Heroic in the face of stigma

Mike Shriver has been living with HIV for 32 years. His diagnosis has survived five mayoral administrations, two high-pressure years doing AIDS prevention and policy work in Washington, D.C., and death threats from haters. His physical and mental health have taken a toll, and his faith has been tested.

But he’s doing just fine.

“I really am the luckiest man alive,” he said. “I’m very privileged and I know it and I don’t ever forget how lucky I am.”

When Shriver began advocating for AIDS treatment in the 1990s, at the epidemic’s peak, one in 25 San Franciscans were said to have HIV and one in 50 had an AIDS diagnosis. Comparatively, HIV infections and deaths in The City today are at their lowest rate in decades, thanks to advancements in treatment and prevention and the work of Shriver and his cohorts fighting for funding and a cure.

After a sabbatical to tend to his own health issues, including diabetes and Hepatitis C, Shriver has returned to advocacy — as co-chair of the city and county’s HIV Community Planning Council and as a steering committee member of Getting To Zero SF, working to reduce HIV transmission and deaths by 2020. His hiatus helped him achieve a new level of physical wellness and a deeper awareness of what personal balance and recovery from grief and trauma look like.

“I’m no longer so self-destructive,” he said, referring to his former lifestyle that put community work first and his own health second. “Workaholism is the most socially acceptable and rewarded addiction.”

Shriver’s experience translates for anyone who is working long hours and passionate about their job, whether in the public or private sector, nonprofit or high tech. Part of his wellness regime includes giving back: He volunteers with the Castro Country Club, a clean and sober community in the heart of the district’s bar scene, and at the National AIDS Memorial Grove, a 10-acre contemplative space on the southeast end of Golden Gate Park, where he serves on the board as chair.

The National AIDS Memorial was conceived by community members in the 1980s and began its transformation in the ’90s, from a rough patch in the park to a national memorial dedicated by President Bill Clinton.

“Mike’s skillfully lead us through the biggest changes to the organization ever,” said Carlin Holden, a fellow board member and 25-year volunteer at the grove. “He keeps us on point with a light touch and humor as we reach our serious goals.” Among the events staged in the Grove’s spectacular outdoor setting is the annual World AIDS Day gala.

“I think for those of the generation who lived in The City through the epidemic, there was a collective nervous breakdown that happened that was not only understandable but deserved,” Shriver said. “I was stoic throughout it. I worked. And I worked. You can only sustain that for so long and something’s gotta give. Sadly what gave was … everything.”

Mike Shriver leans against the National AIDS Memorial Grove’s large memorial boulder in Golden Gate Park on Wednesday. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

A native of Los Angeles, raised in Florida among five kids in a poor family, Shriver arrived in the Bay Area in 1985, a Notre Dame graduate with high hopes toward making the world a better place. He’d thrown his hat in with the Brothers of Holy Cross, to work on the Sanctuary Movement and to teach Catholic school kids in West Oakland.

“It was the most amazing year of my life,” he said, recalling his term as creative writing instructor, gym teacher and disciplinary dean. “I told them, if they were good, we could go on a field trip to San Francisco.” His idea of fun was a BART ride across the Bay, where he and the kids would join Central Americans seeking sanctuary on the steps of the Federal Building.

“As we exited the BART station at Civic Center with our signs, an encampment of men asked what we were doing, and when they heard we were going to support the people of El Salvador, they crawled out of their tents to give the students a standing ovation,” he recalled. “It made the kids feel like heroes.”

Shriver learned later the encampment was the ARC/AIDS vigil, the 10-year and longest running act of civil disobedience to take place on federal property, organized by homeless and low-income, uninsured men infected with the virus. A few years later, Shriver would participate in similar events as a member of ACT UP, the radical direct action group that triumphantly led the movement for legislation to fund AIDS research and treatment.

At the time of his field trip, however, Shriver had not yet been infected with HIV, nor had he declared himself gay, though he was certainly aware of the greater community of San Franciscans living proud while grappling with the new reality of the virus and its connection to AIDS. Having fulfilled his year of teaching, he returned to seminary.

“And then the Vatican order of 1986 came, calling homosexuality an ‘intrinsic moral evil,’” he said. The glee with which some of his brothers received the news troubled him and it called into question his desire to pursue the priesthood.

“I didn’t think being gay was bad, because I’d had a year of being around gay men in San Francisco and it was remarkable,” he said. He counseled with an advisor, and it was decided he would deal with his front burner concern: not homosexuality, but excessive drinking.

