In 1981, clinicians in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco began to see patients with an unknown illness that seemingly caused a breakdown of the body’s immune system. On June 5 of that year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent out their first report, officially documenting the new disease.
Twenty-five years later, 40 million people worldwide are living with human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, best known as HIV/AIDS. One million of these cases are in the United States, according to federal health officials. Another half million — 524,060 — have died from the disease. Nearly 18,000 of these deaths were in San Francisco.
Speaking at a commemorative event held Thursday at San Francisco’s Herbst Theater, U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi said that when the rumors of the nameless “strange disease” affecting gay men first began circulating in San Francisco, “it was something that made us wonder and made some people scared.”
As the disease spread, San Francisco’s gay community rallied around the need for more information, more attention and more funding to address the emerging health crisis — as well as more money to attend to those who were sick and dying. The San Francisco AIDS Foundation was founded in 1982 in the Castro District.
“We had many, many, many funerals, sometimes two in a day,” Pelosi said. “Loved ones became like bags of bones in our arms, formerly robust young people and older people, but now weak.”
Two years later, San Francisco’s Department of Public Health made the controversial decision to close The City’s gay bathhouses. That same year, activists launched the AIDS Memorial Quilt project, now a worldwide symbol of the deadly health crisis with nearly 50,000 commemorative panels honoring those who have died.
And although the militant AIDS advocacy group ACT UP was started in New York in 1987, the San Francisco chapter brought equally outspoken attention to the group’s “silence = death” message.
In recent years, new drug therapies have extended the life of some HIV/AIDS patients, however, there is still no cure. At Thursday's event, Pelosi and San Francisco leaders, including Mayor Gavin Newsom and openly gay Supervisors Bevan Dufty and Tom Ammiano, said the health crisis still needed funds and public attention.
Newsom told the crowd that revisions in the federal Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act could result in San Francisco losing a significant portion of its funding.
“Maybe, it’s time [again] for many of those demonstrations,” Ammiano said, later in the event.