San Francisco is a city fueled by dreamers and celebrants whose giddiness is periodically forced to renew itself after some catastrophic setback induces a case of reality blues. We've survived the earthquakes of 1906 and 1989, the post-Summer of Love downslide, the dot-com bust of a decade ago. Perhaps the saddest of all, however, was the early 1980s onset of the AIDS crisis, attacking our “Gay Mecca” that had attracted dreamers and escapees from everywhere else—who'd created a small subcultural utopia not for sexuality, but creativity, fun and freedom in general.
World War survivors spoke of losing “the best and the brightest” in those larger conflicts, community futures altered and forever robbed of certain possibilities. What geniuses in any area—art, politics, philosophy, science, and so forth—were we deprived of, who might have changed the course of our lives, small or large? The SF gay male community of the joyful, empowered, seemingly unstoppable 1970s became a community necessarily focused on literal survival in the Reagan ’80s, thanks to a health crisis whose selectivity underlined how deeply the mainstream powerful cared about Americans well outside its tent. Which is to say: Not at all.
How the community rose to that challenge is the subject of We Were Here, which opens at the Castro February 25. Director David Weissman chronicled one particularly giddy chapter in San Francisco's pre-AIDS gay heyday in The Cockettes, his and Bill Weber's superb 2002 documentary about the legendary drag performance troupe. One thing that made that film so poignant was our knowledge that the seemingly never-ending party it depicted would be over. It is We Were Here's considerable achievement to pull out of that tragedy a surprising degree of hope and inspiration.
Weissman (with Weber as editor and co-director this time) sets the scene by having his protagonists—five San Franciscans who've lived to tell the tale—recall the wide-open atmosphere of the city's Flower Power period and “Me Decade.” Many had arrived from elsewhere, seeking the freedom and hedonism that was always part of SF''s identity.
But at the dawn of the 1980s gay men of all ages, some very young, began falling ill with various maladies—Kaposi's sarcoma, Pneumocystis pneumonia—that were hitherto seen rarely or in very different patient groups. “Gay cancer,” “gay disease syndrome” and other terms were applied to conditions that had no precedent, no explanation, research or treatment courses at first. It was terrifying—even hospitals didn't want to be associated with AIDS in the general climate of paranoia, with infection routes as yet unknown.
Artist Daniel Goldstein, who lost two lovers (the first an immunologist) to the disease, recalls periods when hearing bad news about friends was an almost unendurable constant. Guy Clark, who ran a flower stand at the epicenter of the Castro district, saw his customers waste away and his business shift to supplying arrangements for funerals. Nurse Eileen Glutzer remembers the emotional toll on medical professionals in early years, when “All you were doing was helping people die.”
But rather than give in to despair, everyone in their own way rolled up sleeves and went to work. With little help or even acknowledgement from the powers-that-be—President Reagan famously avoided even uttering the word “AIDS” in public until 1987, six years into the epidemic—a community that had hitherto often put most of its energy into enjoying life got very serious about preserving it. Glutzer worked on what became the nation's first dedicated AIDS ward, at San Francisco General; Paul Boneberg was one of many who threw themselves into political activism and creating institutions to provide services the government wouldn't. Ed Wolf, who'd felt socially awkward when much of gay culture was centered around casual sex, ironically now “fit in” just fine
with the community's new need for counseling and other emotional support. Pulling together to deal with this crisis, gay men and lesbians found a common ground they hadn't before.
Anyone who attended SF's Lesbian/Gay Film Festival aka Frameline in the late ’80s and early ’90s can recall the flood of AIDS-themed films shown then—angry, protesting, mournful narratives and (mostly) documentaries, witnessing a tragedy in progress. The festival was duty-bound to program them, yet after a point audiences who'd at first been eager for any information or acknowledgement began to avoid them; they were, simply, overwhelmed.
We Were Here touches only in passing on the activism, treatment issues, educational outreach, drug development, grim statistics and other aspects that dominated AIDS cinema then. Instead, its focus is the human element—the way in which what Wolf calls “these death and dying years” drew from people more courage, resilience and resourcefulness than they knew they had in them.
There are moments of painful recollection here that might prompt tears whether you have a personal connection to the events related or not. But We Were Here is ultimately most moving not for the loss it chronicles, but the grace under pressure it depicts. Its protagonists not only survived, they fought and gave comfort. As Glutzer puts it, “I don't have to worry when I get old [thinking] that I didn't do anything, when I look back.”
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