Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Rhapsody in AIDS activism

Fine Arts

New exhibit at the GLBT History Museum explores our past

Dewey Bunger looks at photos of AIDS activism in the exhibit Life and Death in Black and White: AIDS Direct Action in San Francisco 1985-1990 at the GLBT History Museum in the Castro District. (Photo: Rick Gerharter)
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San Francisco was one of the first cities to experience the pernicious effects of AIDS, a then-mysterious, unnamed plague. By the time the virus was identified in 1984, approximately 50% of the city's gay men were already infected. Life and Death in Black and White: AIDS Direct Action in San Francisco, 1985-1990, a concise, laser-focused exhibition at the GLBT History Museum consisting of 17 carefully selected black-and-white photographs, distills the tenor of those times and provides a microcosm of what was at stake as the federal government, either out of obliviousness, callousness, prejudice or a combination of all three, turned a blind eye and deaf ear to the proliferation and devastating impact of the disease.

With their strong tradition of civil rights and anti-war protest, San Francisco activists began launching civil disobedience and direct action campaigns in 1985 to response to the AIDS crisis – tactics which started here, by the way – to make themselves heard. Daniel Nicoletta's "AIDS Vigil, San Francisco, 49th Day" (1985) captured the initial demonstration, the first of its kind in the U.S., in which activists, demanding funding for research and a cure, chained themselves to the doors of the Federal Building on U.N. Plaza. Nicoletta, along with four other queer local photographers – Jane Philomen Cleland, Patrick Clifton, Marc Geller and Rick Gerharter – were among the journalists who took to the streets to document a crucial period of militant activism, and whose work is displayed in the show. All are alive and well and living in the Bay Area, and, wherever possible, the activists seen in the pictures, many of whom have since died, are named.

More artful historical examination than pure art exhibition, the images in the show are of high quality. Lining a single wall of the museum, they're presented in chronological order, and each is accompanied by meticulously researched text. Despite its limited size, the show has a narrative flow, and the detached though not disengaged photojournalistic take on this emotionally charged subject effectively trains our attention on the critically important nature of the content.

Activists from Stop AIDS Now or Else block the morning commute on the Golden Gate Bridge in an action to protest the lack of action by the federal government in addressing the AIDS epidemic (Jan. 31, 1989).
(Photo: Rick Gerharter)

Gerharter's "AIDS Action Pledge: Protest at the San Francisco Office of U.S. Senator Alan Cranston," taken in 1988, captures a moving theatrical moment when a man dressed as a widow, his head swathed in black, applies a sticker to a concrete column in a gesture resembling a farewell to the departed. The image evokes death, mourning and a haunting, Goya-like intensity. Gerharter, a regular contributor to this publication whose artistry often enhances this writer's articles, was the only photojournalist notified in advance by members of Stop AIDS Now or Else, an independent ACT UP/SF group planning to blockade the Golden Gate Bridge in 1989. As a result, he shot the sole professional picture of the event, the first and last sit-in ever to transpire on the bridge, where a dozen or so people sat in the middle of the roadway and blocked traffic for seven hours as fog shrouded the city's most famous landmark. A year later, the Federal government passed a law making it a felony to sit-in on the GGB.

Protestors chanting "shame" during an ACT UP demonstration in 1990 seem to be aiming their rage directly at lesbian photojournalist Jane Philomen Cleland's camera – and us – but Cleland also conveys the exuberance and solidarity of a painful struggle in her photograph of a seemingly impromptu, permit-free party on Castro Street initiated by AIDS activists the night before the 1990 Pride Parade and the closing session of the International Conference on AIDS. The gathering inspired Pink Saturday, a street party held in the Castro every Pride weekend since then.

Patrick Clifton, an activist turned high school teacher, has the last word, so to speak, in the grace note, the exhibition's multi-layered final picture, a visual representation of dissonant agendas.  In "Sixth International Conference on AIDS: 'No More Words, We Want Action'" (1990), demonstrators holding a banner turn their backs on the closing night speaker, HHS Secretary Louis Sullivan, whose image is projected on a giant screen in the background, and drown out his speech. (San Francisco Bay Times reporter Tim Kingston and Bay Area Reporter journalist Michael Botkin can be seen in the crowd.)

For those old enough to have been there and lived through it, the show will bring back memories, while younger visitors will learn about a chapter in history that pre-dates the Occupy movement, which has its roots, to some extent, in the direct action protests pictured here. It's heartening to remember, though, that there actually was a time when it was possible to mobilize large numbers of people without benefit of the Internet or social media, and record events for posterity if you didn't own a cellphone camera.

Through June at the GLBT History Museum, SF. Info: or (415) 621-1107.

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