by Julie Beach | I first heard about AIDS at work in downtown San Francisco. Magic Johnson, a popular Los Angeles Lakers basketball player, had just announced he had AIDS. Reacting to the media announcement, men huddled in the office hallways like they always did to discuss sports. However, this time I overheard them talking about Magic’s news. I remember hearing “No way is Magic Johnson a fag.” The conversation went even farther downhill from there and I stopped listening
Meanwhile all three of the “out” gay men in my department were getting sick. Their doctors could not tell them the cause nor prescribe any meaningful treatment. It was very unusual for so many men under 35 years old to be repeatedly out on sick leave. There were rumors of “yuppie flu” and “gay pneumonia.” Nobody knew exactly what it was and many people were scared. A long time went by until medicine gave the disease a name. At that point, doctors handed out death sentences to their AIDS patients because in the early 1980’s it was not a manageable disease but a terminal illness. The average life expectancy at that time for a person with AIDS was no more than 18 months with many people dying far sooner.
With so many ill and dying San Franciscans, we had to help ourselves because nobody else would. Ronald Reagan was in the White House and he would not speak the term “AIDS” in his official role. Our government erected a wall of silence around the topic and refused to adequately fund AIDS research and support services.
Through organizing for self-sufficiency, two positive shifts emerged. The Gay and Lesbian communities in San Francisco had been estranged, mainly due to conflict around sexism. During the early crisis, they began working together to answer the physical, emotional and spiritual call of AIDS. Many services and agencies were founded at this time by the LGBT community. Secondly, the community became more visible. Rallies and protests to bring attention to the crisis formed a second wave of the LGBT rights movement. A particularly high note was the 1987 National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights which was attended by 500,000 and included the inaugural display of the entire AIDS Memorial Quilt.