‘A Quilt for David’ revisits dentist David Acer, homophobia, HIV stigma

Dentist David Acer was a gay man who had a gaunt appearance from an AIDS-related illness, making him the perfect scapegoat and a victim of tabloid fodder.

In Jensen, Florida, a small conservative town between Orlando and Miami, eight patients alleged that Acer, 40, had infected them with HIV in the late 1980s.

In these early years of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S., little was known about transmission, homophobia was rampant, and people with HIV were stigmatized as monsters.

After he was accused, Acer, who owned a successful dental practice, was painted by the media as a villain and a pariah.

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Kimberly Bergalis

One of Acer’s patients was Kimberly Bergalis. She was the first patient to go public and accuse Acer, who died in 1990.

Bergalis said she was a virgin and had two teeth extracted by Acer in 1987, and somehow contracted AIDS. Medical experts were perplexed. 

Bergalis landed a People magazine cover story in 1991, and other accusers went on national talk shows and made front page news.

Three of them also received monetary settlements from insurance companies.

While hysteria and homophobia took center stage around the alleged infections, the facts and Acer’s humanity were pushed into the shadows.

David Acer Steven Reigns A Quilt for David

Steven Reigns is author of the new book “A Quilt for David,” which revisits a 30-year-old case of a Florida dentist accused by several patients of infecting them with AIDS. Health officials could not determine how the dentist allegedly transmitted AIDS to them. Photo: Evans Vestal Ward.

‘A Quilt for David’

Steven Reigns hopes to change that with his new book, “A Quilt for David,” which revisits the case 30 years after the media firestorm scorched Acer’s reputation and further stigmatized people living with HIV.

Reigns, West Hollywood’s poet laureate, was an HIV educator, testor, and counselor from 2000 to 2013 in California and Florida.

He spent 10 years researching and writing “A Quilt for David.”

“I decided to tell David’s story as a way to counter the treachery at the end of his life,” Reigns says. “The facts about the dental infection story were overridden by public emotions elicited by Kimberly’s narrative.”

In an interview with Q Voice News, Reigns talks about Acer, the alleged transmissions, and Acer’s parents.

Here are some excerpts.

Who was David Acer?

“David Acer lived a closeted life in the small town of Stuart, Florida. On weekends he would take the almost two-hour drive south to Miami to go to gay bars and meet men,” Reigns says. “In 1986, when he feared he had HIV, David would take the same drive south to seek medical treatments. His anxiety was so high about people discovering his gayness and sickness, he used an alias with doctors. When his health deteriorated, he told the staff he employed at his dental practice that he had cancer. He retired at 39 and sold his practice to a dental supply company,” Reigns says.

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David Acer’s letter

“Three days before he died, David Acer penned a letter from his hospice bed. He was aware a previous dental patient accused him of infecting them with HIV,” Reigns says. “In this letter, he states he does not believe this to be true, he took safety precautions, and urged all of his patients to get an HIV test.”

It is with great sorrow and some surprise that I read that I am accused of transmitting the HIV virus. I am a gentle man and I would never have intentionally exposed anyone to this disease. I have cared for people all my life and to infect anyone with this disease would be contrary to everything I have stood for.

“This posthumous letter was published in the local newspaper three days after his death,” Reigns says. “In my  10 years of researching and writing the book, this letter is the only time I encountered anything directly from David. The letter shows a thoughtful, carrying, and sensitive man.”

Book title

“During my research, it was sad for me to discover David Acer didn’t have a panel on the AIDS Memorial Quilt,” Reigns says. “The title i’A Quilt for David’ is pulled from a poem in the book where I talk about my desire to make a panel to honor David’s life. This book is essentially that quilt, where I patch together the scraps I found and create this patchwork out of poems.”

Alleged transmissions

Health officials conducted in-depth investigations about Acer and the alleged transmissions, but never determined how Acer allegedly transmitted HIV to his patients.  The case was considered closed in 2005.

In an interview with Mark S. King’s My Fabulous Disease website, Reigns says the transmissions might never have actually happened.

Each of Acer’s accusers, “as it turns out, had risk factors for HIV. Sex, intraveneous drugs, and blood transfusions. The dentist narrative seemed like an awfully convenient escape hatch for a closeted gay man who had contracted HIV, for instance. It’s easy to see the desperation of everyone involved, to hide out, to avoid blame, to not look like a whore. Everyone was trying to escape the stigma of HIV.

“It might have felt really good for them to point their finger at someone, as opposed to blaming one’s own behaviors.”

Family values

“In 1989, David came out to his mother, Harriet, about his sexuality and HIV status. He was back in the hospital when he told her the news,” Reigns says. “His mother was religious and found a way to reconcile her beliefs to be supportive and caring to her son. This was a big step at that time.”

“Toward the end of David’s life, his mother and step-father moved into his house to help take care of him,” Reigns says. “David’s older brother gave his mother a copy of Jerry Arterburn’s ‘How Will I Tell My Mother?: A True Story of One Man’s Battle With Homosexuality and AIDS.’

“A hospice worker I interviewed said she remembered David’s parents being there everyday, staying bedside with him. Sadly, they were not in the room when he passed. They walked into the room, noticed he wasn’t breathing and alerted the hospice staff,” Reigns says.

“I spoke with his mother, Harriett Acer, briefly and am sorry that she passed away before she could see this book vindicating her son’s life.”

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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