DALLAS — In the 1980s, a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS was a death sentence. Not only were patients given little chance of survival, but they also faced severe prejudice from the general public and their employers. One such person was Gär Traynor, a United Airlines (UA) flight attendant (FA) based in San Francisco, and this is his story.
Gary Traynor was born in 1947 in Eugene, Oregon. Knowing he was “different,” Gary moved to Los Angeles, where he finally came out as homosexual. He shortened his name to Gär, adding the umlaut over the ‘a’ every time he signed his name, and in April 1973, Traynor became a flight attendant for UA.
But less than eleven years later, in December 1982, he was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS after developing Kaposi’s Sarcoma (KS), a rare type of cancer caused by a virus that affects the skin, mouth, and sometimes internal organs.
After his diagnosis, Traynor came under the care of doctors Michael Gottlieb and Jerome Groopman from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) Bowyer Clinic. The pair were pioneering new treatment strategies for KS and other AIDS-related illnesses.
As Traynor required weekly chemotherapy treatment for the KS, Dr. Groopman contacted UA on February 8, 1983, to inform them of his diagnosis. However, he also stated that despite the treatment required, he would still be capable of carrying out his duties.
Initially, United allowed Traynor to continue working. However, as more and more people were diagnosed, the ensuing hysteria surrounding the virus grew, and attitudes changed.
This began to spread to the FA community and the union that supported flight attendants at the time, the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA). Traynor later explained how some of his colleagues were “quite concerned” about being around him after seeing the KS lesions and learning of his diagnosis, taking these concerns to the AFA.
On May 23, 1983, United produced a “safety bulletin” to reassure workers that the virus could not be contracted via casual contact. However, despite the reassuring notice, the airline, like most others at the time, soon changed its sympathetic approach, removing Traynor and other FA’s diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, as well as those they merely suspected from their roles.
Traynor later spoke on the ‘The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,’ explaining his removal from flying duties, “A week after my diagnosis. I informed United, and if I was going to be taking chemotherapy for cancer it may involve some schedule conflicts.
That was fine, there was no problem until six months later I was called into the office at eight o’clock in the morning by one of the supervisors and told, effective immediately, that I was on a medical leave of absence. And this was their choice, not mine.”
Another FA taken off the roster was New York-based Russ Manker. Despite displaying some symptoms, Maker had no official diagnosis. In July 1983, after numerous examinations and blood tests, the doctor explained that Manker “Does not, at the moment, fit the case definition for even a prodrome of the AIDS syndrome… In the present context, I could see no clear justification for denying Mr. Manker his job.”
Armed with this information, he headed to United’s HQ in Chicago and was allowed back to work. However, company doctors sent him home after just half a day’s training.
Bruce Hall, a United FA based in Chicago, was also removed from duties in January 1984 after arriving for work following his AIDS diagnosis. A company doctor later examined Hall, saying he was fit to fly but should remain grounded due to the hysteria surrounding the virus at the time.
Meanwhile, Traynor had been placed on permanent medical leave by his base supervisor, despite reassurances he could continue flying. He received a letter from the airline’s Vice President of Medical Services, Dr. C.R. Harper, explaining the decision to remove him from his duties.
It stated, “Although the indications are that the disease is transmitted by intimate physical contact and/or accidental inoculation with blood products, the exact method of transmission is in fact not only controversial but at this point time conjectural.” He continued, “Since the bulk of the duties as a flight attendant involves food and beverage handling, it was felt in the interest of United’s flying public that you not perform these duties.”
But Traynor and his fellow grounded crew members decided to fight their employer and their fight began to raise awareness of the virus leading to much public scrutiny at a time when most people believed that HIV/AIDS was merely a gay illness.
While he waited for an outcome, Traynor began working with the newly emerging AIDS activists and charities. He started by joining the Los Angeles City-County AIDS Task Force, a committee of 24 that advised the city’s mayor and the county’s board of supervisors on AIDS policies.
During his enforced leave from United, he attended the first-ever national meeting of AIDS activists in Denver, Colorado, in June 1983. For the first time, people living with the condition could offer their first-hand knowledge of the condition alongside doctors working in the field and gay community leaders.
Traynor had now moved to San Francisco to be with his partner. Here, he joined the newly formed ‘People With AIDS – San Francisco’ (PWA-SF), who were eager to promote his case against the airline. The group went to the UA and demanded that he be reinstated. This was immediately rebuffed.
More dramatic action was called, with PWA-SF demanding a citywide boycott of the airline. Key activists such as the legendary Harvey Milk signed up for the cause, and soon, Traynor and his fellow campaigner’s faces were splashed across local and national newspapers.
