Remembering a Tough Time: 'We Were Here' on KQED

I've been working on a story that brings back lots of memories, lots of thoughts, about a tough subject.

It's a story about a documentary that PBS stations across the nation will air this week remembering the time of AIDS in San Francisco. Shown on the series Independent Lens, it's called We Were Here, and it recalls in simple, straightforward interviews the lives of people living in the largely-gay Castro District. The area was a Mecca for thousands of young gay men who started arriving in San Francisco in the 1970s, and who began contracting AIDS -- though they didn't know what it was -- towards the end of that decade and in the early '80s. About 20,000 people died from AIDS in San Francisco alone; in California nearly 90,000 have died since the epidemic began. Today, many AIDS patients in America live a normal life, because of drugs developed as a result of the epidemic.

We Were Here tells the stories of four formerly young men and one woman -- now middle aged -- who lived through the horror of those years. Somehow, through luck or good genes or good medicine, they survived, but all of them lost friends and lovers, siblings and acquaintances. Their lives and the nature of the Castro district, and the power of the gay community, were changed forever.

But others, outside the community, like me, felt the devastation and the fascination as well, though perhaps not as directly or profoundly. As I talked with David Weissman, the film's producer and director, I couldn't help but remember some poignant scenes from those years:

I met Weissman on the corner of Castro and 18th Streets, where there used to be a gay bar called the Elephant Walk. In 1982, I covered a congressional campaign, where the legendary Democratic congressman Phil Burton was being challenged by a local Republican politician named Milton Marks. Marks was a glad-hander, a successful state legislator who loved meeting people. Trying to garner the votes of the gay community, whose political strength was just beginning to be felt partly over concern about AIDS, he plunged into the Elephant Walk. He was a fish out of water; he tried shaking hands with the bar's patrons, but clearly, it didn't quite work. Still, he forced a smile and played the room. He lost the election, and later switched his registration to Democrat.

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I remember covering a Gay Freedom Day parade around the same time -- with both Marks and Burton taking part, riding down Market Street in open convertibles, along with the Dykes On Bikes and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The power of the gay community was on the rise, even as many were dying, and (almost) every San Francisco politician was currying their favor. One who wasn't quite sure, at that point, was supervisor, and later mayor Dianne Feinstein. She wasn't entirely comfortable with the flamboyant behavior of newly liberated gays, though later, as U.S. Senator, she got used to the scene and got gay support.

We Were Here reminded me of the new gay political activity in that era. I remember talking with Harvey Milk, the city's first openly gay supervisor, about, of all things, dog poop. He had introduced a law to encourage people to clean up after their pets. I met Milk in his camera store on Castro Street; he was a lovely, caring guy who was trying to show he was involved in issues beyond just the gay community. His murder, and that of Mayor George Moscone, are part of the DNA of all San Franciscans who lived through those years. In an odd twist, Milk's martyrdom certainly contributed to the strength of the gay political movement, inspiring marches and campaigns that helped to spur funding for research into AIDS, and the election of gays to public office.

Perhaps the most indelible memories stirred by We Were Here were of the loss from AIDS of my own friends and colleagues, people who worked with me at public TV station KQED in those years. Among them: John Roszak, Randy Shilts, Tom Yeager and Fred Baldwin.

Bringing up the not-so-distant past and showing it to those who weren't here are among the goals of producer Weissman and We Were Here.

Read Michael Fox's review of the film. We Were Here screens tomorrow night, Thursday, June 14 at 10pm on KQED 9. Check out KQED's TV schedule for a full list of screenings.

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