Moving event in SF marks AIDS at 40

  • by David-Elijah Nahmod
  • Monday June 7, 2021
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Members of the public view a wreath that was laid in the Circle of Friends at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park during a ceremony June 5 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the first reported AIDS cases in the U.S. Photo: Christopher Robledo
Members of the public view a wreath that was laid in the Circle of Friends at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park during a ceremony June 5 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the first reported AIDS cases in the U.S. Photo: Christopher Robledo

People gathered at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park June 5 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the first reported AIDS cases and to solemnly view portions of the AIDS Memorial Quilt and remember those lives lost.

It was June 5, 1981 that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report noted five cases of pneumocystis pneumonia among previously healthy gay men in Los Angeles. Over the ensuing years, thousands of people died from the disease, including gay men, women, trans people, hemophiliacs, and injection drug users.

During a morning ceremony, officials laid a wreath in the Circle of Friends and viewed the quilt's 6000th block. In the afternoon, the public was invited to visit the grove, where they saw 40 other quilt blocks and read names of those lost to the disease. (The AIDS grove took over stewardship of the quilt in 2019.) There were musical performances from the Messengers of Hope Gospel Choir featuring Ja Ronn and Flow and members of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus.

Among the quilt blocks on display was one for Susan Piracci Roggio, who had been a flower girl at the wedding of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), and one for Freddie Mercury, lead singer for the band Queen. There was also a panel for Dr. Tom Waddell, who founded the Gay Games. A larger sized block was also on display from Glide Memorial Church, upon which there were more than 100 names.

Some of those who attended could not believe the disease has ravaged the world for four decades.

"I'm here with my kids and that gives it a whole different meaning," said Joshua Gamson, a 58-year-old gay man who sits on the board of the grove. "I'm a little bit in awe of what the National AIDS Memorial has become, and still in disbelief that it's been 40 years. I feel sad and inspired." Gamson is a sociology professor at the University of San Francisco.

John Cunningham, a gay man who's executive director of the AIDS grove, opened the speakers' program by asking for a moment of silence for those lost to AIDS.

"I certainly feel their spirit here today," he said. "With the beauty of the sun, and the nature, and the birds, and each of you. My name is John Cunningham, and I am a man living with AIDS, and I'm honored to lead the National AIDS Memorial."

Cunningham asked that anyone living with AIDS stand or raise their hand. Those who did were met with applause. Cunningham also acknowledged June 5 as HIV Long-Term Survivors Awareness Day.

"We must support the long-term survivors community," he said.

Young people were among those who visited in the afternoon.

Tatum Jenkins, a 20-year-old bisexual woman, and her friend, Zoe Schneider, an 18-year-old straight ally, were waiting to be admitted to the grove to view the quilt blocks.

"We stumbled across this," said Jenkins. "I recognized that there aren't a lot of things to do for Pride this year. This felt like a good opportunity to connect with the history of Pride."

"Coming at it from a young person's perspective, 40 years can feel like such a long time because it's double our lifespan," added Schneider. "When you put it in perspective of all the people here this is very recent history and it has a legacy and a cultural impact that continues to touch so many people."

Mayor London Breed spoke during the morning ceremony.

"San Francisco was left on our own," Breed said, recalling the early days of the AIDS epidemic when the federal government largely ignored the crisis. "But we did what San Franciscans do best, we came together and provided things to address this crisis like no other. The system of care to help those who were struggling with HIV/AIDS was developed right here in San Francisco. The renowned research that continues to this very day was established right here in our great city."

Breed also thanked Cleve Jones for co-founding the AIDS quilt. Breed then spoke of the Getting to Zero campaign, which was established in 2014 when she served on the Board of Supervisors.

"Zero new infections," she said. "Zero new deaths, zero stigma attached to those who have HIV or AIDS. And for the first time in a very long time, in 2019 we saw only 166 new infections of HIV and that is really historic for the work that we're doing in investing in PrEP, and investing in the things that are truly going to get us to zero new infections."

As the Bay Area Reporter noted last week, the city's Getting to Zero campaign hopes to reduce transmission of the virus and HIV-related deaths by 90% before 2025.

AIDS Memorial Quilt co-founder Gert McMullin, left, and volunteers unveil the 6,000th block of the AIDS quilt at the AIDS Memorial Grove inside Golden Gate Park June 5 during the 40th anniversary of the first reported AIDS cases. Photo: Christopher Robl  

Gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) recalled that when he was a 17-year-old gay man in 1987, there was no treatment for HIV, and no PrEP, a drug that is highly effective at preventing HIV.

