The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Remembering San Francisco During the Era of AIDS

The documentary We Were Here about the AIDS crisis and the response of the LGBT community in San Francisco really brought back memories. Times that were forgotten, perhaps repressed, returned. What horrible, wonderful times they were. They were horrible with the deaths and loss of friends, but wonderful when you realize how much the community did to care for one another.

When people were dying, the people of San Francisco were there to care for them, and comfort the mourners. They fed the hungry and carried the burdens for those too weak to carry them themselves. It brought home the hypocrisy of the Christian fundamentalists who never lifted a finger to help these people, but gloated and damned and condemned.

In the early 80s no one really knew what was happening — no one. It was a “cancer,” a “plague,” something that no one could pin down.

There were community meetings that I remember sitting in on, there were debates about prevention measures with a community deeply divided. Every day I would walk past the windows of the Names Project and see the panels of the AIDS quilt on display in the widows.

I remember the display of the panels on the ground, one large quilt commemorating hundreds and hundreds of people who died. I walked between the panels crying over the deaths of people I didn’t know, realizing how young so many of them were. And, worse yet, realizing how many panels there were that could not be displayed, or were never made at all.

I remember the AIDS candlelight marches down Market Street. They would begin on Castro Street, where I lived, march past my bookstore, and then end at Civic Center.

I remember the thousands and thousands of people. A long river of flickering flames would stretch down the streets. The silence of the moment was broken only by the sounds of shuffling feet.

I remember the repressive measures proposed by extremists, such as Lyndon La Rouche who tried to pass a ballot measure to quarantine people with HIV. We fought those measures and defeated them, but wasted valuable resources that could have been used for the care of those who needed it.

Each week the local gay newspaper reminded us of how urgent matters were. There would be at least one, sometimes two pages of obituaries of the young men who died since the last issue.

Everyday I was reminded of the various projects that would help people who were ill. There was Project Open Hand that fed them and Shanti that cared for them. There would be leaflets about meetings and protests.

There was anger. New drugs would be discovered and the FDA would withhold them from the dying because the drugs might make them sick. No one understood that logic. It wasn’t uncommon for activists to drive to Mexico and buy the forbidden drugs and bring them back for friends.

But the whole experience was wearying. Being surrounded by death and illness on such regular basis could dilute your soul. It broke your spirit. I know it is part of the reason that I decided to leave the City, though I loved it — and still do.

I escaped to South Africa. Instead witnessing the beginning of America’s AIDS crisis, I watched the death of apartheid.

I lost friends. Which of us didn’t?

I remember Scott O’Hara, an erotic performer who was highly intelligent and didn’t need the money. We were philosophical compatriots and friends. He volunteered to work in my bookstore whenever necessary. It was there he meet his lover, Bill Webber, who was an employee of mine. Scott died in 1998, while I was still in Africa. Sometime before that, he lost Bill, though I can’t remember the year.

Scott would write me now and then. Periodically I’d call him his home in Cazenovia, Wisconsin, a luxury I couldn’t afford given the rates charged by the government phone company in South Africa.

My friend, John Dentinger, a Los Angeles writer on whom I always had a crush — though I never told him — died in 1992, he was just 39.

As years go by, you tend to forget. Pieces of the memories vanish. Other pieces are just filed away. You are aware they are there, but you don’t want to go back. There was too much pain, too many tears. But the pain and the tears helped us reach the place we are at today, collectively as a community, and personally as individuals.

To forget the pain is also to forget the love. When the faces in the obituaries are gone, so are the faces of friends. It was a crisis that defined a generation of gay men, and women as well. I have long thought that it is not the painful aspects of life that define us, but how we respond to them. By that estimation the gay community has much to be proud of.

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James Peron

James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.