They Were Really Us, AIDS History Exhibit, Opens on October 1

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This is a guest post by exhibit curator Sabrina Oliveros 

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.

On October 1, 2019, UCSF Archives & Special Collections is opening the exhibit They Were Really Us: The UCSF Community’s Early Response to AIDS. Featuring materials from the Archives’ extensive AIDS History Project Collections, the show highlights ways individual professionals affiliated with UCSF acted to address HIV/AIDS following its outbreak. Their responses included working in and with the larger San Francisco community – and continue to impact HIV/AIDS care and research today.

The exhibit title comes from a statement by Dr. Paul Volberding, who co-founded the country’s first dedicated AIDS Clinic in 1983; he now serves as the Director of UCSF’s AIDS Research Institute:

“The patients were exactly our age… all those other ways that we tend to separate ourselves meant very little when you realize that the patients had gone to the same schools, they listened to the same music, they went to the same restaurants. So they were really us… which added to the commitment that I think all of us had.”

Early milestones

The first proofs of that commitment are traced through displays on the main lobby (third floor) of the UCSF Library.

Here, papers, slides, photographs, and artifacts help outline early milestones in HIV/AIDS research and care. These include the foundation of the Kaposi’s Sarcoma Clinic at UCSF, which sought to understand the mysterious “cancer” that turned out to be AIDS; the discovery of the HIV virus in 1983 by Dr. Jay Levy; the establishment of the outpatient and inpatient AIDS clinics at San Francisco General Hospital; and the development of the holistic San Francisco Model of AIDS Care.

Pioneering and compassionate, this model treated people with AIDS not simply as patients requiring medical attention, but as complex individuals also in need of psychological, social, economic, and political support.

Excerpts from the diary of Bobbi Campbell – a UCSF nursing student who championed the People With AIDS Self-Empowerment Movement – help tell some of these individual stories. So do a selection of newsletters and other materials that lend voices to persons with AIDS.

A loaned section of the AIDS Memorial Quilt caps off the displays.

Community voices

The outbreak of HIV/AIDS devastated the city of San Francisco; it also mobilized the community. Exhibits on the first floor of the library showcase the work done by community organizations that, beyond the medical front, fought HIV/AIDS.

Reproductions of posters – mostly from UCSF’s longest-running partners, the San Francisco AIDS Foundation and the Shanti Project – represent outreach and educational campaigns necessary to combat the disease. Materials from Mobilization Against AIDS and the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT-UP) speak to the political battle that AIDS became.

How much of an impact did these advocacy groups make? A selection of letters, written to the leaders of Mobilization Against AIDS and AIDS Treatment News, offer an idea.  

Continuing care

On the fifth floor of the library, displays touch on two more milestones following the 1980s.

The first, UCSF’s sponsoring of the 6th International Conference on AIDS, is one of the many examples of how physicians and researchers have expanded their work on a global scale. Revisiting this 1990 conference is timely, as the 23rd International Conference on AIDS will take place in Oakland and San Francisco in July next year – the first time the conference will be in the Bay Area in nearly three decades.

The second milestone, the founding of the AIDS Research Institute in 1996, puts a focus on the UCSF’s continuing efforts to find a cure, and end HIV/AIDS once and for all.

They Were Really Us will be on view until September 2020: https://www.library.ucsf.edu/archives/lectures-exhibits/

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.

Not Sanitized for Your Protection: Diseased Pariah News and the Political Uses of Humor

This is a guest post by intern Harold Hardin, who is working on the NEH Grant-Funded Project The Bay Area’s Response to the AIDS Epidemic.

I came across recently a sardonic, humorously bizarre little zine in the Beowulf Thorne papers (GLBT Historical Society, 2003-10) called Diseased Pariah News (DPN). DPN was a zine created during the early 90’s that used gallows humor to humorously educate/entertain mostly gay (often white) cisgender men about HIV/AIDS among other gay men’s health issues. Humor is not something I would immediately associate with AIDS/HIV. Certainly, in the popular imagination AIDS and humor couldn’t be further apart. Queer white, cis, men living with HIV/AIDS in popular media depictions are generally akin to Tom Hanks in Philadelphia: a “noble, suffering AIDS victim”.

Further, many current LGBTQ media consumers tend to shy away from LGBTQ depictions that have overt internalized homophobia/transphobia, straying away from media depictions that might seem to make light of oppressive circumstances in ways that are ultimately self- cannibalizing. Rupaul was famously castigated for having content on her show that was deemed transphobic. Lisa Lampanelli, though not queer, is known for her gallows humor and recently left show business citing, “people in their 20s and 30s weren’t getting into that [insult comedy] tradition”. I spoke to a friend on Facebook about DPN and they echoed a popularly resonant sentiment, “I really don’t like to view historical media/works of art relating to our [queer] community. Because they always carry the hint of shame, of internalized homophobia and transphobia.”

 Clearly, we are currently living through a shift in what we find humorous from particular groups of people based on their identities.  And to be honest, it shouldn’t be ok for a white, cisgender, straight, man or woman to make jokes about communities that they historically (or contemporaneously, for that matter) oppress.  But should queer people with HIV/AIDS be able to laugh at their own lived experiences? If observational comedy is about illuminating the mundane and often untintentionally humorous aspects of our everyday lives then DPN represents to me a group of queers with HIV/AIDS taking this to its’ logical conclusion: finding humor in the everyday lives of queer folx living with HIV/AIDS. Additionally, I think something is foreclosed when we as a queer community rush to quash inter-group humor that may on its surface appear aberrant.  Queer people should be able to laugh at their own lived experiences if they so desire, especially, if by laughing, we find a form of resistance while skewering social and political realities that we ultimately find empowering.