“They Were Really Us”: The UCSF Community’s Early Response to AIDS — A New Exhibition on Calisphere

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By Polina Ilieva, Head of Archives and Special Collections

When HIV/AIDS first seized the nation’s attention in the early 1980s, it was a disease with no name, known cause, treatment, or cure. Beginning as a medical mystery, it turned into one of the most divisive social and political issues of the 20th century. The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) was at the forefront of medical institutions trying to understand the disease and effectively treat early AIDS patients.

Drawing on materials from the AIDS History Project collections preserved in UCSF’s Archives and Special Collections, the UCSF Library presents “They Were Really Us”: The UCSF Community’s Early Response to AIDS, a new digital exhibition on Calisphere that highlights the ways UCSF clinicians and staff addressed HIV/AIDS from its outbreak in the 1980s to the foundation of the AIDS Research Institute in 1996. 

From medical professionals defining the disease and developing a model of care, to activists calling for treatments and public education, this exhibition amplifies the resilience of a community not only responding to its local needs, but also breaking ground on a larger scale with efforts that continue to impact HIV/AIDS care and research today. 

The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt panels displayed at San Francisco City Hall during San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Freedom Day Parade, UCSF Library, Archives and Special Collections.

About UCSF Archives and Special Collections

UCSF Archives and Special Collections identifies, collects, preserves, and maintains rare and unique materials to support research and teaching of the health sciences and medical humanities and to preserve UCSF institutional memory. The Archives serve as the official repository for the preservation of selected records, print and born-digital materials, and realia generated by or about the UCSF, including all four schools, the Graduate Division, and the UCSF Medical Center.

The Special Collections encompasses a Rare Book Collection that includes incunabula, early printed works, and modern secondary works. The East Asian Collection is especially strong in works related to the history of Western medicine in Japan.The Japanese Woodblock Print Collection consists of 400 prints and 100 scrolls, dating from 16th to the 20th century. The Special Collections also contains papers of health care providers and researchers from San Francisco and California; historical records of UCSF hospitals; administrative records of regional health institutions; photographs and slides; motion picture films and videotapes; and oral histories focusing on development of biotechnology; the practice and science of medicine; healthcare delivery, economics, and administration; tobacco control; anesthesiology;  homeopathy and alternative medicine; obstetrics and gynecology; high altitude physiology; occupational medicine; HIV/AIDS and global health.

About Calisphere

Calisphere provides free access to California’s remarkable digital collections, which include unique and historically important artifacts from the University of California and other educational and cultural heritage institutions across the state. Calisphere provides digital access to over one million photographs, documents, letters, artwork, diaries, oral histories, films, advertisements, musical recordings, and more.
Calisphere Exhibitions are curated sets of items with scholarly interpretation that contribute to historical understanding. Exhibitions tell a story by adding context to selected digital primary sources in Calisphere, thereby bringing the digital content to life. Calisphere Exhibitions are curated by contributing institutions and undergo editorial review. We are currently refining these processes, which are outlined in the Contributor Help Center. Please contact us if you’re interested in learning more about Calisphere Exhibitions.

California Digital Library profiles AIDS History Project

Through its newsletter CDL “highlights new collections on Calisphere that feature community voices and stories. These collections are made available in close collaboration with local community members and broaden our worldview through the diverse narratives and myriad perspectives that resonate in the collections.

Spotlight on the AIDS History Project

The UCSF Archives & Special Collections was a pioneering repository that collected materials documenting the HIV/AIDS epidemic, one of the most significant public-health events of the late twentieth century and an ongoing challenge throughout the world. 

The AIDS History Project (AHP) began in 1987 as a joint effort of historians, archivists, AIDS activists, health care providers, and others to secure historically significant resources reflecting responses to the crisis in San Francisco. Starting in 1991, the Archives received several grants from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) to fund the survey, acquisition, arrangement, and description of carefully selected records from numerous San Francisco-based agencies and organizations whose work focused on the AIDS crisis.” Continue reading: https://cdlib.org/cdlinfo/2019/10/30/diverse-narratives-and-myriad-perspectives-new-collections-on-calisphere/

Sue Rochman Papers

This is a post from intern Harold Hardin, working on the NEH grant-funded project The San Francisco Bay Area’s Response to the AIDS Epidemic.

Sue Rochman papers, GLBTHS 2005-13 miscellaneous research papers
Sue Rochman papers, GLBTHS 2005-13 miscellaneous research papers

The Sue Rochman Papers (Collection 2005-13 at the GLBT Historical Society) contain critical information regarding the systematic oppression of incarcerated people living with HIV/AIDS in the first decade of the epidemic. The collection at just over 350 pages consists of interviews, newspaper clippings, and often most compellingly, correspondence from incarcerated people living with HIV/AIDS. Given the ongoing wave of HIV criminalization (a recent famous example being the case of Michael Johnson, who, incidentally, was released this month after spending five-years of a thirty-year sentence in Missouri, for allegedly seroconverting several partners with HIV without revealing his HIV-positive status) Micheal Johnson and Greg’s Smith’s cases  among others were rallying cries for HIV/AIDS activists bringing to our collective attention the ongoing histories of HIV criminalization. It is particularly important to look back at the particular ways in which this stigmatization of people living with HIV/AIDS began within the prison system and consider an early case of which the Sue Rochman Papers document. In this way, we can further contextualize our current historical moment in regards to the continuing criminalization of people living with HIV/AIDS–particularly the ways in which black gay men are overwhelmingly impacted by this deleterious trend.
            The correspondence between Ms. Rochman and various incarcerated people in several different prison locations (Attica prison in New York, Chino prison in California among others) echo similar findings. The correspondence notes the systematic way in which prison officials valued “security” to the detriment of the lives of incarcerated people living with HIV/AIDS. Confidentiality rights regarding seroconversion status were routinely trampled and ignored at the behest of prison officials. There was little to no basic health information regarding the spread of the disease. Incarcerated people with HIV/AIDS were often isolated in poor conditions, with little medical attention by qualified specialists in HIV/AIDS. The widespread abuse of incarcerated people with HIV/AIDS by prison guards themselves was also well documented. Having the disease in prison not only meant living in such conditions but additionally meant being socially ostracized through officially sanctioned segregation–barred from participation in vocational programs, college classes, and not allowed to have family visits. A jail in Fort Worth, Texas went as far as mandating LGB incarcerated populations wear colored wrist bands to identify their sexual orientation from afar. From such systematic forms of discrimination it is unsurprising then that HIV criminalization was birthed in such an environment.
            The Rochman papers document the case of Greg Smith who in 1990 was convicted of attempted murder, assault and terroristic threats. Charges were filed after he allegedly bit and spat on a guard in a New Jersey jail in 1989. He maintained his innocence throughout the trial famously saying after his sentence was read, ‘I never bit an officer, and I’ll say that until the day I die. I may die in the next year or two, but I’ll die proud. I told the truth.” His case was taken up by ACLU via ACT UP prison-activist Judy Greenspan and a significant amount of Rochman papers covers Greenspan’s media campaign and legal filings. Smith, who ultimately died in prison in 2003, was an ACT UP activist, black and gay. His case is viewed  as an early example of the compounding effects of race, class, sexual orientation and HIV status-indeed of HIV criminalization.