This Day In History: August 29

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On August 29, 1987, the home of the Ray brothers—three HIV-positive Florida boys—burns down in what was almost certainly a case of arson. The three brothers, who are not in the house at the time, have already faced intense discrimination due to their HIV status, and today their story serves as a reminder of the brutal reality of America’s reaction to the HIV/AIDS crisis.

Richard, Robert and Randy Ray, who were 10, 9 and 8 at the time, were all born with hemophilia, a condition that required them to receive blood transfusions. As was all too common in the 1980s, before the government and medical establishment had fully grappled with the scope of HIV/AIDS and how best to manage the epidemic, the brothers contracted HIV from HIV-positive blood donors. Although it was widely known by the late 80s that this was a common way of contracting HIV, and that HIV affected people of all sexual orientations, many Americans still considered the virus a “gay disease,” compounding the stigma of the illness with homophobia.

This was the case in the Rays’ hometown of Arcadia, Florida. When the boys’ HIV status became public knowledge, they were shunned from their church and their friends and barred from attending school due to widespread misconceptions around how the virus could be spread (attending the same school as someone with HIV poses virtually zero risk of becoming infected). The Rays’ parents took DeSoto County to federal court, demanding that their sons be allowed to attend, and eventually won the case. Locals responded with a partial boycott of the boys’ school and with threatening phone calls to the Rays, which prompted the family to stay over elsewhere. Although they avoided the fire, which reportedly started in the boys’ bedroom, they were forced to leave their hometown forever. “Arcadia is no longer our home,” their father, Clifford Ray, told the press the day after the fire. “That much was made clear to us last night.”

Ricky Ray died of an AIDS-related illness in 1992, at age 15. In 1998, Congress passed the Ricky Ray Relief Act, establishing a fund to help cover expenses for hemophiliacs who contracted HIV/AIDS. Robert Ray died in 2000 at age 22. 

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