World AIDS Day: ‘We Were Here’

 Students watch a documentary about the AIDS epidemic that was heavily prevalent in the 80s. Afterwards, they wrote possible solutions towards ending the AIDS epidemic on paper hearts (Brandon Barzola/The Daily Campus.

Students watch a documentary about the AIDS epidemic that was heavily prevalent in the 80s. Afterwards, they wrote possible solutions towards ending the AIDS epidemic on paper hearts (Brandon Barzola/The Daily Campus.

The Rainbow Center and Partners in Health united on Thursday to run a screening of the documentary “We Were Here” in honor of this past World AIDS Day.

“I just learned about general AIDS awareness and how it’s still a problem now, even though the epidemic, I think, happened 30 or 40 years ago,” Ian Hancock, a fifth-semester mechanical engineering major, said. “And this event is good because we get to learn about it and we got tips on how to educate about AIDS.”

The documentary centered around five people who had lived in San Francisco during the AIDS epidemic: Ed Wolf, Paul Boneberg, Daniel Goldstein, Guy Clark and Eileen Glutzer. Each began the film by saying why they had moved to San Francisco in the first place in the mid to late 1970s. The men mainly did it for the fast-growing gay community on Castro Street and the explosive sexual culture. Since, at the time, the only known STDs were curable, it became socially acceptable to openly engage in intercourse with multiple partners at a time. It was for this reason that places like the bath houses were opened, which were pretty much just clubs where gay men could go to have sex.

HIV arrived in San Francisco in 1976 and approximately 10 percent of the gay population of the city had it by 1979. By the time the test for it was invented, about 60 percent were infected. In the beginning, no one knew what was happening. Gay men suddenly grew skin lesions all across their body, seemingly overnight. Some of them were going blind. Others were walking one day and in a wheelchair the next. Since AIDS causes the immune system to become almost nonexistent, young men were suddenly appearing with rare diseases or cancers that had previously only afflicted the elderly. The media began calling it things like the gay cancer, gay men’s pneumonia and gay disease syndrome.

Since no one really knew where the sickness was coming from, people outside of the gay community began to lash out in fear and prejudice. Many people wouldn’t even go into the rooms of patients with AIDS for fear of catching it. People didn’t even realize it was transmitted sexually until about 1983. Many hospitals had to turn to volunteers, which usually ended up being white lesbians since they knew they couldn’t be affected, rather than their usual staff. Wolf said the homophobia became so bad in the first four years that a father once came out of his son’s hospital room after hearing her only had a few months left to live and told Wolf he was more upset his son was gay than dying.

People were dying in an avalanche. Each interviewee lost nearly all of their gay friends during the epidemic. People began buying newspapers just to check the obituaries to keep on which of their friends were alive and dead.

With so many people coming face to face with so much loss in San Francisco, the city united to fight the issue and protect its gay community. AIDS support groups sprung up all over the place. Some took care of the pets of AIDS victims during their hospital stays, some gave art supplies to sick artists and others raised money and awareness. Each of these groups were largely run by AIDS victims themselves and their lesbian friends. Clark supplied countless people with flowers for their friends’ funerals. Glutzer began working in research for a cure. Victims in the final stage of their illness travelled across the country to lobby Washington D.C. for support, because the country beyond San Francisco was doing all it could to attack their civil rights. It became a time of compassion within the city, as no one was immune to the devastating loss of life.

“I think if nothing else, it [the documentary] just provides the human side to the AIDS crisis,” Tommy Jacobsen, a seventh-semester secondary English education major, said. “We don’t get a lot of exposure to it anymore just because, as they kind of mentioned, a lot of people view it as being over. And so this a great way to, if nothing else, build empathy for folks in the community and out of the community that have to deal with ramifications of this even today. And also, to continue to help us understand that the education in fight AIDS isn’t over either.”

Annastasia Martineau, a student staff member at the Rainbow Center, concluded the viewing by handing out red paper hearts to everyone in the audience, where they had to write down what must happen before AIDS can end. She also advertised free private AIDS screenings in the Rainbow Center every fourth Monday of each month.

“It’s really important to me that we advocate for things even if we’re not involved in it,” Martineau said.


Rebecca Maher is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at rebecca.maher@uconn.edu.

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