Finally, the Gär Traynor Vs. United Airlines arbitration case was ready to be heard, led by neural arbitrator Martin Wagner and a five-member judicial panel.
Fighting United’s corner was medical expert Dr. Kevin Cahill of the New York City Board of Health, who had recently published a book called ‘The AIDS Epidemic.’ A point raised in his book, which Dr. Cahill would use in his argument, was the uncertainty surrounding the transmission of HIV/AIDS. Apart from blood and semen, the doctor claimed that transmission could also come from food preparation.
This, it was hoped, would be enough to uphold the decision by UA to ground employees.
In Traynor’s corner was the AFA, who had hired medical experts Doctors John Philip Phair and David Ostrow of Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago. They argued that the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) maintained that transmission could only occur via blood or semen. This was backed by testimonies from doctors and nurses who had worked closely with AIDS patients without contracting the virus.
Wagner and the rest of the arbitration team looked closely at healthcare workers diagnosed with AIDS, who were allowed to continue working in their profession. From studying these findings, he concluded, “It is the chairman’s opinion that the foregoing observations and conclusions… refute a conclusion that an employee afflicted with AIDS should be removed from an attendant position on a per se basis and that, if such a conclusion is appropriate in the attendant-patient relationship in a hospital setting, it is equally valid in the flight attendant relationship to the flying public.”
The tide was finally turning in favor of Traynor and his colleagues. Now Wagner began to look at how the airline mistreated them. This included the lack of a thorough examination of those diagnosed by a company doctor, which led him to believe that this was “clearly a homophobic and AIDS-phobic thing on their [United’s] part,” as a company doctor would check any other medical condition to ensure the crew member was fit to fly. Wagner also had ample evidence from Traynor’s doctors that he was and always was fit to fly.
Patricia Friend of the AFA went on to say, “They [United] were convinced that if the people who were buying tickets knew that there were flight attendants working in the airplane who were HIV positive, that they would stay away in droves… So it was all about their image.”
By the end of 1984, the ruling was in. Traynor was awarded a whole year and a half back pay and given back his old job.
He chose not to return.
Setting a Precedent
The ruling also gave the AFA a precedent that could be used in other HIV/AIDS grievances, granting any person unfairly grounded the right to return to work. But the airline managed to find a loophole in the ruling. Flight attendants diagnosed were often offered a large financial sum to hang up their wings while remaining on the airline’s books and being paid as full-time crew members.
This continued until May 1988, when the carrier reviewed its approach and finally allowed those diagnosed/living with HIV/AIDS to continue working as long as their health allowed.
But while United changed its policies, the stigma around the virus continued. The AFA and airline prepared educational materials around HIV/AIDS, and it was made clear that the company would no longer back any concern raised by employees about working alongside someone living with the virus.
Tragically, Traynor did not live to see his former employer’s change in policy and attitude, passing away on March 13, 1987. For many years, his only lasting legacy has been a patch on the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt which started life in San Francisco in 1987.
Thankfully, United Airlines, like most carriers worldwide, has massively changed its outlook on not only those living with HIV but the entire LGBTQ+ community. In 1999 it became the first US carrier to recognize domestic partnerships and provide comprehensive fringe benefits fully.
Today, UA’s website states, “At United, we recognize, embrace, and celebrate the differences that make our customers and employees unique. We’re committed to creating an inclusive work environment while contributing to the diverse communities we serve.
“As a part of this mission, we believe it’s important to support the LGBTQ+ community by upholding inclusive policies and practices, partnering with LGBTQ+ organizations, and hosting programs and engagement events to honor the LGBTQ+ community.”
United partners with LGBTQ groups such as National Gay Pilots Association and offers community outreach projects, hosting and participating in other events that allow the airline to support and give back to the LGBT community.
Tragically, the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and early 1990s devastated the gay community. It also severely impacted the aviation community, as many male crew members were gay.
Colleagues and loved ones were lost in horrific numbers, and many male crew members became the target of the growing wave of fear, scaremongering, and scapegoating. This was further exasperated by the false accusation of Air Canada (AC) crew member Gaëtan Dugas being “Patient Zero” and responsible for spreading HIV across North America.
But Traynor and his colleagues fight against their employers at a time when those living with the virus were seen as a blight on society helped speed up the easing of discrimination faced by FA’s and leave a lasting legacy on both the aviation industry and the fight against the virus and subsequent immunodeficiency syndrome.
Featured Image: United Airlines 1980s Flight Attendants (Brochure). Photo: United Airlines