While I am a native Californian, born in West Covina and raised in Covina until we moved to Florida when I was 10, I never considered myself a Californian until I moved to San Francisco.
And apart from a brief hiatus in Washington DC (2 years, ten months and 30 days, but who counted?) I have lived in San Francisco for just about half my life.
What first brought me back to California, specifically to Hayward in 1985, was a one-year domestic Peace Corps-like program sponsored by the University of Notre Dame (where I had just graduated from) that had me teaching in a predominately black Catholic elementary school in West Oakland.
By June 1988, I was finally living in San Francisco.
I first became involved in HIV/AIDS work before I ever knew anyone who was infected or who had died. My first involvement was in 1985 through the Shanti Project as an emotional/practical support volunteer. Interestingly enough, while I was an undergrad at Notre Dame, I was a teaching assistant in the Biology lab for two and ½ years (a required course for pre-med students). The lab lecture both semesters of my senior year that I taught was about this new and emerging threat, AIDS.
Once in the Bay Area, AIDS became much more profoundly personal and real. One could not help but note that the Bay Area was hard hit by the epidemic. One could ignore it, certainly, but it took effort to make-believe it was not real.
Then October 1985 came around. And my world changed.
While in a demonstration in San Francisco regarding the US involvement in El Salvador (I was doing a little volunteer work with the Sanctuary Movement when not teaching), we were walking through UN Plaza towards the Federal Building when I encountered something that would forever change my perspective and politics and soul -- the ARC/AIDS Vigil.
In late October 1985, a group of homeless and nearly homeless gay men who had AIDS and ARC chained themselves to the doors of one of the buildings in UN Plaza in protest to the inaction of the US government in the face of the AIDS epidemic. It was the second act of civil disobedience ever in the history of the epidemic, the first having transpired a few months earlier with a gay man chaining himself to the doors of one of the federal buildings in similar protest only exception being that the first man was arrested while the men who set up the ARC/AIDS Vigil were not.
As our contingent of protesters marched through UN Plaza, past the Vigil, one of the men who was part of the group there stood up and cheered us on, clapping in solidarity. To reach across that divide by such a simple gesture, I was blown away.
By 1988 I was actively involved in AIDS, not only professionally, but as an activist, an advocate, but also as a person living with HIV disease. (BTW, I have now lived with HIV for 23 years of my life.)
Fast forward to December 1995 to my last official function in San Francisco before I moved to Washington DC. As Health Commissioner and executive director of Mobilization Against AIDS (the organization that had sponsored the men who created the ARC/AIDS Vigil back in 1985), I was invited to help christen the South Portal of the AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park.
What was once an eyesore in the park was now a beautiful living memorial to those who had died of AIDS.
Returning to SF in late 1998 was the best thing I ever did for myself. I wish I could say that my last eleven years home have been smooth sailing but in fact, just the opposite – I spent several of the past years sick or recovering.
The past decade has been one of dealing with very personal losses as well as my own decline in health (although now my health is stable and pretty darn good I’d say). I retired from AIDS work in 2001, swearing that I had put in my time and was tired and needed to take care of myself.
Through a friend, I was coaxed out of retirement to join the Board of Directors of the now National AIDS Memorial Grove (President Clinton signing the Congressional resolution deeming the Grove to be one of the 44 National such memorials in 1996).
Like other parts of my life, the Grove now brings me full circle. Just as I say that when I am in San Francisco I am alive, the same holds true for the Grove.
What the Grove embodies is that inexplicable but unmistakable reason why I live in San Francisco. When I am in the Grove I am alive.
I know the City has flaws and challenges and its own problems, but this City has more of one thing than any other city I have ever been to – heroes.
San Francisco is a terribly fortunate city – terribly because of the tremendous loss that we have experienced as a city because of AIDS and yet fortunate because we as a city have been lucky enough to have had an entire city decide to be heroic, from the beginning of the epidemic and even until now. Heroism in the face of the AIDS epidemic often is to be found in the ordinary.
At its core, San Francisco is defined by its response to AIDS and that response, that legacy is pretty astonishing -- at its core the legacy of MY San Francisco is one of ordinary people rising to an extraordinary challenge solely because of concern and compassion for their neighbor, lover, friend, family member, co-worker, child.
An extraordinary city brimming with extraordinary people who just believe themselves to be doing nothing out of the ordinary – that is my San Francisco.