THE 1980'S SAN FRANCISCO AIDS EPIDEMIC IN THE LGBTQ+ COMMUNITY
BY LARA JACOBSON
How did this epidemic affect the LGBTQ+ community and outsiders perception of this certain demographic of people?
What and when was the turning point when people began to realize that AIDS can affect everyone and not just homosexuals?
The deadly HIV AIDS epidemic that is often associated with 1980's San Francisco ultimately did not originate in the states. Instead, the virus came from the Democratic Republic of Congo around 1920 due to cross contamination from chimpanzees to humans (Chen, 1997). But as the disease spread to America, the first case of HIV AIDS derived in California. In 1981, newspapers published findings of five homosexual men who had been diagnosed with Pneumocystis Pneumonia (PCP), a cancer not explicitly linked to HIV AIDS, but if one did have the virus, there was a large chance that they also had PCP. As more and more people became infected with HIV AIDS and the death toll rose, the infamous city of San Francisco became a huge hub for people of all backgrounds and identities, infected or not, to advocate for AIDS/HIV awareness. Although the virus primarily affected homosexual men at first, it quickly became apparent that the disease can hurt anyone, not just the gay community. San Francisco city has become notorious for its liberal character largely due to the numerous HIV AIDS protests and marches in the 1980's clearly showcasing the unity of California citizens but also the need for a public demonstration stemmed from the apparent discrimination and ignorance due to a lack of knowledge from others perpetuating the hate against those with the deadly virus. I plan on researching how HIV AIDS affected the LGBTQ+ community along with outsider's perceptions of those who had the disease as well as analyzing the social change that took place once people realized anyone can get the disease, not just homosexuals.
Since the HIVAIDS epidemic, there have been multiple journals, articles, and films that have been released concerning the topic. Given the knowledge that we have today, experts are able to write and document the events of the 1980's in a clear and informative manner considering there is no longer the perception that just homosexuals can get the virus. But after viewing many primary artifacts from the time, it is apparent the lack of knowledge many people had on the matter for false rumors such as, getting AIDS from being in the same pool as another were common misconceptions of the disease. The topic has been well researched but the resources that seem to tell the most about the period is the numerous moving and impactful photographs taken from the time.
"Morbidity and Mortality" Weekly Report (MMWR)
Media Type: Weekly Digest
Published by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Author: MS Gottlieb, MD, HM Schanker, MD, PT Fan, MD, A Saxon, MD, JD Weisman
Date: June 5, 1981
"Pneumocystis pneumonia in the United States is almost exclusively limited to severely immunosuppressed patients (1). The occurrence of pneumocystosis in these 5 previously healthy individuals without a clinically apparent underlying immunodeficiency is unusual. The fact that these patients were all homosexuals suggests an association between some aspect of a homosexual lifestyle or disease acquired through sexual contact and Pneumocystis pneumonia in this population."
This document is the first official medical publication of the HIV AIDS disease. It discusses the five men who had been diagnosed, their conditions, traits, and sexual orientation. Additionally it makes the link between the disease and the men being gay suggesting that this disease would only affect those who are homosexual.
Where Homosexuals Found a Haven, There's No Haven From AIDS
Media Type: New York Times
Author: Robert Lindsey
Date: July 15, 1987
Bart Levin, who lost track of the AIDS toll among his friends at 34, stood beside a Castro Street bar this week and pointed out a copy of The Bay Area Reporter, a newspaper that caters to San Francisco's large homosexual population.
''It's full of obituaries for people you know and ads for mortuaries, crematoriums and lawyers who warn you to write a will,'' he said. ''I'm weary of grieving.''
Since 1981, 3,402 cases of acquired immune deficiency syndrome have been diagnosed in San Francisco, a city of 725,000. And 2,030 people, almost all of them gay men, have died of the disease, almost 10 percent of the nation's total. Health experts say the AIDS death toll here could pass 10,000 by 1991.
A newspaper article published by the New York Times recording first hand accounts of those who have been affect by the HIV AIDS disease and their responses. It talks about the social climate in San Francisco at the time as well as focuses on the large death toll numbers that have impacted the city. Additionally, the article also notes how San Francisco was a destination of many gays to travel to with the goal of "coming out". It acknowledges the importance of the city to the gay community.
