Guest Opinion: Reflections on the AIDS quilt

by Bill Hirsh | Wednesday July 6, 2022


Last month I was able to get to Golden Gate Park for the largest display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt ever in San Francisco.

Saturday, June 11, was a sunny day, not the usual foggy June days we know and love in San Francisco. The last time I was able to view more than a few panels of the quilt was at a March on Washington in the early 1990s when the quilt covered the entirety of the National Mall. It is hard to think of a community response to a health crisis that is more beautiful, more compassionate, more creative, and more intimate than the quilt. The stories of countless lives are sewn into colorful patches of panels creating a burst of color, a deep well of sadness, and a sense of hope.

I had traveled to D.C. in a van with a group of friends. In the face of relentless and especially cruel and hateful attacks on people living with AIDS, we found solace in our growing numbers. We were not only responding to the immediate needs of our friends and family, but we were fighting quarantine measures, government inaction, and endless fear and ignorance. We were young, but already we were seasoned in knowing the harshness of the world. And we were learning more and more about compassion, love, and activism.

That weekend at Golden Gate Park, I ran into old friends, former and current AIDS Legal Referral Panel board members, and clients. Many shared how ALRP had been there for them during some of their darkest times. I cried thinking of all the folks we had lost: my dear friend and teacher David, my supervisor Thom (who had me examine what was to be the first of his Kaposi sarcoma, or KS, lesions), ALRP’s first executive director, Clint Hockenberry; the list goes on and on.

Right now, I choose to think of David. A kind, gentle-hearted man, a teacher of young people, a handsome hippie. I remember being a part of the close circle of friends who cared for him as the disease weakened his bright spirit, helping him to get to the place where he could let go. I was not there to hold his hand or feed him some love in his final days. I think of him still in the peaceful, blue midnight joy of nature, with cabins by the sea.

My personal story is deeply entwined with that of ALRP. 1983, the year ALRP was founded, was also the year I arrived in San Francisco to attend law school. It was a scary time, especially for young gay men. AIDS informed our experience as gay men, our sexuality, our sense of mortality, and our sense of community.

I began my service with ALRP as a volunteer when I finished law school in 1986 and I have proudly served as its executive director since 2000. For more than 22 years now I have embraced this role as my life’s work, and it is a privilege I do not take lightly.

While some would say that the early days of the AIDS epidemic were the city’s darkest time, I would suggest that it was not the disease, but the city’s response to it, that truly defines the time. San Francisco unleashed an army of compassionate, creative volunteers who stepped up to meet every conceivable need of those suffering, from home delivered meals to practical and emotional support.

The AIDS epidemic has changed drastically over the years, with huge advances in treatment and prevention, and hard-fought progress to reduce stigma. While we no longer see folks being evicted just for having HIV, the consequences of losing their home are just as painful: long-term tenants lose their home, their community, and their health care. As the legal needs of our clients have changed, ALRP has adapted to address them. For almost 40 years, the AIDS Legal Referral Panel has been the legal community’s caring response to AIDS.

As I reflect on how much has changed over the last 40 years, I find myself feeling hopeful, even in the face of the many challenges we still face. I know the difference that a handful of lawyers have made in the lives of thousands of people living with HIV. I see it every day in the work of ALRP’s dedicated staff attorneys fighting to keep our clients housed, insured, and healthy.

Often a few panels of the quilt have been displayed at the San Francisco AIDS Walk where, over many years, I have proudly joined thousands, invariably on a cold, foggy Sunday morning. They serve as a gentle reminder of the many lives we have lost.

The quilt continues to enfold us all in its comfort and grace, as we support people living with decades of illness, poverty, and stigma. Sadly, AIDS is not over.