use some light.”

There was never really any question that Cox, who got his first newspaper job as a teenager and has been battling secrecy and deception ever since, would condone a cover-up of his own condition. He’d had too many phone conversations with people who asked, “How could you put that in the newspaper about me?” to hide the facts of his own life. In the past he’d neither broadcast nor misrepresented his sexual preference to coworkers or friends, but now he did see an opportunity to combat the stigma that clings so stubbornly to AIDS victims. “I thought it would be damned useful for people to see that someone who does respectable work and has influence in the community had it,” he says.

Certainly, Cox, who grew up in Owensboro, Ky., the son of a tax assessor, has created a solid and enviable life for himself in Hawaii. He is president of the local chapter of Sigma Delta Chi, the journalism society, and is a respected influence on city and state affairs. He has also been, more discreetly, involved in a stable relationship with another man for two years. Last year Cox moved into a comfortable beachfront condo in Waikiki; he’d been staying in shape by running several times a week in nearby Kapiolani Park, which offers stunning views of Diamond Head.

It was on one of these runs, in June, that Cox first felt the burning in his lungs that impelled him to a doctor and then into a series of tests that revealed the breakdown of his immune system. “I knew I was at risk,” he says, referring to his homosexuality. Though Cox has been cautious about sex for the years since AIDS became headline news, the virus can incubate over many years. “I don’t know when I was exposed to it, but I didn’t get it in the mail, and I didn’t get it from a water fountain,” he says.

After an initial bout of pneumonia, Cox felt well enough to go back to work in mid-August. But he soon realized that he no longer had the energy to keep 85 reporters and editors at the top of their form. “I couldn’t do the job I wanted to do,” says Cox, who as usual was brimming with projects, “and that was just breaking my heart.”

Still, he worried that walking out of any work situation, even one as demanding as running a newsroom, might jeopardize the status of other AIDS victims who remain on—and very much up to—their jobs. The paper’s management knew that covering his departure simply as a news story might violate his privacy. Cox solved that problem by writing his own story.

As a matter of both public health and personal behavior, AIDS has a way of manufacturing such dilemmas. When AIDS rumors assail an ailing public figure—or the person next door—should full disclosure prevail over an individual’s right to privacy? “It’s a tough call and getting tougher,” observed Miami Herald executive editor Heath Meriwether in a recent commentary on Cox’s editorial.

Thanks to Cox, such questions are being addressed more seriously. In addition to the outpouring of support and sympathy (not one negative call or letter has been logged), his public statement has provoked a flurry of soul searching in the nation’s newspapers. Reporters are becoming aware that, as Cox points out, there’s a judgement implied “when you call children with the disease ‘innocent victims,’ as though everybody else who has AIDS deserves it.” Such carelessness contributes to the kind of prejudice that causes AIDS sufferers to fear not just “the dying and the pain,” Cox explains, but also “being pushed aside and allowed to die without dignity.”

He won’t be able to change that alone in the year or so of decent health that he calculates he has left. But Cox, an upbeat personality known for his practical jokes around the newsroom, is adamant about not becoming a “professional AIDS victim.” He may write a few articles occasionally, but he also plans to devote a good deal of time to friends and family. Before this summer he’d never even told his parents he was gay. He found them strongly in his support. His father told him, “There’s nothing to be ashamed of. We love you, and whatever we can do, we will.”

Already he’s taught an enormous lesson by example. “There’s going to be a chief of police someday who has AIDS,” says Cox, “and respected high school principals and heads of corporations.” Cox has made it much easier for each of them to come forward and meet the rest of us halfway. He has made a difference.