And the Band Played On
Media: TV Movie
Director: Roger Spottiswoode
Date: September 11,1993
Roger Gail Lyon- "This is not a political issue. This is a health issue. This is not a gay issue. This is a human issue. And I do not intend to be defeated by it. I came here today in the hope that my epitaph would not read that I died of red tape."
Bobbi Campbell- "Now for years and years and years people in my hometown were telling me I was a freak because of my sexual orientation, until I came to San Francisco, and I found a community of freaks just like me. We stood together. We stood together! And it took a long time. But we finally forced this one tiny spot of the universe, the Castro, to realize that how we choose to have sex, and where, is our own damn business. Which to all other people who haven't gone through what we've gone through sounds funny and they may laugh, but I know speaking for most of us, I would rather die as a human being than continue living as a freak."
One of the first films made about the controversial topic. The movie displays the beginning of the virus in the Congo as well as the transition to California and the many lives and relationships that were impacted it because of it. The film follows a doctor who is actively working to understand the virus let alone cure it, as well as shows the governments lack of intervention and how the San Francisco community was divided on the topic. A film important in its time considering HIV AIDS was still extremely relevant in the 1990's.
Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws, Gay San Francisco
Photographer: Thomas Alleman
One of the more livelier and upbeat pictures from the 1980's HIV AIDS epidemic protests photographed by Thomas Alleman. It shows more of the light hearted side of the demonstrations as well as the outright flamboyance and pride many men and women took in their sexual orientation status. People were proud to be gay in San Francisco during this time and not even a virus killing dozens of their friends could ultimately distinguish their spirit.
ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEWS
When: May 4, 2017
At 5:30 Washington DC time, 2:30 California time
Interviewee: Paul Langlotz
Lara Jacobson: What was your reaction to this disease?
Paul Langlotz: Well, first it was fear, I mean I wanted to hide. In 1982 I moved from San Francisco to LA when I was an actor, because AIDS was happening and homophobia was on the rise again, I kind of went into the closet again. I was actively sexual on a very down low bases, but it was freaky, no one knew what was what going on and I assumed I was infected because by 1985, they finally developed the blood test for it so in '85 people started getting tested and finding out they had antibiotics for HIV, and I wouldn't get test, I actually did not get tested until 1991, because I was just sure I was infected. So I was afraid. And then as people started dying, I mean I was young, I was only in my, by then I was just in my very early 30's mid 30's and everyone was sick. It was just, everyone I thought I was going to grow old with was getting sick and beginning to die.
Lara Jacobson: What was your knowledge about the epidemic and what did you do to inform yourself more about it?
Paul Langlotz: You know, for me I didn't know anything. I only knew what I read in the newspapers because I was isolating myself from the community at that point and it wasn't until 1988 that I, one of my closest friends died and another one and within two months he was dead, he died in my arms and he, I was writing, and I had just written my first screen play and I was with my co-writer and we were discussing going forward with this movie, and all of a sudden I got a phone call from some friends of his and he was locked in the bathroom, he had uncontrollable diarrhea and he would not come out unless I would come over and help, he misconstrued that person who would be there to help him. And it changed my whole life. That phone call changed my life. I went over, literally cleaned him up, hosed him down, he was covered in shit, very sick very feverish and brought him to UCLA medical center emergency room and luckily the nurse there was so smart, she knew her shit. UCLA was where Dr. Godly, the founder of HIV, the one who discovered HIV existed worked at UCLA, so UCLA was right up on it and she was pregnant, literally eight months pregnant and I said "Oh my friend has HIV", I said AIDS at the time, "Oh my friends got AIDS you should be careful" she goes, "You know what, you can't get AIDS casually, I know what to do, don't worry, I'll take care of your friend," and she was great and that started really my education with that nurse in that emergency room.
Lara Jacobson: Do you believe that AIDS affected the LGBTQ+ community more than other minorities? If yes, how so?
