A fascinating exhibition at the San Francisco Public Library looks back at the AIDS crisis of three decades ago and the effective and spirited activism it sparked.
The show revisits June 1990, when activists took to the streets of San Francisco and disrupted the sixth International Conference on AIDS to call for better treatment and services for people with AIDS and HIV.
Continuing in the Main Library’s Skylight Gallery through Oct. 9, “When the Conference Heard From the Street: Scenes From the Sixth International Conference on AIDS, 1990,” documents those protests and captures the Bay Area tradition of social and political activism.
On view are dozens of photographs taken by Rick Gerharter, a San Francisco photojournalist who has been documenting LGBTQ communities for more than 30 years. Gerharter was in the streets and inside the conference hall with members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power and other demonstrators in 1990.
The show also includes text by journalists Liz Highleyman and Tim Kingston, who have long written about public-health and other social issues, as well commentary from participants and memorabilia from the era.
In 1990, about 1 million people in the United States and 10 million people worldwide were living with HIV, a virus with horrifyingly low survival rates at the time. More than 100,000 people had died of AIDS in this country since the first cases of the then-unnamed immunodeficiency syndrome were reported about a decade earlier; those most vulnerable included gay and bisexual men, transgender people, sex workers, intravenous-drug users, and people of color.
It’s hard not to think of Donald Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis when one considers the Reagan administration’s inadequate leadership on AIDS. Ronald Reagan didn’t even publicly mention AIDS until 1985, let alone talk about preventive practices, like safe sex, or a plan for combating the virus and helping those infected with it.
While effective drugs for the disease are now available, the AIDS-fighting drugs of 30 years ago were limited almost entirely to AZT, which could prolong but not save lives, and had severe side effects.
People with AIDS were often treated neglectfully and inhumanely by society, the health-care system and even their families.
The activism in San Francisco’s gay community and elsewhere in The City, the Bay Area and the nation during the crisis years of AIDS has been widely credited with helping to spur the advances made in AIDS care and treatment.
Gerharter’s images in the show illustrate that action.
In one scene, ACT-UP protesters use air horns to disrupt the keynote speech of Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan during the conference’s closing session, at Moscone Center.
Another scene shows ACT-UP/San Francisco taking part in the Unity March, an effort to bring activists, public-health workers and scientists and researchers together in solidarity. In a related picture, City Hall staff members cheer the marchers as they pass by.
Female activists, meanwhile, tangle themselves in red paper chains to draw attention to the red tape and sexism experienced by women with HIV/AIDS.
The protesters also addressed homophobia, racism, sex-worker rights and anti-immigrant legislation.
Among the interesting and sometimes fun memorabilia in show are newspaper articles, T-shirts, “Silence = Death” posters, ACT-UP media materials and a dress worn by activist Carol Leigh, aka Scarlot Harlot.
The exhibition was scheduled to run last year, when the 2020 International AIDS Conference was slated to take place in San Francisco and Oakland, but postponed due to the pandemic.
IF YOU GO
When the Conference Heard From the Street: Scenes From the Sixth International Conference on AIDS, 1990
Where: Main Library, Skylight Gallery, sixth floor, 100 Larkin St., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays; noon to 5:30 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 9
Contact: (415) 557-4400, sfpl.org