Dr. Jesse Peel, who helped lead state AIDS response, dies from a fall

Gay physician was fierce advocate, friend
Dr. Jesse Peel's  papers were donated to Emory University's Manuscript, Archive and Rare Book Library. Peel was a physician and advocate who played a key role in creating a response to AIDS when it first appeared in Georgia. Peel died earlier this month.

Credit: Courtesy photo

Credit: Courtesy photo

Dr. Jesse Peel's papers were donated to Emory University's Manuscript, Archive and Rare Book Library. Peel was a physician and advocate who played a key role in creating a response to AIDS when it first appeared in Georgia. Peel died earlier this month.

In his later years, Dr. Jesse Peel would refer to a large proportion of the 1980s as the era of “the horror”— usually accompanied by a grimace.

It was a period in which gay men felt forsaken. The then-recently emerged AIDS virus was taking lives at an increasing rate. There was no treatment, certainly no cure and very little, if any, funding was available for prevention, education and palliative care.

Peel, a gay physician in Atlanta, stepped into that void.

“He was the godfather of LGBTQ and HIV activism in Atlanta,” said Mark S. King, a writer and HIV activist. “Early on, he was hosting community meetings in his living room trying to figure out how the city should respond to this crisis.”

Peel, a long-term AIDS survivor, went on to become instrumental in shaping Atlanta’s and the state’s response to the disease, with efforts ranging from serving on the first governor’s task force on AIDS to establishing badly needed services.

“He was a champion of the underserved and an incredible mentor,” said Sandy Thurman, an adviser to the director of a State Department global AIDS program, who met Peel when she started volunteering for AID Atlanta in the 1980s. “He had great patience but also great analytical skills. And his knowledge of what drives people — coming from being a psychiatrist — was very valuable at the time.”

That marked the second of Peel’s two major turning points. The first was coming out in 1976. A psychiatrist whose practice centered on gay men and their battles with depression, self-hatred and rejection by their families, he sought to serve as a role model, say friends. It was a bold step for a son of rural and extremely conservative Eastern North Carolina.

The second turning point arrived as the AIDS virus began killing his patients. It was a period during which misperceptions, paranoia and outright condemnation regarding the malady ran rampant. That spoke volumes to Peel. “Jesse had a big heart for people who were being rejected,” said Rev. Theron Clark-Stuart, a close confidant. “He was a deeply spiritual being.”

A fearless advocate for AIDS services and gay rights, Jesse R. Peel died from complications of a fall Dec. 28. He was 83. A funeral service is planned at 2 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 27 at St. Mark United Methodist Church, 781 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta.

Spiritual, yet practical, Peel swung into action once the scope of the problem became clear.

He helped found AID Atlanta and Positive Impact, two major providers which are still in the game. He sat on the boards of many others and helped vett applications from service groups. And he pledged his own money, including a half million dollars for the Jesse R. Peel LGBTQ center at East Carolina University.

Peel also pushed for then-controversial innovations such as needle exchanges and distributing condoms to prison inmates.

Friends say he had a knack for “speaking southern” to foundations, businesses and religious groups that he’d ask for funding, a strategy that paid dividends.

But he also didn’t suffer fools.

“He could look across the table in some boardroom and say, ‘that’s bullshit,’” said Thurman. “It was not vulgar, but very matter-of-fact.” And he was known to politely ask religious groups why their professed Christian charity didn’t extend to helping in the AIDS fight.

He was a master at creating community and fostering connections, say those close to him.

Peel’s Sunday afternoon pool parties were the stuff of legend. Several dozen gay men would splash and soak up sun while he held court under an umbrella, greeting guests with his signature “sweetie” or “baby” and working crossword puzzles. A donation bucket for gay and AIDS service groups was usually nearby.

“Jesse saw me at a community meeting my first week in town and said ‘Come sit by me,’” remembered King. “He’d point people out, saying ‘You need to meet him, you need to meet her.’ And there was something in me saying ‘I need to trust this guy.’”

And he was a father figure who consoled those (like Clark-Stuart) who’d been diagnosed or faced other issues.

As the immediate crisis abated, Peel began focusing on his other passions of theater, arts and music.

Paul Conroy of Out Front Theater Company recalls getting an email from Peel immediately after the group’s 2016 opening weekend, which he’d attended.

“It said ‘Maybe I could be of some help,’” recalled Conroy. And he was, pushing to intertwine Conroy’s group with others of like mind.

“I think what really fed his soul was talking to students” says director Mark Rasdorf of the Peel LGBTQ center. Peel’s final visit to ECU came in October for a student photo exhibit.

After that, it was more holding court as Peel was surrounded by more than a dozen students, who peppered them with questions and told their stories.