Commemorating a historic week of queer activism

Jul 14, 2015

 

Pink Saturday is a huge street party that takes place every year on the night before the San Francisco Pride Parade. Thousands of people from all over the Bay Area and the country come out to dance in the streets of the city’s Castro District. But how many know the history behind the celebration?

 

 

The first Pink Saturday was held in June of 1990, when a coalition of AIDS activists held a march through San Francisco that ended with a big, impromptu street party. The march was one of the last events of a full week of protests in the city. 25 years later, that week of historic queer activism still echoes today.

 

Every Seven Minutes

 

About 80 people have gathered in a big, sunlit meeting room at the Women's Building in San Francisco for a memorial. Photos of young men and women hang on the walls.  

 

Among those waiting for the memorial to start is Jonathan Winters. He lost his partner, Michael Spane, in June of 1990 when Spane was only 30 years old. Also in the crowd is Carolyn Helmke, here to commemorate a couple of her close friends David Stern and Hank Willson.

 

“I’m just kind of remembering all these people who died and didn’t need to die,” Helmke says.

 

Gary Noruega tells me that his main reason for coming was for one of his earliest loves, John Casey. Noruega points toward the long line of photographs. “I put his photo on the wall," he says. “I remember him everyday."

Noruega, Helmke and Winters came today to remember loved ones they lost to AIDS. The people here -- those on the walls and those here in person -- were all activists who fought together during the height of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco.

 

Along with the pictures on the wall is a big banner that reads: “Every Seven Minutes Someone Dies of AIDS.” That statement was true in June of 1990, when the banner was created and used in a historic week of protests at the Sixth International AIDS Conference. The conference brought the world's leading doctors and researchers to San Francisco; thousands of AIDS activists also showed up. 

 

One of them was Ingrid Nelson. She had just graduated from college at the time and joined up with activists who had traveled from all over the world to be there. "It all felt like a bigger scale, like something new was happening," Nelson says.

 

Act up, Fight back, Fight AIDS

 

Nelson was part of the activist group ACT UP: AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power.  They had some bold new tactics to get people to listen: They performed street theater about AIDS and staged die-ins. The die-ins would start with a siren going off, signaling for the protestors to lie down in the streets, when another person would draw chalk outlines around them. The painted images left on the ground symbolized the bodies of people who died of AIDS. At protest after protest, ACT UP activists chanted slogans like: “People with AIDS, under attack; What do we do? Act up! Fight back!” and “Act up! Fight back! Fight AIDS!”  

The disease had killed nearly 100,000 people in the U.S. at that point, but no effective treatments were available. Activists felt a new urgency. All around them people were dying, but no one seemed to care.

 

A Milestone

Queer historian Gerard Koskovich considers the protests at the Sixth International AIDS Conference a milestone in LGBTQ History. It marked a shift in the tactics and goals of queer activism. The gay community in San Francisco was at first grief-stricken and scared, but as it became clear that more and more people were dying and very little was being done, that reaction began to shift toward rage. And that rage was instrumentalized into direct action.

Part of the activists' anger was about the location of the conference. The United States government had banned anyone with HIV from entering the country, yet the International AIDS Society refused demands from activists to move it to a country where people with AIDS could come.

 

"So the conference itself was an outrage. It was here in the US where travelers, immigrants, and undocumented people where in the United States were targeted for expulsion," says Koskovich.

The AIDS activists were also fed up with the way they were treated by the medical scientific community. From their perspective, the people with AIDS were the experts and they needed to attending the conference, free of charge. Furthermore, they needed to be bringing their wisdom, their knowledge and their priorities about how research should go and not, as Koskovich says, “be treated as laboratory rats." 

Several people with HIV/AIDS attempted to enter the Moscone Center on the last day of the conference but were prevented by police. Ingrid Nelson remembers people with t-shirts saying they were a person with AIDS went over the barricades and were pushed back down by police.  

 

“We thought that was really important visual symbolism that here are people with AIDS trying to enter a scientific meeting about them and they are being smacked down and being told you can’t go in,” Nelson says.

Legacy of the Protests

Many of those activists did not live to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the conference protests. AIDS has taken over 660,000 lives in the US since the first outbreak, according to the Center for Disease Control.

 

Nelson has continued her social justice work to this day. She is a health care provider and takes care of people with HIV/AIDS, and considers her work as her activism now. Nelson says she sees the successes of AIDS activism in the 9'0s benefiting everyone, regardless of HIV status.

“Anytime a person goes to see their healthcare provider with a list of questions and says, ‘Here’s what I read about and here’s the questions I have about the medication you want to give me and here’s my opinion on what I think we should do’ and that is viewed as a participatory relationship -- I think ACT UP had so much to do with that. The idea of patients participating in their own healthcare.”

Historian Gerard Koskovich sees the legacy of ACT UP and the protests of 1990 living on in current political movements, like Black Lives Matter and Occupy, that bring together diverse coalitions.

Koskovich claims that there was a kind of intersectionality in AIDS activism, before the word was even invented: "ACT UP San Francisco was very focused on all the people affected by AIDS, not just gay men. There were working groups on immigrant rights, there were working groups on prisoners, there were working groups on women with AIDS."

 

Koskovich’s description of the queer activists of the '90s -- drawing attention to everyday injustices by disrupting “business as usual”--  sounds similar to a lot of young activists today.  

 

He believes that these movements spur up when there is "a critical mass of people for whom the amount of oppression crosses with the degree of consciousness, self-possession and more asserted self-respect, and people finally say: ‘Nothing’s going to change until we make it really inconvenient not to change things'".

The activists of June of 1990 stood on the shoulders of previous movements that had pressed for change -- civil rights, ethnic studies, feminism and others. They've left behind a clear blueprint for a new generation of activists to build on.