Last month, I was able to make it to Golden Gate Park for the largest AIDS Memorial Quilt exhibit ever in San Francisco.
Saturday, June 11 was a sunny day, not the usual foggy June days we know and love in San Francisco. The last time I got to see more than a few panels of the quilt was during a March on Washington in the early 1990s, when the quilt covered the entire National Mall. It’s hard to think of a community response to a health crisis that’s more beautiful, more compassionate, more creative, and more intimate than the quilt. The stories of countless lives are stitched into colorful panels creating an explosion of color, a deep well of sadness and a sense of hope.
I had traveled to DC in a van with a group of friends. In the face of the relentless and especially cruel and hateful attacks on people living with AIDS, we have found solace in our growing numbers. We were not only meeting the immediate needs of our friends and family, but we were battling quarantine measures, government inaction, and endless fear and ignorance. We were young, but we were already used to knowing the harshness of the world. And we were learning more and more about compassion, love and activism.
This weekend in Golden Gate Park, I met old friends, former and current board members of the AIDS Legal Referral Panel, and clients. Many shared how ALRP had been there for them during some of their darkest times. I cried thinking of all the people we had lost: my dear friend and teacher David, my supervisor Thom (who had me checked out what must have been the first of his lesions of Kaposi’s Sarcoma, or KS), ALRP’s first executive director, Clint Hockenberry; The list is lengthened increasingly.
Right now, I choose to think about David. A kind and gentle man, a teacher for young people, a handsome hippie. I remember being part of the close circle of friends who cared for him as illness weakened his brilliant mind, helping him get to the place where he could let go. I wasn’t there to hold her hand or give her love in her final days. I think of him still in the peaceful midnight blue joy of nature, with cabins by the sea.
My personal story is deeply linked to that of ALRP. 1983, the year the ALRP was founded, was also the year I came to San Francisco to study law. It was a scary time, especially for young gay people. AIDS has shaped our experience as gay people, our sexuality, our sense of mortality and our sense of community.
I began my service with ALRP as a volunteer when I graduated from law school in 1986 and have proudly served as Executive Director since 2000. For over 22 years now, I have embraced this role as the my life’s work, and it’s a privilege I don’t take lightly.
While some would say the early days of the AIDS epidemic were the city’s darkest time, I would say it’s not the disease, but the city’s response to it, that really defines the time. San Francisco has unleashed an army of compassionate and creative volunteers who have stepped up to meet every conceivable need of those who are suffering, from meals delivered to homes to practical and emotional support.
The AIDS epidemic has changed dramatically over the years, with huge advances in treatment and prevention, and strides in reducing stigma. Although we no longer see people being evicted simply because they were HIV-positive, the consequences of losing their homes are just as painful: long-term tenants lose their homes, their community and their health care. As the legal needs of our clients have changed, ALRP has adapted to meet them. For nearly 40 years, the AIDS Legal Referral Panel has been the legal community’s benevolent response to AIDS.
As I reflect on how much has changed over the past 40 years, I feel hopeful even in the face of the many challenges we still face. I know the difference a handful of lawyers have made in the lives of thousands of people living with HIV. I see it every day in the work of ALRP’s dedicated attorneys who fight to keep our clients housed, insured and healthy.
Often a few panels of the quilt were displayed at the San Francisco AIDS Walk where for many years I proudly joined thousands of people, invariably on a cold, foggy Sunday morning. They serve as a sweet reminder of the many lives we have lost.
The quilt continues to wrap us in its comfort and grace as we support those living with decades of illness, poverty and stigma. Unfortunately, AIDS is not over.
Bill Hirsh, a gay man, is executive director of the AIDS Legal Referral Panel.
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