"It was a scary time to come of age as a gay man," Wiener said. "It was a time when our federal government had abandoned us, because this virus was impacting gay and bisexual men, trans women, Black people, people using drugs, sex workers, all of us considered disposable throwaway people by our federal government, and by society. But this community pulled together and survived. Not everyone survived, we know tens of millions of people have died from this virus, but we were able to come through this and we now have effective treatments, we now have PrEP, we now have support systems."

Wiener acknowledged that people were still being lost to HIV. He said that he wanted to see the quilt stop growing and thanked Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) for her work in ending the criminalization of HIV. Lee has long pushed for federal legislation to end HIV criminalization. In 2017, then-governor Jerry Brown signed a state law, SB 239, which Wiener authored with gay former Assemblyman Todd Gloria (D), now the mayor of San Diego, that modernized the state's HIV criminalization laws adopted during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. Lee supported the state legislation.

"We need to take that national," Wiener said.

Lee said she and the others attended to "remember all those we have lost over the last 40 years."

"Many of you have been in this fight since then," she added. "We're also here to reflect at the progress that we've made and recommit ourselves to this work. Let us remember those who have fought on the front lines, stood up for dignity, for health, for social justice, and for an end to discrimination."

Lee noted that she is a co-founder and a co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus and that she serves on the powerful appropriations committee.

"I just want to tell you that ending HIV and AIDS by 2030 continues to be a priority for me," she said. "We will get there."

She pointed out that African Americans account for 45% of HIV diagnoses nationwide, even though they are only 13% of the population.

Ima Diawara, inaugural recipient of the AIDS grove's Mary Bowman Arts in Activism Award, and Antwan Matthews, a grove board member, offered a spoken word performance of their poem "If I Say." At one point during the reading Matthews became overcome with emotion and had to stop and breathe. Their performance was met with much applause.

Long-term HIV survivor Lonnie Payne, a gay Black man who now serves on the AIDS grove board, recalled losing his partner, his brother, and his brother's partner. He spoke of his work with the HIV/AIDS hotline in support of others in the community.

There were representatives from Gilead Sciences, Quest Diagnostics, and Vivent Health who spoke of the work they do in support of ending the epidemic.

Jones, also a long-term survivor, recalled reading the CDC's announcement of the first five cases of AIDS 40 years ago.

"Five years later almost everyone I knew was dead," he said. "Or dying or caring for someone who was dying. Out of that beginning grew a great movement that changed not just the fight against AIDS, but the way the world looked at gay people. The way we test drugs. The way patients can be part of advocacy and policy change."

Jones expressed his gratitude to the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, which he helped start with Drs. Paul Volberding and Marcus Conant and the late B.A.R. publisher Bob Ross when it was known as the Kaposi's Sarcoma Research and Education Foundation, and to Vivent and to Gilead. Jones then introduced Pelosi, saying that she was not an ally, but family.

Pelosi spent much of her time at the podium thanking the many people who have been involved in the fight against AIDS. She also recalled the formation of the quilt and the first time it was displayed on the National Mall in Washington D.C.

"And at the end of the week, ABC News has the newsmaker of the week, and it's Cleve Jones," Pelosi said. "And they showed the whole quilt on the mall. It was so fantastic. It was historic. And now today is another historic day, after traveling and finding a home in Atlanta, the quilt has come home to San Francisco, where we will honor it, where we will protect it."

Pelosi was referring to the fact that the quilt had been warehoused in Atlanta for a number of years, but was recently returned to the Bay Area, where it's maintained by the AIDS grove.

Pelosi also noted that the LGBTQ community would not have achieved marriage equality or the repeal of the military's anti-gay "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy without all the AIDS activism that preceded those movements.

"It's not over yet," Pelosi said. "Pretty soon we're going to put this in a museum in the dustbin of history. We just haven't gotten there yet, but we will."

Reading names
The speakers' program was followed by the reading of names of people who died of AIDS. The readings continued throughout the afternoon as the public was allowed inside the grove to view the quilt blocks and read names themselves.

"It's bittersweet, 40 years in," Cunningham told the B.A.R. as the reading of the names began. "But we have hope for the future and we find our hope in each other, and may the words and the power that Speaker Pelosi shared inspire all of us to carry on with a vision of a world without AIDS."

Others echoed that sentiment.

"As a long-term survivor of 34 years of living with HIV, it's a delicate balance of beauty and pain to know that I'm here when so many people I know did not survive," said Vince Crisostomo, a 60-year-old gay Asian American man who's the program director of SFAF's Elizabeth Taylor 50-Plus Network. "I'm reminded that my story doesn't end, it's not over yet and I'm hoping for a happy ending."

The morning program has been archived online, and includes a statement from Dr. Anthony Fauci, who was not present at Saturday's ceremony, but who has been on the frontlines of the AIDS epidemic for decades before becoming the public face of the federal government's response to the COVID pandemic.

View the program online.

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