“They found a recovery place and helped me,” he said. “They got me sober and it changed my life. I’ll always be grateful for that.”

Returning to Berkeley, again to work within the Sanctuary Movement and on his recovery, Shriver met his first boyfriend and fell in love. “And I realized, I’m still in the seminary, in an institution that really doesn’t care for me,” he recalled. This time he was advised to attempt the novitiate, the period of solitude before taking vows.

“I lasted a month,” Shriver said smiling, “and in September of 1987, I left the seminary. I left Catholicism (he has since converted to Judaism) and inherited a pretty big debt for graduate school with no job and no skills. And I became a Kelly Girl,” a temp worker.

Mike Shriver gestures toward his own name in National AIDS Memorial Grove’s Circle of Friends. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Eventually, he landed a nonprofit job teaching developmentally disabled adults, which set him on his career course and life in the Castro. “I was infected with HIV in ’86, tested positive in ’89 and by ’93, I was running Mobilization Against AIDS, which helped support the ARC/AIDS vigil and the AIDS Dance-A-Thon,” he said. “And I became completely, utterly and totally involved in public policy,”

Mayor Art Agnos appointed Shriver as one of the community leaders to the very first Ryan White Council. Then, it was on to D.C. to help lobby for the Ryan White CARE Act. “I had to learn how the House worked, how the Senate worked, how the budget and appropriations process worked,” he said. “I learned to train people so we could create constituent advocates — supporters, infected people, providers — bring them to D.C. to lobby members of Congress.”

Appointed to the Health Commission by Mayor Frank Jordan in 1993, Shriver was the youngest person ever to serve in that post.

His HIV prevention work at the federal level was fulfilling, frenetic and disruptive all at once; it is arguably his greatest legacy and yet, “What went by the wayside was my relationship here, my mental health and my recovery,” he said. “I’d become a San Franciscan. I wanted to come back.”

Returning with a new partner, he worked at UC San Francisco in policy research and served as special advisor, AIDS czar, under Mayor Willie Brown. He discovered photography, turned out to have a talent for it and was learning to relax. But unresolved issues resurfaced.

“My friends are dying, and I’m not … my whole crew with whom I’d taken the same HIV drugs which weren’t working for us, were dead and I’m not,” he said. Shriver was suffering from complications from Hep C, likely contracted during a tattooing in 1981, which meant a rigorous course of Interferon treatment, with brutal side effects. He was also in relapse from chemical dependency. And then, the death threats.

“In my career doing public policy, no one had ever called me at home. It was terrifying. They threatened to kill my dog,” he said. One of the issues driving the hate was needle exchange.

“When we first started doing it here in The City, there was no data to support intervention. It looked like enabling behavior,” explained Shriver, likening the struggle for clean needles then to today’s fight for safe injection sites. “We took a huge risk by saying yes to needle exchange and, by 1994, we had the largest program in the country, the support of the Board of Supervisors, the Health Commission, the Mayor’s Office and the community, and we crippled the epidemic for injection drug users,” he said.

“Public health interventions for folks who use drugs and alcohol is long overdue. We can’t use the same metric as we used in ’89 in 2018, but being safe, healthy and housed is a basic human right,” he said. “It’s our job as public health advocates to reduce threat, whether it’s gun violence or battering. Public health data says safe injection is the right thing to do.”

In 2016, Shriver earned the Lifetime Achievement Award and was Community Grand Marshal at the annual Pride Parade, alongside Alicia Garza, co-creator of Black Lives Matter. Recently, a student touring the National AIDS Memorial Grove asked him if there was a connection between the work done by ACT UP and that of Black Lives Matter. Shriver said he answered by explaining it’s a continuum, from abolition and suffrage to the present.

“I’m paraphrasing something I heard Garza say, but if you can create a public health and justice system that can support a black trans woman, then that is when we will have a system of equality,” he said. So where does that leave society’s last outcasts, the street-dwelling, HIV positive/IV drug users?

“We stand on the precipice of breaking the back of HIV. These last 200 infections in The City are the hardest to eliminate,” explained Shriver, because transmission is at street level. “We haven’t created the right system to reach these folks yet, but it looks like we’re going to see the elimination of the HIV virus in my lifetime.”

Denise Sullivan is an author, cultural worker and editor of “Your Golden Sun Still Shines: San Francisco Personal Histories & Small Fictions.” Follow her at www.denisesullivan.com and on Twitter @4DeniseSullivan.