Paul Langlotz: Well in the United States it did. Because in the United States it was 80 some odd percent, 88% directed at the gay male community so it did impact us really dramatically, it did impact some minority communities really dramatically, especially some minority communities that were already steeped in homophobia because a lot of people didn't want to know what was going on because they were so in the closest or so underground that they didn't really learn about safe sex and they wouldn't deal with safer sex, so a lot of minority communities were becoming infected still sleeping with women and infecting their women partners without anyone knowing what was going on. So we found a huge rise of HIV in the African American community and the Latino community because people weren't talking about sex, much less sex with HIV and AIDS. So yes it disproportionally impacted the gay male community, but within that community, it disproportionally even worse impacted communities of color because no one was reaching out to them. Now pushy gay white men, we demanded our rights and we demanded medication, and we demanded beds, and hospitals and hospices, right? Other communities did not have that privilege, so you know, so gay white men had a lot of privilege and they used it, they cashed in.
Lara Jacobson: Looking back, do you think the LGBTQ+ community became stronger because of this epidemic despite all the deaths and horrors the illness brought?
Paul Langlotz: You know I have mixed feelings about that. Um yes. Overall I would say yes because those that lived became really stronger. Um, but it really hurt us for along time because people blamed us for this virus that was going around that no one knew anything about, we didn't even know it existed so we got a lot of shit, heaped on us for first of all, being sinners, getting this disease that people called, "The Wrath of God" and "retribution" and people were listen, people were kicked out of their families, like they were isolated and abandoned, and left to die in foreign cities all alone and stuff like that so it was hard, but like I said, I'm 64 years old now so I've grown up and I'm pretty tough, so yes, it was, we all came out of it stronger but the interesting thing is the younger gay community really doesn't know its history, and really doesn't understand how horrifying it was when the AIDS medication came out. So yeah we are stronger but the newer generations, a lot of them don't really get it.
These quotes shed light on my topic because through Mr. Langlotz answers, his personal experiences tell a very eye opening and relevant story that strongly connects with the AIDS epidemic. His words are a reflection of the time and the overall sentiment people felt in the 1980's. He explains his terror and lack of knowledge of the disease which was typical for there is always fear of the unknown and that essentially is what the AIDS disease was. It was a virus that primarily affected a certain demographic of people and no one knew why or how. Additionally I wanted to make sure I fit a question in the interview that focused on other minorities besides the LGBTQ+ community and within his answer, I could tell that he had a realization of the privilege he did have during this time. His response made it clear that there are multiple layers of oppression and it's not always one group being attacked, some have it worse than others. Lastly, I wanted to know his opinion of today's current political and social climate in terms of these ethical issues minorities regularly face. He feels as though the younger generations aren't as aware of the difficult history the LGBTQ+ community has faced, especially regarding the AIDS epidemic, thus proving that LGBTQ+ studies that are now being implemented in schools are more important than ever. Individuals who represent their greater communities have important stories to tell, and although they may have been silenced in the past, we are moving towards a world that is beginning to want to listen to these voices.
This interview provides a people's history perspective because it comes directly from someone who experienced first hand the AIDS epidemic and all the backlash the LGBTQ+ community received. I do not believe I could have interviewed a better individual, his bluntness, knowledge, and involvement brought life and perspective to my topic. Although I had to contact numerous people in order to get some kind of interview going, I would not have had the same experience or outcome if I were to have talked with a straight male or female who was simply just around during this time. Paul Langlotz was as involved as one could be, all of his friends died but on the other hand, his close colleagues were also the ones to stitch together and create the rainbow flag which has become a symbol for the LGBTQ+ community. He witnessed some of his dearest friends die yet that did not extinguish the flame inside of him to protest, demonstrate, and be a part of organizations fighting for rights and a cure. Paul's oral history interview is truly a testament to the 1980's AIDS epidemic, and being a gay man who lived in San Francisco during this time, it is a miracle that he made it out of the city alive and could share his story with me.
One way the interview challenges dominant narratives is because there simply isn't that many living gay males from this time around so the fact that I got to interview one of the few was a rare opportunity. Thousands were swept away from the epidemic because there were no antibiotics available until fives years after AIDS was discovered. This means those who are still around to talk about it today, are most likely individuals who didn't have the disease but instead had close relations with people who did, like Paul. Despite not having AIDS himself, his account of the time and what the social and political environment was like clearly displayed what life was like for the LGBTQ+ community during the outbreak. His memories showed sorrow, grief, anger, loss, but also empowerment. In the second to last transcription, he says, "I'm 64 years old now so I've grown up and I'm pretty tough, so yes, it was, we all came out of it stronger..." Although it is typically the "winning" side of history that usually dominates the work published after the occurrence, in this case, Paul is still not on the winning side. He may have avoided the disease but the number of losses he spoke about clearly shows that he suffered all the same. His experience and stories challenge the dominant narrative especially because those writing about this epidemic were probably straight, white individuals who stayed as far away as possible from those infected, thus only being able to publish work on the topic from the point of view of an outsider.
