A loud, angry, and insistent voice

  • by Jeff Sheehy
  • Wednesday April 6, 2011
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This year the Bay Area Reporter celebrates 40 years of existence on April 7 alongside the marking of the 30th year since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's first report of a mysterious ailment afflicting gay men on June 5.

And for the last 30 years, through straightforward reporting on the disease itself, advocacy journalism supporting and encouraging the activist community, and the weekly recording of the toll in its obituaries, the B.A.R. has been a source of information; an indispensable ally in war; and a place for remembrance, mourning, and solace for a community under siege from HIV/AIDS.

In trying to write this, I did some research and went through old copies of the paper and quickly found myself overwhelmed. The stories of so many lives touched by HIV are contained here and all of them should be remembered.

When I first arrived in San Francisco in 1988 and starting reading the B.A.R., I used to avoid the obit page. But it soon became a must-read section. I did not know anyone at first unless they were famous, but the stories of their lives never failed to move and amaze me. Coming from all over the country and the world, with an immeasurable variety of interests and a limitless capacity to seek and find love, the recording of their lives by their lovers and their friends shouted "we lived" even when many families back home wanted to forget. I have long felt that an appropriate AIDS memorial in the Castro would be a simple kiosk that slowly shuffled pages of B.A.R. obits.

I don't know how we could have come to grips with what was happening to us without the B.A.R. as a forum to share experiences and information. I remember reading Michael Botkin's column weekly, and Jeff Getty's obit for him in Poz captures the column perfectly:

"Michael was not afraid of controversy, and his weekly column in [the] B.A.R. has been identified by readers as the most popular item in the paper. Mike Salinas, B.A.R.' s editor, said of Botkin's writing: 'With as many stories about adversity and outrage as I read every week, Michael's perceptions were always original enough to make every story gripping and sometimes hilarious.'

"Following a near-fatal gay-bashing he received in a city park, Michael's columns described the experience in vivid, sharp imagery – and we found ourselves there, in the dirt, being kicked and beaten along with Michael. And when Michael penned the agony of his tube-feeding treatment and its failure, and his ill-fated encounters with overpriced AIDS medical practices, we read along, already knowing the story. It was our story, too."

And speaking of Salinas, he was not only an editor, but also an activist of the highest order himself. His editorials ripped the increasingly fat and sassy HIV/AIDS industry, "AIDS Inc.," and demanded accountability, urgency, and compassion instead of fat paychecks. He ran the "No Obits" story by Timothy Rodrigues in 1998 that made news around the world. Relentless, he regularly reamed me out for half-assed activist work and I seriously doubt that I was the only one in town who incurred his wrath. But, I learned and I will always be grateful to him for his mentoring.

When Getty was making news and Salinas needed to run a photo, he liked to use one of Getty scarfing down a banana. This usually pissed off Getty, recipient of a baboon's bone marrow transplant in 1995 – a brave experiment that foreshadowed the "Berlin patient" in the news now as the first functionally cured HIV patient.

Getty, along with the rest of the ACT UP/Golden Gate activists, had a weekly writers' pool column in the B.A.R. At a time of doubt and uncertainty about experimental treatments, the column provided the latest research findings. And later when combination therapy starting proving effective, personal experience with the therapies supplemented the scientific data.

In sharing some memories, I've tried to capture a sense of the B.A.R.'s role in our seemingly endless HIV/AIDS epidemic. It remains an invaluable forum for organizing a demonstration or march. Cynthia Laird editorializes beautifully and passionately about HIV/AIDS. Bob Roehr and Liz Highleyman cover the research side of HIV/AIDS as well as or better than anyone else in the country. Matthew Bajko adroitly delivers the inside scoop on the political side, while Seth Hemmelgarn examines the nonprofits.

The B.A.R. remains the only place where many of our stories are told – the infamous Castro Sweep in 1989, when the police placed the Castro under martial law in response to an ACT UP demo, was quickly forgotten by the mainstream media when the earthquake hit but kept alive and seared into the consciousness of a newbie like me by the B.A.R.'s reporting – and are told in our voices. Where else would a page one story run with a quote about a move to criminalize the ability of HIV-positive men to have sex by a now-departed public health official stating that he "... wants the dicks of people with HIV in his back pocket and he wants us to ask him permission to use it. And I am not giving him my dick..."? That comment was made by yours truly.

The motto of our fight against HIV/AIDS has been "Silence equals Death," and the B.A.R. for 30 years has been one of the loudest, angriest, and most insistent voices.

Jeff Sheehy is on the board of the AIDS Policy Project, a group advocating for the cure/eradication of HIV. He was co-creator of SF's equal benefits ordinance 1996, a member of ACT UP/Golden Gate and served as HIV/AIDS adviser to SF's mayor from 2004 to 2006.