When retiring U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms stood before hundreds of people at a religious conference in Washington, D.C., last week and told them he’d been “too lax too long” in the fight against AIDS, many in North Carolina’s frontline AIDS services community had the same thought: Hell’s frozen over!

“When I heard that on the radio, I just about drove off of I-40,” says Jacquelyn Clymore, who works as director of community services for the Alliance of AIDS Services-Carolina in Raleigh. “At least for us here locally, there was a momentary feeling of hope that the guy who’s been the most outspoken and the ugliest about this issue is starting to turn around.”

Jesse sure sounded contrite. He told the conference of Christian activists he was “so ashamed that I’ve done so little” on AIDS, adding, “I’m not going to lay it aside on my agenda for the remaining months I have.”

But any hope inspired by Helms’ remarks was tempered by a healthy streak of skepticism, Clymore adds–and not just because of the senator’s two-decade-long record of opposing money for AIDS research. A more fundamental aspect of Helms’ position on AIDS has been his success at framing the epidemic as a moral issue, rather than a public health crisis–a drive fueled by his anti-gay beliefs.

From the time the first cases of HIV infection were being reported in large, U.S. cities in the early 1980s, Helms was outspoken about blaming the victims.

“The things he’s said have been immensely damaging,” Clymore notes. “He said infected people had gotten that way through despicable, deplorable and disgusting behavior.”

Such political sticks and stones helped build a wall of government indifference to stopping the spread of HIV at a critical time, before it became a widespread epidemic.

“The fact that AIDS came to this country as a gay disease was a historical accident,” Clymore says. “But unfortunately, that accident has given a lot of people the excuse to ignore it. And Sen. Helms was one of those people. He was able to turn it into a moral issue when it’s not a moral issue at all. It’s a disease.”

That’s a point Helms managed to dodge at the “Prescription for Hope” conference sponsored by The Rev. Billy Graham’s son, Franklin, in the nation’s capitol last week. In fact, Helms went out of his way to fortify AIDS as a moral issue by praising Ugandan First Lady Janet Museveni. The First Lady, noted Helms, has fought the spread of HIV infection through a campaign of “biblical values and sexual purity.”

When asked to explain his new position on AIDS, Helms suggested his views had been shaped by his unlikely friendship with Irish rock star Bono of the band U2. The pair met in September 2000 when Bono managed to bend Helms’ ear by citing Bible passages–passages that urge Christians to help the afflicted.

Helms’ supporters insist that the senator’s “reversal” on AIDS is a sign of compassion. “It’s not a surprise to people that know Sen. Helms,” says Bill Peaslee, political director of the North Carolina Republican Party. “He’s a warmhearted, kind and understanding man.” (The party, Peaslee says, has no position on AIDS or homosexuality in its official platform.)

Helms’ office did not return phone calls from The Independent. But when staff members in Clymore’s organization called and asked what AIDS policies the senator had been referring to when he said he’d done too little, they were told in no uncertain terms that Helms had been talking about foreign, not domestic AIDS programs.

The bottom line, frontline AIDS workers and gay rights activists say, is there’s nothing compassionate about continuing to reject workable public health strategies in favor of moral platitudes about AIDS.

“Helms is still opposed to people using condoms,” says Jo Wyrich, executive director of Equality North Carolina, a leading political action group for gays. “His attitudes and those of others like him have cost millions of lives. And they will continue to until we are truly successful in finding drugs” that can prevent HIV infection.

How high are the stakes? Of the 21,993 reported cases of HIV and AIDS in North Carolina through December, 30 percent have resulted in deaths. The rates of HIV infection are rising fastest among African-American women, who now make up more than 21 percent of reported cases in the state. Nationally, HIV/AIDS is now the fifth leading cause of death for people between the ages of 25 and 44.

A real “reversal” by Helms on the AIDS issue, activists say, would mean changing the framework of the debate from moral problem to public-health challenge.

If that had been the case up to now, Clymore says, “I’d like to believe that we would not be looking at the incredible numbers of infected people we are. I’d like to believe that we would be able to talk with our children about condoms, sex and relationships in a more open way. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.”