A 40-year retrospective highlights the Bay Area Reporter's heroic AIDS coverage
The giant commemorative AIDS ribbon that was up on Twin Peaks during the first half of June has been taken down, but the 30th anniversary of the epidemic, and how it changed San Francisco, is still reverberating throughout the city.
"It was like paradise," Mark Ottman said as he guided me through the high-ceiling lobby, quiet as a library, of Union Bank on 400 California St. "For a few years. Then things got really scary."
Ottman, the vice president of personal trust and estate services at the bank, recalled arriving in the city in 1981 as a 22-year-old Montana transplant. That year, the gay newspaper the Bay Area Reporter published the word AIDS for the very first time.
Although the paper has been at the forefront of reporting gay news for its 40 years — from White Night Riots of the 1970s through the Lavender Sweep of the 1990s, the Bowers vs. Hardwick decision through the "don't ask, don't tell" repeal — the way it straightforwardly handled the heartbreak of AIDS and the outrage that followed has become its lasting legacy.
"This was not stuff that was shown on the nightly news," Ottman continued. "The B.A.R. was three or four months ahead in covering AIDS. In that sense, it was really the leader."
This month, those with a thirst for history will need to look no further than newsprint. Union Bank's LGBT Alliance has commissioned a retrospective exhibit highlighting the Bay Area Reporter's coverage of the gay and lesbian community.
When the B.A.R. started in 1971, founders and friends Paul Bentley and Bob Ross had the intention of making it more than just a gossipy guide to bars and bathhouses. The newspaper focused on serious local news — even recruiting Harvey Milk as a political columnist.
"The founders weren't journalists," said Rick Gerharter, the longtime freelance photographer who curated the photo- and front page-filled exhibit at Union Bank. "But as the paper grew, it certainly became more professional."
In 1981, when AIDS first appeared, the B.A.R. had no choice but to undergo a journalistic coming of age as it struggled to be first and be fair covering the mysterious disease that had begun to mow down gay men.
UNEASY EARLY AIDS COVERAGE
Yet the newspaper was not immune to the confusion and uneasiness that enveloped the community during the early days of the "gay cancer."
"Me and my boyfriend both laughed — it must be another Anita Bryant plot against homosexuals," said Robert Julian, recalling his first response to talk of the "gay-related immunodeficiency" or GRID.
"Gay people are united by sexual orientation, not genetics," said Julian. Initially, the former B.A.R. entertainment editor and author of But the Show Went On: San Francisco 1987-1988 had his suspicions, thinking that a "physical ailment confined solely to gay people was a practical impossibility."
It didn't take long before the B.A.R. began reporting on the latest research, medical resources, and information about financial services available to the hundreds of gay men in San Francisco who had contracted the HIV virus.
Once researchers discovered that AIDS was being transmitted sexually, public opinion divided. Then-Mayor Diane Feinstein and Director of Public Health Mervyn Silverman wanted to close the bathhouses, but some members of the gay community considered this a violation of personal rights.
"There was this repression around gay people and sex, this hysteria around bathhouses," said Gerharter. And the B.A.R. was hesitant to feed into that frenzy at first. "When it was clear what was really happening, how this thing was being spread around, then it clicked — and the paper really jumped to the forefront of covering what had tuned into an epidemic."