We Were Here

Last night KERA, our local PBS station aired  the documentary We Were Here on its series, Frontline.

We Were Here is a powerful documentary about the worst years of the AIDS Crisis in San Francisco.

In early 1980, I left Los Angeles to move to the Santa Rosa area about 50 miles north of San Francisco.  I went there to go to Santa Rosa Junior College where I studied electronics and computer science.

San Francisco was a place I went to for recreation.

It was two years after both the murders of Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone, two years after Jim Jones and the People’s Temple self-destructed.

I was friends with a gay man who lived up on Twin Peaks and a sister who  lived on Powell St up the hill from Union Square.

In the spring of 1981, I became involved with a woman, who lived on Delores St. across from the Mission and Delores Park.

She rode a Honda 450 and had a beautiful tattoo of a golden carp swimming up stream.  It was a very Japanese tattoo done by Lyle Tuttle.

She shared a flat upstairs over two gay men.

Life was very gay and lesbian although the radfems had made transsexual and transgender lesbians uncomfortable in the political context we still went to the bars and discos.

We were like a circle of friends and friends often slept with friends and lovers went around the circle.  My lover had been lovers with Kim, a sister who went through the Stanford Program about 9 months before I had, she had also gone to bed with the sister I knew on Powell St as well as my artist friend, Jamie, a sister who lived in Noe Valley.

The Pride Day Parade that year went on forever.

That summer one of the gay men who lived downstairs from my girlfriend became very sick and died… He was in his early thirties…

That summer Kim was very ill.  She had been an IV Drug user and I thought maybe that was why she was ill.

I broke up with my girl friend before Christmas.

By that time a number of gay men were dying of a disease that didn’t yet have a name and had a wide variety of lethal symptoms.

They called it the “Gay Cancer.”

Then it became GRID for Gay Related Immune Deficiency.

I was living in the Silicon Valley.

While lesbians weren’t getting sick the concern was that AIDS had been an invented disease and was being used to exterminate gay people.

Now there was talk of it being sexually transmitted and some people were concerned about being close to me, because I had loved very freely and had sex with transgender sisters, many of whom were also dying of AIDS.

I hated life in the Silicon Valley and moved up to the city in the summer of 83.  I had an apartment on Duboce  near Church.

I was working at a computer store on Montgomery near the Trans-America Pyramid.

I was servicing machines through out the Financial District.

I quickly became aware that I was surrounded by death.

When I went to Castro Street so many of the young men who had been so handsome and alive a few years prior now looked like photographs of the survivors of the Nazi Death camps.  They were skin and bones, with sunken cheeks and bulging eyes.

The same was true on Polk Street…

The husband of the woman who ran the computer store was a hemophiliac and had AIDS.

The city became like Oran from Camus’s book The Plague.

Going on among so much death became so hard and I started drinking more and more.

One day I saw a poster in the subway station. It said, “We all have AIDS Now!”

Although I shook my head and said, “No we don’t.”  In truth all our lives were touched.

So many deaths. Incredibly talented and wonderfully amusing people were dying.

Our friends and relatives.

And Ronald Reagan couldn’t bring himself to say the word AIDS.

Reading the Bay Area Reporter became painful.  People stopped asking the standard greeting of, “How are you?”  Afraid of the answer.

The man at the bookstore, the magazine stand.

Some of my friends were sick and dying.

I had given up sex and then I started preaching safer sex.

I became so depressed I lost the ability to function.

Finally at the end of 1986 I fled San Francisco.

I had seen too much death.

Perhaps it was seeing the men gathered around the body of one of their friends who collapsed and died on Castro Street a few doors down from the hardware store.

I went to Los Angeles where I discovered a number of my transgender friends, sisters I had photographed in the 1970s were dead or dying.

Surprisingly less so among sex workers than among the sisters who were performers and who had prided themselves on not getting paid for sex.

My preaching of condom use often fell upon deaf ears and yet I continued to preach it until my friends started using them and stopped having sex without them.

In the late 80s I learned that Kim had died of AIDS.  Then a cousin, only my relatives tried to say he died of a heart attack.

LA had more cases of AIDS but living there and dealing with it was more manageable because there were so many more people in LA and because drugs were starting to come available.

In 1994 I was very sick with something that wouldn’t go away. I was tested and came back HIV negative.  I had a drug resistant pneumonia that required some serious antibiotics to cure.

Occasionally someone I knew would become HIV Positive and a couple developed full blown AIDS and died but the worst was over.

People started talking about living with HIV and it became manageable.

As much as I hated that poster for the truth that it spoke…

I see the pictures shown on that documentary and remember the sunken face of the corpse like men who wandered the city of Oran by the Bay and I am haunted by the memories.

I guess I wasn’t as wild as I thought, I never shot drugs and I guess I was lucky to have lived through those times when so many around me were dying.

I am still angry with Reagan and the Republican indifference.

I am still angry with those who called this horrible disease a sign from some evil god.  Furious with those who abused the sick and dying.

So many of those sweet, talented loving gay men were so much better than any hate spewing religious fanatic or right wing scum bag politician.

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