I began freelancing for San Francisco’s local gay press in early 1986, shortly after the death of Rock Hudson brought sudden national attention to the scope of the AIDS epidemic. Almost overnight, the international media descended on San Francisco, shining a spotlight on the crisis’ perceived Ground Zero, the Castro District. Correspondents and cameramen parachuted in from everywhere, making their way to the hospitals and hospices that were filled with gaunt, rheumy-eyed (young) men.
But the gay publications I worked for---locally and, later, nationally---chose to turn their gaze from the stark documentary images of individual carnage that the “straight press” pursued, because their readers were already too aware of bedside vigils and funeral arrangements; they didn’t need their “hometown” weekly to recapitulate that dreary, daily horror. Instead, we maintained our focus on the community at large, and reported on the public, communal response of that very diverse group to the descending nightmare.
We reported and photographed a blizzard of protests and demonstrations, vigils and marches and sit-ins, as the community struggled for social and political recognition of the crisis. We photographed groundbreaking gay candidates for public office, who sought change from inside “the system”, as well as street-level activists whose proud, queer anger drove them to hector that system from the outside.
But not every drumbeat was martial: some who embraced the beat did so with a shimmy and a bounce, with life-affirming joy. In bars, discos and on streetcorners in the Castro, I made pictures of parties and bar-scenes, drag shows and Halloween Evenings. Much-deserved attention was also paid to the artists who were creating a home-grown, alternate gay culture that spoke directly to the experiences and aspirations of Castro audiences: I made intimate portraits of writers, dancers, directors, painters, and actors.
These photographs, from San Francisco’s gay community in the mid-eighties, remind viewers of that moment in our social history---so long ago, and so very recent---when the first wave of the AIDS epidemic crashed onto one of our country’s most vibrant neighborhoods. And, while that tribe convulsed with well-earned fear, heartbreak and anger, some still found the courage and the will to celebrate the dream of life they’d come to San Francisco for, and they danced in the dragon’s jaws.