Why Social Justice Teaching?
While conducting my research for the California History Project, I found the most moving artifacts I came across besides the oral interview, were the photographs taken during the time of the AIDS epidemic. I discovered the subject matter of the pictures ranged significantly, some captured pain, sorrow, and loss, while others considered the more vibrant side of San Francisco in the 1980’s such as the parades and nightlife. Although my project centered on a specific time period and location, I wanted my artifact to be a compilation of the past and now, men and women, gay and straight, white and colored, U.S. and abroad. The reasoning behind this is because even though the AIDS pandemic may have been revolutionary for San Francisco, it is a disease that has the ability to hurt everyone well beyond the borders of the United States and that needs to be shown too. I incorporated photographs of people from Ukraine and Tijuana while also adding in a map of Africa that displays just how severe the disease has hit there, much more so than in the United States in recent years. I included pictures of men embracing one another for it shows the reliance people had on each other during this time, especially in the gay community, it was everyone else against them. Additionally, I included photos that capture the ignorance of the time such as sign on the left side of the collage stating, "AIDS is God's Curse on a Homosexual Life" and the poster on the right that says, "You Won't Get AIDS From A Public Pool." Both of these remarks display the negative stigma that surrounded the disease such as the idea that it was God's way of punishing people who are gay or the concept that AIDS was easily transferred by being in the same pool as another. Of course today, because of increased acceptance and respect for the LGBTQ+ community as well as expanded knowledge on the disease, these beliefs have been refuted. Lastly, I added in a quote from my interview with Paul Langlotz that was particularly insightful and shows the depth and complexity of the disease. The LGBTQ+ community was the most affected at the time by this disease but within that group there was even more oppression against African Americans and Latinos.
The question then remains, "Why Social Justice Teaching?" As schools begin to incorporate LGBTQ+ studies into their curriculum, I thought this topic was more prevalent than ever. Within the AIDS history of San Francisco, there were so many injustices amongst the gay and trans community. They received zero support from the government until many years after the disease broke out. A lack of federal aid combined with the hate they received from their communities meant those with AIDS were primarily on their own. As a result, people who identified as LGBTQ+ grew closer and supported one another; they had to in order to survive. The history of the LGBTQ+ community is so rich, they have experienced many losses in multiple ways but their current advances such as legalizing marriage and the implementation of gender-neutral bathrooms show there is progress being made. These people's voices have been ignored and neglected from the moment they identified as LGBTQ+, but recently, people are beginning to listen. As future educators we need to take advantage of this new sentiment people are expressing. We have the opportunity to change the way those who have typically viewed these oppressed individuals. We live in an age where it is okay to be different, and in fact those differences are celebrated. There will always be outside factors trying to impede this progress, but by being on the frontline of social change as a teacher, we have the potential to resurface these voices and events while instilling the importance of social justice in our students.
It is the hidden and untold stories that are often the most important ones to share. Particularly within the LGBTQ+ community, this epidemic was monumental in their past history, especially in the United States. Every minority ever has had an oppressive past, but each one differs from the next. In a world dominated by white, male, and straight individuals, it is vital to expose students to histories that encompass peoples who don't always share those three characteristics. It is the voices of the oppressed minorities that we have to expose for although they have increased stature now, we need not forget the steps they had to endure to get where they are today. Social justice will never not have prominence in the classroom for there will always be groups struggling in our complex, social world because they identify in a way that differs from the norm. It is vital that we expose these histories to our students constantly and consistently no matter the subject or grade level. There always will be opportunity to incorporate social justice studies into any lesson plan. Yes, teaching quadratic formulas and the difference between metaphors and similes is important, but these mean nothing if students are unable to apply this knowledge to the outside world because society does not equally value contributions from the gay, colored, disabled, female, or underprivileged populations compared to other traditionally respected communities. Social justice is about acknowledging, reflecting, and appreciating everyone's voices no matter identity, and this idea starts in the classroom and stems from the teacher.