‘We Were Here’ Recalls a Tough Era for San Francisco’s Gay Community

BY Spencer Michels  June 14, 2012 at 4:18 PM EST

Bobbi Campbell, Photo courtesy of ITVS.

I’ve been working on a story that brings back lots of memories and thoughts about a tough subject.

It’s a story about a documentary that PBS stations will air this week remembering the time of AIDS in San Francisco. Shown on the series “Independent Lens,” “We Were Here” recalls in simple, straightforward interviews the lives of people living in the largely gay Castro District. The area was a mecca for thousands of young gay men who started arriving in San Francisco in the 1970s and who began contracting AIDS — though they didn’t know what it was — toward the end of that decade and in the early 80s.

“The power of the gay community was on the rise even as many were dying, and almost every San Francisco politician was currying their favor.”

About 20,000 people died from AIDS in San Francisco alone. In California, nearly 90,000 have died since the epidemic began. Today, drugs developed as a result of the epidemic allow many AIDS patients in America to live a normal life.

“We Were Here” tells the stories of four men and one woman — young in the 1970s, now middle aged — who lived through the horror of those years. Somehow, through luck or good genes or good medicine, they survived. But all of them lost friends and lovers, siblings and acquaintances. Their lives, the nature of the Castro District and the power of the gay community were changed forever.

But others outside the community felt the devastation and the fascination as well, though perhaps not as directly. As I talked with David Weissman, the film’s producer and director, I couldn’t help but remember some poignant scenes from those years.

I met Weissman on the corner of Castro and 18th streets, where there used to be a gay bar called the Elephant Walk. In 1982, I covered a congressional campaign where Phil Burton, the legendary Democratic congressman, was being challenged by Milton Marks, a local Republican politician.

Marks was a glad-hander, a successful state legislator who loved meeting people. Trying to garner the votes of the gay community whose political strength was just beginning to be felt, he plunged into the Elephant Walk. He was a fish out of water. He tried shaking hands with the bar’s patrons, but clearly it didn’t quite work. Still, he forced a smile and played the room. He lost the election and later switched his registration to Democrat.

I remember covering a Gay Freedom Day parade around the same time — with both Marks and Burton riding down Market Street in open convertibles along with the Dykes On Bikes and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. The power of the gay community was on the rise even as many were dying, and almost every San Francisco politician was currying their favor.

One who wasn’t quite sure, at that point, was supervisor — later the San Francisco mayor and U.S. senator — Dianne Feinstein. She wasn’t entirely comfortable with the flamboyant behavior of newly liberated gays, though later she got used to the scene and got gay support.

“We Were Here” reminded me of the new gay political activity in that era. I remember talking with Harvey Milk, the city’s first openly gay supervisor, about, of all things, dog poop. He had introduced a law to encourage people to clean up after their pets.

I met Milk in his camera store on Castro Street. He was a lovely, caring guy who was trying to show he was involved in issues beyond just the gay community. His murder, and that of Mayor George Moscone, are part of the DNA of all San Franciscans who lived through those years. In an odd twist, Milk’s martyrdom certainly contributed to the strength of the gay political movement. It inspired marches and campaigns that helped to spur funding for research into AIDS and the election of gays to public office.

Perhaps the most indelible memories stirred by “We Were Here” were of the loss from AIDS of my own friends and colleagues — people who worked with me at public TV station KQED in those years. Among them: John Roszak, Randy Shilts, Tom Yeager and Fred Baldwin.

Bringing up the not-so-distant past and showing it to those who weren’t here are among the goals of producer Weissman in “We Were Here.”