In the earliest days of the epidemic, doctors and nurses could offer little but compassion for patients who were suffering from a virus that didn’t even have a name. (Photo:GLBT Historical Society)

Part 2 of Scott Shafer’s series of interviews surrounding the 30th anniversary of HIV/AIDS is with San Francisco community activist Paul Boneberg, who lived through the epidemic when it first struck in the early 1980s. The interview is summarized directly below the audio.

Paul Boneberg on what the early days of the AIDS epidemic were like

When the epidemic hit, very rapidly by the end of the year everyone in the community knew people who were dying.

We began to organize. In 1982, the Stonewall Gay Democratic club hosted a forum with Bobbi Campbell, who showed us his Kaposi sarcoma lesions. Community groups realized we needed to pay attention to this. There was great fear. Every gay man at that time thought he was infected. We didn’t know what the agent was. But people understood that people just like them were getting sick and dying very quickly. You could know someone and very quickly he’d become sick and die.

First you get the fear, then you try to take care of people. Then you realize people aren’t being treated right, that your friends and partners couldn’t get the care they needed. And there were horrible proposals, like calling for people to be locked up. The same people who hated us before AIDS hated us after, but after they were particularly vicious in attacking the LGBT community.

People were forced out of the closet when they were sick. Roy Cohn, Liberace, Rock Hudson. A series of very prominent people were suddenly known to be gay. And people came out to their families too, introducing them to their caregivers.

Community activists had to shift course. It was an entirely different discussion than in in the 1970s. Suddenly you had to meet with appropriators to ask for money. There was no infrastructure to respond to AIDS, and we learned how to get drugs approved and create structures. The community was transformed and is stronger and more vibrant than it was 30 years ago because of our response to AIDS. We became the community we always thought we would be.

I would certainly hope Americans are proud of the community’s response to HIV/AIDS and San Franciscans are proud of how they took care of each other and stood against bigotry. This isn’t the last catastrophe that will affect mankind. There’s a lesson here as to how to respond to a great disaster; there’s something here of a model about how people who were legally discriminated against and despised took care of themselves.

AIDS at 30: Interview – What Were the Earliest Days of the Epidemic Like? 7 June,2011Jon Brooks


Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks is the host and editor of KQED’s health and technology blog, Future of You. He is the former editor of KQED’s daily news blog, News Fix. In 2014, he won a California Journalism Award for his coverage of ride services like Uber and Lyft and the taxi industry. A veteran blogger, he previously worked for Yahoo! in various news writing and editing roles. Jon is also a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S. He has written about film for his own blog and studied film at Boston University. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from Brooklyn College.

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