OPINION: Once upon a time, Sarasota stood for decency and compassion
On the morning of his first day at school, Ricky Ray found welcome cards on his desk.
By lunchtime, they had to devise a new seating chart in the cafeteria because so many kids wanted to sit next to Ricky and his two brothers, Robert and Randy.
Does anyone remember the story of the Ray brothers from Arcadia? They were the hemophiliacs who contracted HIV back in the late 1980s and were under 8 years old when it happened. First, DeSoto County kicked them out of the school district. Then, someone burned down their house. Eventually, they moved to Sarasota, where compassion, understanding, and decency made them feel welcome.
Traits that have long since disappeared.
Today, it is worth remembering the story of the Ray brothers, particularly in light of the homophobic slurs lobbed at School Board member Tom Edwards by members of the public and the inexplicable inaction of Chairwoman Bridget Ziegler to stop them.
The three Ray brothers were diagnosed with HIV in 1986 after contracting the virus through contaminated supplies of a drug called Factor 8.
DeSoto County had no tolerance for anyone with a virus no one really understood at the time, so the brothers were kicked out of the school district. A federal judge reinstated them, but it didn't take long before someone set their house ablaze. They left town.
They moved to Sarasota and enrolled in Gocio Elementary. True, there was some initial backlash by some groups in Sarasota, but it was a far more accepting situation than what took place in Arcadia.
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The Sarasota County Health Department helped alleviate the tension tremendously by placing educational programs in the schools.
Ricky Ray later became an AIDS activist, even receiving a call from President Clinton. Unfortunately, he died in 1992 at age 15. His brother Robert passed away in 2000. Randy Ray survived.
The brothers are buried in Sarasota, perhaps as a testament to how the city and its school district treated them.
Clifford and Louise Ray – the parents of the children – moved out of state. In 2007, they were tracked down by Billy Cox of the Herald-Tribune.
From the archives: Remembering the Rays: A story of intolerance, acceptance and dignity
"I miss Sarasota, and when we die we will be buried there," Clifford Ray said.
"I'd like to thank the people of Sarasota for making us part of the family during some hard times, and for making us feel at home."
If anyone ever runs into Clifford Ray out there, please don't spoil that wonderful notion and tell him who we've become.
Just keep it to yourself.
He's been through enough already.
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: From decency compassion to anti-gay attacks at Sarasota school board