Reflecting On 35 Years Since First Reports Of AIDS

Benji Douglas

AIDS+March

We’re coming up on a grim anniversary–35 years since the first reported cases of what we would come to know as AIDS. To mark the occasion, the Bay Area Reporter has interviewed some high profile survivors about their experiences, their memories and what might lie ahead. It’s required reading for anyone who’s been touched by the crisis–which is everyone.

Related: “How to Survive a Plague” Explores The Passion And Progress Of Early AIDS Activists

One of the most important milestones of the last 35 years was the introduction of cocktails in the mid-90s. Following that innovation, death rates–which had been skyrocketing year after year– immediately took a nosedive.

That followed a decade of experimental treatments, many of which had no effect or actually made suffering worse. But there was virtually no knowledge about how the disease worked, and it was spreading so fast that doctors were desperate for any form of treatment. What’s more, officials in the Reagan administration did as little as they could to address the crisis.

Activist Cleve Jones recalls bringing the AIDS quilt to Washington in the mid-90s, when the Clinton administration was finally starting to take action to save lives.

“I talked to President Clinton on how my friends were now thriving and asking him to make sure these drugs would be available to everybody,” he tells the Bay Area Reporter.

In 1994, he suffered an infection that he expected to take his life, but the cocktails saved him.

Related: WATCH: Elizabeth Taylor’s Fight To Raise AIDS Awareness Changed History

Gabriel Quinto talks about being an early test subject. He also expected to die, and sold all of his belongings in preparation for the end. The drugs that he took saved him, but also had devastating side effects.

“These drugs were not tested for people of color and the side effects could make you feel worse than the disease itself,” he explains. “Many of my friends could not take these drugs and gave up. … The current medications have not raised my number of T cells above 150, so consequently I have good days and bad days when I need to rest.”

Terry Beswick, who runs the GLBT Historical Society, holds regular events and organizes exhibits to reflect on the last three decades. He cites the crisis as having taught the LGBTQ community a hard lesson about organizing and establishing leadership, one that ultimately helped the fight for civil rights but at an unbearable cost.

“We need to meet people where they are at and base public health policy on science rather than morality,” he says. “My big goal is to build a bigger LGBT museum (than the one in the Castro), complete with an educational and cultural center so we can tell the story of AIDS more effectively and learn not to make the same mistakes we made 20, 30 years ago.”

Related: Six Pioneering Gay Writers Who Helped Bring HIV/AIDS To The American Forefront

“I think marriage equality came out of our struggle with AIDS. For my generation of radical activists, marriage was not on any of our priority lists,” Jones says. But when partners died and there were no legal protections, “suddenly that little piece of paper became critically important. And that’s why working class gays and lesbians lined up when Mayor Gavin Newsom opened up City Hall in 2004 so they could get married, despite flack from the political establishment.”

Gavin Newsom, it’s worth pointing out, recently sent out an email to supporters about that time. Back in 2004, when he issued marriage licenses, most of the Democratic Party abandoned him.

There was only one high-profile politician willing to work with him during that time: Hillary Clinton.

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