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Terry Call

Terry Dean Call was an activist, community leader, and pioneer of the LGBTQ+ community and movement here in the Borderland. His work with the Southwest AIDS Committee brought awareness of the AIDS epidemic and contributed to the advancement of resources and healthcare for AIDS victims in the Borderland. 

Terry Call (August 17, 1945 – August 9, 2020) was born in South Bend, Indiana to parents Helen Francis Spencer Call and William C. Call. He attended Clay Highschool in South Bend and went on to pursue higher education at Harold Washington College in Chicago, Illinois. After college, most of Terry’s early career was spent in the surrounding areas of Illinois working at various department and retail stores. Terry, who identified as gay, began his contributions in the LGTBQ+ community/movement in July of 1987 when he joined the Southwest AIDS Committee Inc., in El Paso as the executive director. The Southwest AIDS Committee (SWAC) was established in 1985 for the purpose of educating the local community on AIDS. 

The first public mention of Terry’s involvement with SWAC was in an El Paso Times newspaper published in September of 1987 when El Paso schools started to brace themselves for the possibility of children testing positive for AIDS antibodies. This was published shortly after a child tested positive for AIDS in Florida, resulting in threats of violence against the child’s family before their house burned down under mysterious circumstances. Terry advocated for educating the public on AIDS in hopes of preventing a similar occurrence: “It doesn’t have to be that way…. Education is supposed to relieve the hysteria and fear” (El Paso Times, 1987). Terry’s statement would be the first of many to come out in the newspaper for the next several years. 

In November of the same year, former El Paso County Commissioner Orlando Fonseca made a series of derogatory statements suggesting that victims of AIDS be castrated to stop the disease’s spread, further mentioning that he was “too religious to condone homosexuality”. Fonseca got public backlash for these claims, and in defense claimed that he was joking. Terry and two other speakers planned to attend an El Paso County Commissioners Court meeting to address Fonseca’s comments. Terry went on to publicly address the remarks and their plans for the meeting: “We’re going to ask the commissioners to draft an AIDS policy statement, to let the community have the feeling that there’s a responsible attitude toward this thing. And we may request censure (of Fonseca) or a statement deploring any discriminatory statement. I don’t think death and AIDS are humorous” (El Paso Times, 1987). In the meeting, Fonseca refused to apologize for his statements. 

Over the following months, SWAC grew significantly and qualified for several grants which went to better education tools and resources as well as other operating expenses. In 1988 SWAC was awarded $488,106 in federal grants to build or remodel treatment centers for people with AIDS. Terry relayed their plans for the center and what it would be able to offer patients: “The purpose of the facility will be to provide a private living situation in one area, using an apartment complex or a motel. It will provide housing and care for indigent patients on an as-needed, temporary basis, and for people just diagnosed who are not yet into the social services system and need a place to stay and food on the table” (El Paso Times, 1988). 

The center would be called Carnell House, in honor of Doug Carnell, the first director and chairman of the Southwest AIDS Project. Doug Carnell, who was Terry’s partner of six years at this point, had been diagnosed with AIDS. By February of 1989 SWAC received final approval from City Council for a $220,00 grant to purchase an apartment complex to begin working on the Carnell House, which would be El Paso’s first center for AIDS patients. Doug Carnell, unfortunately, passed away in May of the same year at the age of 41. The Carnell House was completed in 1989, opening in April the following year. Carnell house operated from 1990 to 1998, when SWAC ceased operations. 

In January of 1990, Terry was among one of six El Pasoans selected to receive a Jefferson Award for his contributions to health and medical care. Jefferson Awards are given to individuals in recognition of their extraordinary public service within local communities. Later that year, Terry was also one of 39 other citizens to be invited to join El Paso Leadership’s 13th annual program, which entailed nine months of intensive study of the city’s governmental and civic entities as preparation for wider roles in community leadership. Aside from his work within community organizations, Terry continued his activism throughout the years by continuously speaking out on issues that impacted the LGBTQ+ community in the Borderland. 

In 1991, El Paso Times employee Diana Washington Valdez released a column in the newspaper which was titled “‘Gay culture’ has no common denominator but sex”. Within this column she proceeded to attack the gay community by calling them phony, discrediting their hardships, and implying that being gay was a “choice”. Terry addressed Diana and her column shortly after its release in a public letter to the newspaper titled “Gays are victims of discrimination”, where he debunked her claims: “…even those with formal education do not understand the true issues facing the gay community. Common denominators, beyond sex, include job and housing discrimination, hate crimes, a high suicide rate among gay youths, and bigotry. Sexual orientation is no more chosen than being left- or right-handed.” (El Paso Times, 1991). 

In October of 1991, Terry was named to a statewide task force aimed at monitoring healthcare and drugs offered to HIV/AIDS patients in efforts to prevent fraudulent medicines and services. The task force would decrease the likelihood of fraud among those with HIV/AIDS, as they are especially susceptible due to their desperate conditions. Terry was one of 12 people appointed to the task force in Texas. In May of the following year, Terry was honored at an appreciation luncheon for his contributions in bringing statewide recognition to the SWAC through his advocacy for services for victims of AIDS. Throughout this year he spoke out on several occasions in defense of the gay community, publicly addressing a Vatican document that endorsed bias against homosexuals, calling El Paso Times in favor of lifting the ban preventing gay individuals from joining the military, and commenting on former Mayor Tilney’s reluctance to boycott a Colorado conference shortly after the state passed a law restricting protections for homosexuals. 

In 1993, Unite El Paso invited Terry among 150 other El Pasoans to forge an agenda for the city’s future. The organization was committed to coming up with ideas to improve life in El Paso and implementing those ideas. Later that year, Terry got married to Jorge Humberto Martinez Duran on December 23. Terry would continue to work with the SWAC for the next 3 years, contributing to their advancement in the community through caring for AIDS patients and hosting fundraisers. In 1996, Terry tested positive for HIV and went on medical leave from SWAC shortly after. Terry officially retired from his position with SWAC on January 1st, 1997. 

During the height of the AIDS epidemic, Terry worked endlessly for the opening of Carnell House, the first AIDS treatment center to ever open in El Paso. Terry’s involvement with SWAC, the El Paso Leadership’s program, Unite El Paso, and other organizations have all made positive impacts on the handling of the AIDS epidemic while giving the LGBTQ+ community the representation that was needed. Terry Call has left a legacy on the Borderland in terms of breaking down the stigma towards AIDS victims, contributing to resources for those with HIV/AIDS, and advocating for gay rights through speaking out against ignorance and bigotry.

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