KOKOMO, Ind.–When Ryan White died 30 years ago, people in Kokomo had been blamed for bullying him. While some people who live there admit there was bullying to keep him out of school, some believe the city gets a raw deal when the story is told.
“The datelines on the stories from the very beginning were Kokomo, Indiana. It was Western School Corporation, something over which Kokomo had no control whatsoever,” said Ken Ferries, former city attorney for Kokomo. “From the beginning I think it put out a false impression that this community was a primary player in that drama.”
Ferries and many other people who were part of the story that began in 1984 when White was diagnosed with AIDS, gave an interview to the Howard County Historical Society, for their oral history project.
“Complicated and controversial”, is how Stew Lauterbah, curator of the Society, describes the issue. “There were pro-Ryan and anti-Ryan factions. But again, if you take the time to really dig down into it, it is complicated and there were some good reasons perhaps that people were not so keen on Ryan and his situation and there bad reasons.”
Even saying “pro-Ryan” or “anti-Ryan” may be misleading. Many people objected to his attending school at Western Middle School, without objecting to him personally. Many people believed that he could “give” other students, their children, AIDS by just being there.
Others believed he was homosexual, pasting that on signs.
“There were picket lines at school, people holding up signs, ‘Go home, faggot!'” recalls neighbor and White family friend Wanda Bowen Bilodeau. Her brother ran a paper route with White and his sister Andrea. Some customers canceled their subscriptions.
“I think that was a small segment. But, it was so voal and so ugly that it got a lot of press.”
Lauterbach said anyone can read transcripts of the more than 500 hours worth of interviews with people like Jeanne White Ginder, White’s mom; family minister Ray Probasco and people who were on the school board and health department.