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'No obits' plus 10

by Allen White

Two words, "No obits," made the August 13, 1998 edition of the Bay Area Reporter the most memorable in its 38-year history. This week is the 10th anniversary of what became a defining moment in gay journalism and a turning point in the fight against AIDS.

In 1981, AIDS was first reported by the Centers for Disease Control, Ronald Reagan became president, and a community evolved in San Francisco's Castro District. To some it was a ghetto, to others a mecca.

The number of deaths overshadowed the impact AIDS might have on a sexual liberation movement. The previous decade demonstrated how any decision to hide, to return to the closet, was unacceptable. Publisher Bob Ross and Editor Paul Lorch developed a new kind of forum â€" obituaries. For the first time, a newspaper encouraged a photo with statements that truly reflected the person being honored.

The numbers increased. At one point, 27 obituaries, plus memorial advertisements for four others, filled more than three pages.

Entertainer Sylvester, Gay Games Founder Tom Waddell, author Randy Shilts, military activist Leonard Matlovich were well known and easily recognized. The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus created "The Fifth Section" to honor more than 200. Regardless of celebrity, however, the B.A.R. obituary recognized the unique identity and dignity of each person. Lives of many â€" whose lives were perceived as pedestrian â€" glistened with discovery of obscure acts of excellence known to but a very few.

Scientists, researchers, and health care professionals found their efforts blocked by evangelical Christians and conservative politicians. "AIDS," the late Reverend Jerry Falwell once said, "is the wrath of God upon homosexuals." Pat Buchanan, Reagan's communications director called AIDS "nature's revenge on gay men."

Each picture, each statement, revealed a person who died of AIDS. Many Catholic priests were denied that dignity. The National Catholic Reporter revealed how priests with an AIDS diagnosis were moved from parish to parish and out of sight. In Rome, the legs of a dead priest were broken to hide his death from AIDS.

On May 31, 1987, President Reagan, after six years in office, gave his first speech on AIDS. As of that day, over 36,058 Americans were diagnosed with AIDS, 20,849 had died, and more than 50,000 cases were reported in 113 other countries.

The B.A.R. would redefine advocacy journalism. Obituaries with photos and personal statements were a first. Ethical, moral, medical and political issues were reported and debated on its pages. Sex, whether safe or unsafe, whether good, bad, perverted, or simply weird, was all there. The writer's responsibility to be accurate was balanced with knowing an error or the incorrectly interpreted phrase could lead to horrible consequences for an unsuspecting reader.

Publisher Ross and writers Marcus Hernandez and Wayne Friday understood and used the paper's unprecedented power for political and philanthropic purposes. Most notably was creation of the AIDS Emergency Fund. Mr. Marcus helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. Wayne Friday used politics to raise, and sometimes pry loose, money for this fund. Publisher Ross guided success with the temperament of a bull in a china shop and the deliberation of completing his latest crossword puzzle.

In 1995, treatment of AIDS changed. Development of drugs and how they were administered changed life expectancy. For the medical professional, clouds of death opened to a world where hope was based on reality.

The "what if" question is would the day have come sooner if a president hadn't waited seven years to speak out, if a religious huckster hadn't used AIDS to fund his religious organization and if politicians like Jesse Helms hadn't used AIDS as a political football.

Obituaries began to drop. Then came the second week of August in 1998. On Friday, no obituaries were received. The late Mike Salinas, the paper's news editor at the time, wrote, "We considered the possibility that this could be our first obit-free issue in years, could it really be that the load of obits could drop from 31 to zero?" They waited to see what Monday's mail might bring.

"And then there were none," he said.

"None."

"No notices whatsoever that friends, or potential friends we hadn't met, succumbed to AIDS, or to anything else. And like fans who sat quietly until the no hitter was clinched with the last pitch, we exploded in joy at the happy culmination. For a while, at least," Salinas said.

He concluded his editorial saying, "We fully expect to receive more obits than usual next week, for such is the nature of life and death, we also hope to see a time when issues of the B.A.R. without obituaries are commonplace. For that to happen, people must take care of themselves, avoid infections, and live for tomorrow."

On Thursday morning, August 13, 1998, the paper with the two-word headline, "No obits" appeared. Vic Lee, a reporter at KRON-TV, grabbed a copy and quickly realized he had the exclusive on a major story.

Picked up by national media, the paper became acknowledgment that the face of AIDS was indeed changing. It was in that context that Dan Rather on the October 7 edition of the CBS Evening News used the paper and its headline to further validate the point.

Those searching for their gay mecca may still find ground zero at Castro and 18th. Their search for community, certainly as it was then, is much more elusive. The texture and depth that grew out of the Castro, depending on the viewpoint, has either disappeared or is best replicated on the Internet.

Out.com reports a United Kingdom study showing 61.2 percent of gay men found their first male sexual partner on the Internet. Sociologists, the Web site states, believe findings in the United States would be similar.

The online edition of the B.A.R. will be seen by people in cities and countries around the world. Today, many more thousands will see this on a computer than will ever see the hard copy.

For more than a decade I was a contributor to this publication. I am part of a collective "we," which includes a community, a newspaper and thousands of people. Together we experienced, survived and will continue to survive an enemy as formidable as anything found in any war.

Today I remember the many I knew and loved who were highlighted in those obituaries. I also celebrate those who today continue to give us hope and strength to never forget that "people with AIDS are not victims."

Allen White is a San Francisco writer, activist, and media coordinator who, for over a decade, was a contributor to this publication.

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