A 40-year retrospective highlights the Bay Area Reporter's heroic AIDS coverage
STEAMY BATHHOUSE DEBATE
The paper not only began to cover the AIDS crisis extensively, but did it with an editorial slant that fostered debate in the community. Paul Lorch, then-managing editor, became a prominent voice arguing to keep the bathhouses open. Bathhouses don't give you AIDS; unprotected sex gives you AIDS, Lorch expressed in strongly-penned editorials. Sometimes he even answered back to Letters to the Editor.
"Lorch and the publishers didn't believe closing the bathhouses would solve it," said Wayne Friday, who took over the paper's political column after Harvey Milk was assassinated and continued it for 27 years. "But no one had an alternative. Diane [Feinstein] would call me at 5 a.m. asking me what we should do about this thing."
The community was split. Some, including Friday, believed that the bathhouses were a public health hazard while others accused Feinstein of scapegoating. "Those people were being selfish and foolish," Friday said. "Closing the bathhouses saved lives."
In 1984 the San Francisco Health Department asked for a court order forbidding renting out private rooms in bathhouses. Without the luxury of privacy, most closed within months. "San Francisco became a blueprint of how to handle AIDS on the city level for the rest of the country," Friday said.
OBITUARIES KEPT SAD TALLY
During this time, the B.A.R. was also keeping a more morbid type of tally: the obituaries. Each week the paper published two pages — 30 to 50 obituaries — until 1998.
"When you picked it up, it was the first thing you turned to," Gerharter said. "It was just a name and a face. Maybe you recognized the person. Maybe someone you tricked with."
In 1989, art director Richard Burt became so overwhelmed by the number of obituaries that had been turned in to the B.A.R. within the first 10 months that he wanted to convey the sinking feeling in the pages of the paper. The Nov. 16 issue included a four-page collage of everyone who had passed away due to AIDS that year. Just a name and a face.
"It was heartbreaking," Julian said, "to see my friends and lovers pictured there."
Through the efforts of Tom Burtch and the San Francisco GLBT Historical Society, a massive searchable online database of B.A.R. obituaries since 1979 was launched in 2009 (www.leifkerdesigns.com/olo/index.jsp).
During his tenure at the paper, Julian chose not to cover AIDS, feeling that the point of entertainment news was to distract away "from the soul-crushing presence of the grim reaper stalking our neighborhoods."
Though AIDS was a heavily political newsbeat, Friday removed himself from covering it for different reasons. "I knew every elected official. I sat in on all the City Hall meetings about the bathhouses," Friday said. "But I just couldn't do it every week. It was too damned personal."
"Thinking about turning the page to those obituaries even now is making me shiver," Ottman said. "It's like a high school reunion, except you don't know which half made it."
COVERING THE RISE OF ACTIVISM
The B.A.R. was also instrumental in covering the various political and protest actions that accompanied the disease, including the bloody police sweep of ACT-UP protesters the Castro and the Stop AIDS Now or Else blockade of the Golden Gate Bridge, both in 1989.
Gerharter remembers the blockade. "They arranged it for the morning commute. And thank God it was foggy or else the surveillance cameras would have stopped us."
Gerharter would often be trusted with information about an upcoming demonstration and be the only photographer allowed to tag along. "You can document history better when you become a part of it. You get closer to the people — they're not posing," he said. "It was our job to be advocates and watchdogs."