June 2010 Cover
Tony Bennett sang about leaving his heart in San Francisco in his 1962
hit song. Many a '60s hippy happily heeded Scott McKenzie's invitation
to "wear some flowers in your hair," pointing their VW bugs west in
search of love-ins, whacked weed and the freedom simply to be.
By the time the Village People sang "Go West" in 1979,
thousands of gay men already were singing along with the first track of
the costumed ones' first album, Village People, "San Francisco (You've
Got Me)." In fact, by 1980, an estimated 20 percent of the city's
335,000 registered voters were gay. It was a great time and place to be
Then disaster struck.
While the Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake caused
massive destruction and killed 3,000 people, it's an understatement to
call AIDS the largest natural disaster in San Francisco's history.
By the end of 2008, the epidemic had killed nearly 20,000
San Franciscans -- most of them gay men -- since the then-mysterious,
deadly new disease was first reported in 1981.
Men who survive call them the "dark years," when the Bay
Area Reporter, week after relentless week, ran page after page of
obituaries of young gay men.
But then, in 1998, the picture began to change. "No Obits"
read a famous headline in the BAR that year. Suddenly, combination
therapy made it possible to live with HIV rather than die from AIDS.
Today, more than 16,000 city residents are living with HIV infection.
From the beginning of the epidemic, San Francisco showed
the world what "love thy neighbor" means. And gay people led the way.
Volunteers staffed information hotlines. "Buddies" did the
grocery shopping, cleaned house and offered companionship to homebound
people with AIDS. Gay doctors and nurses provided nonjudgmental medical
care to their frightened and ill brethren.
One day in 1995, when I was in San Francisco City Hall to
do an interview for Victory Deferred, my history of how AIDS changed
gay life in America, I stopped and read the quotation under a bronze
bust of Mayor George Moscone -- who was assassinated in November 1978,
along with city supervisor and gay hero Harvey Milk. It captured what
it is that makes the city so unique.
The fallen mayor said, "San Francisco is an extraordinary
city, because its people have learned to live together with one
another, to respect each other and to work with each other for the
future of their community. That's the strength and the beauty of this
city -- and it's the reason why the citizens who live here are the
luckiest people in the world."
I was back in San Francisco in April, 15 years later,
doing interviews for a revised edition of Victory Deferred. I was
startled to hear gay men say the sense of crisis has passed, that HIV
has become "normal," a harsh fact of life but not what defines or
necessarily ends it.
On a glorious Sunday afternoon, I hiked the four miles or
so from the Haight Street end of Golden Gate Park all the way to the
I smiled and videotaped the happy '60s-like happening in
Elk Glen Meadow. Hundreds of young people danced and partied to the
thumping techno and house beats rising to the blue sky (with the clouds
of pot smoke) from the Dirty Bird dance party.
I made a point of visiting the National AIDS Memorial
Grove, the seven-acre area dedicated to all whose lives have been
affected or ended by AIDS.
Amid the lush eucalyptus, calla lilies and pine, I took a
picture of a rounded stone at Dogwood Dell engraved with the words,
"L'Chaim -- To Life." I think that's when I understood San Francisco's
After incalculable loss and innumerable tears, life in
this magical place is renewing itself -- just like the green growing
things in the Grove.
How can you not love, and leave a big part of your heart
in, San Francisco?