I think that many of us that lived in San Francisco during the eighties will remember that decade as the decade of AIDS and seeing many of our friends pass away. The seventies had been an incredible party for gay men in San Francisco. The sexual revolution for both gay and straight people had started in the 1960’s. “The pill” had allowed women to take control of procreation in a way they had never been able to in the past. This liberated both women and men from anxieties about pregnancy. Antibiotics had made sexually transmitted diseases more of a nuisance than a worry and many considered diseases like gonorrhea about as bad as a mild cold. There would be some irritation or discharge from the urethra and sometimes pain with urination that let us know something was amiss.
There were multiple bathhouses and sex clubs throughout San Francisco. It was called “the gay mecca.” Gay men were everywhere in The City but especially in the Polk Street area, The Castro Street area and the Folsom Street area. Each of those areas was teeming with gay bars and gay businesses including bars, sex clubs, peepshows and bathhouses. There were “glory holes” in many public restrooms throughout San Francisco and you could walk into almost any park after dark for sex. Sixty minutes did an expose of gay promiscuity and focused on Buena Vista Park in The Haight/Ashbury neighborhood but Lafayette Park and Alamo Square were almost as busy. Anonymous, no strings attached promiscuity was the norm. Hardly a day would go by without at least one new sexual partner but several new sex partners in a day was not unusual. Sex had become a recreational pastime. It was everywhere. By the end of the decade, many of us had hundreds, if not thousands of gay partners.
Most of us made frequent visits to the V.D. clinic, (called the City Clinic), for testing. A cotton swab culture of the urethra or a urine test would confirm either gonorrhea or “non-specific urethritis.” I was told years later that at that time, the test for chlamydia had not been developed so a lot of the “non-specific urethritis” was actually chlamydia. The City Clinic was full of hot young men and sometimes you could meet your next sexual partner here before you even got done with your testing. Nobody was that concerned about a little “clap.”
If one had been a bottom, you were asked to spread your cheeks so a swab could be taken of the rectal area. Often you would be ordered antibiotics whether you were positive or negative as rectal gonorrhea was harder to confirm. After the swabs were done, you would then get some blood drawn to check you for syphilis. I don’t think I had even heard of herpes until the very late seventies and it was something that was not tested for at the time.
At first in the seventies, STD’s just seemed innocuous but then gradually started getting more complicated as the decade progressed. There was an epidemic of amoebas, parasites, giardia and shigella at one point. At that time, I was seeing a straight physician. I had been having mild diarrhea for about a month and the straight doctor I was seeing had no clue what was the underlying cause. Finally, I went to see Dr. Paul Isakson in San Francisco, who was located in The Castro and had a primarily gay practice. He was pretty sure what the underlying cause was because he was aware of the current epidemic and sent me to the University of California in San Francisco’s “tropical disease” department to get my stools tested. Sure enough, the cultures for ova and parasites came back positive and I was treated.
Amoebas and parasites were being transmitted through feces. Gay men were especially prone due to anal sex and sex practices such as “rimming.” Most of us were young and naive and didn’t know the consequences of some of our actions. As we experienced new diseases, many of us began modifying some of our behaviors and sexual practices.
In 1974 I had contracted hepatitis b and was in the hospital for a couple of weeks. Apparently it had been contracted through body fluids but it didn’t impress me as something that should curtail my sexual proclivities. My understanding was that I was now immune to future bouts of hepatitis b so one less thing to worry about. I recovered fully and became involved in the City Clinic study which would eventually lead to the hepatitis b vaccine that is available today.
Around 1980 my mom sent me an article about something called “gay cancer.” A lot of us wondered if this was some ruse by the media the scare gay men. Then we started seeing friends with mysterious lesions. People were not sure if it was connected with sexual activity or something else. Poppers were one of the possibly culprits discussed. Poppers are an inhalant used at the time by most gay men and many heterosexuals during sex but also used on the dance floor. You inhaled some from a small bottle or other devices made specifically for this purpose and you would get a rush of excitement and energy through your body. The smell was familiar to anyone that went to a sex club or dance club during the seventies.
The first person I knew that died of AIDS was a guy I worked with named Paul. He had contracted an unusual type of pneumonia, called pneumocystis. Within a few weeks of his calling in sick at work, he was dead from what was called “gay pneumonia” at the time.
Mysterious illnesses were everywhere very quickly. The Bay Area Reporter, a local gay newspaper that had been heavy on sex ads, now published obituaries of the men dying in droves.
By 1984, San Francisco’s Public Health Director ordered 14 bathhouses and sex clubs catering to gay men to close. By this time, scientists still didn’t understand the disease that was killing gay men and more and more rapid rate but it was obvious that there was some connection to gay activity. Since 1981, there had been 723 cases of AIDS reported.
Rock Hudson, a famous leading man in Hollywood, was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984. He had lost a lot of weight and looked sick and gaunt when he appeared with Doris Day, an actress with whom he had starred in several movies, at her press conference. On October 2, 1985, Rock Hudson’s death from AIDS shocked the world and rocked the gay community in San Francisco.
It was about this time that many in the gay community began using condoms and practicing what was being called “safer sex.” Poppers disappeared from dance floors. Sex clubs were closed and safer sex was less sex and fearful sex. A lot of us were reading Kubler-Ross’ “On Death and Dying” and books by Louise Hay which seemed to tell the dying that they could “heal their lives’ through meditation. Of course, the HIV virus didn’t care about anything like meditation and ultimately nothing would be able to stop it for years to come.
My ex-boyfriend’s, John and Stanley were both diagnosed in the eighties. Both were dead by the 90’s.
I was still working as a Licensed Psychiatric Technician on the psychiatric unit at Saint Francis Hospital and going to San Francisco City College to become a Registered Nurse. I was living with Milton on Waller Street and he was also going to City College too.
The first patient I dealt with that had AIDS was when I was still in nursing school with our clinical rotation at the Veteran’s Administration hospital in San Francisco. The patient had Kaposi’s Sarcoma, which was what had initially been called “gay cancer” at the beginning of the epidemic. He was very sick and in isolation. It was pretty well established by this time that you could not catch HIV or AIDS from touching patients. Many had insisted on wearing gloves when doing any care of an AIDS patient but now we knew that wasn’t always necessary and only impeded physical contact. Housekeeping at the V.A. apparently refused to clean his room out of fear of the disease. Besides caring for this early AIDS patient as a student nurse, it also fell on me to do what should have been the hospital’s housekeeping department. I cleaned the room. I gave him a bed bath and a massage which was typical care for a student nurse to do. I washed his lesions and made pleasant conversation.
My best friend in nursing school was Ron Green. He was outgoing and friendly where I was more aloof and shy. He got me involved with other students at school and always made me part of his study groups. I don’t think that I would have ever got through nursing school if it hadn’t been for Ron. During the summer break, he had gone to Mexico and had fallen ill during his visit to Acapulco. Upon return, he continued to be sick and was eventually diagnosed with AIDS before our final semester. He would die at the same V.A. hospital where I had experienced my first AIDS patient as a nursing student.