Saturday, August 16, 2008


I remember that week because the epidemiologist I shared an office with put the headline up on her bulletin board:


We took good long looks at the headline, quietly reflecting, finding ourselves happy to realize that we had definitively arrived in a new era. As a guest opinion in this week's Bay Area Reporter reminded me, it was 10 years ago this week that the BAR ran this headline as a huge banner on its front page. In August of 1997 in San Francisco, none of its readers had to be told what the headline meant.

The BAR is a gay newspaper in San Francisco, and for various reasons it essentially became the newspaper of record for gay men's obituaries there. And so, from early on, it served as an ongoing record of the community's losses from AIDS. The obituaries were written by the friends of the deceased; there were only a few rules, including a strict word limit and the stern instruction, "No poetry." In the worst days of the mid-1980s, the obits went on for pages.

10 years ago, San Francisco already had a couple of years experience with protease inhibitors and the concept of three-drug combination therapy. First they'd appeared in the medicine cabinets of savvy gay men who got them through clinical trials and parallel track access. Then in 1996, more and more people with HIV and AIDS got these medicines from their doctors and the neighborhood pharmacy, just like any other prescription drugs. There were still people dying, especially those who had already accumulated too many medical problems to benefit from the new treatment approach.

But by August 1997, the change that HAART brought was so pronounced that an obituary section that had once run pages long was suddenly gone.

This week, the BAR has two obituaries. Both men died of cancers that don't seem to have been HIV-related. This week, we can't say, "No obits"--but that's because these gay men got older and died of things that older men die of.

I remember some people fussing over the headline in one way or another. Various people who had been highly engaged in AIDS work were afraid that the new era would bring complacency about HIV prevention. They worried that celebrations of the effects of the new medicines would cause HIV-negative people to think that there was nothing that bad about having HIV. And of course, on the day the headline ran, thousands of people were dying of AIDS in other places besides the Castro District, including in neighborhoods of San Francisco where no one sent in obits to the BAR.

But one can always find a dark cloud within every silver lining. Sometimes it's still worth celebrating the silver lining.


It was worth celebrating then, and worth remembering today.

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