07/09/2012 10:05 am ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

The Pride That Was Earned During the AIDS Crisis

The documentary We Were Here, about the AIDS crisis and the response of the LGBT community in San Francisco, really brought back memories. Times that were forgotten, perhaps repressed, returned. What horrible, wonderful times they were. They were horrible, with the deaths and loss of friends, but wonderful when you realize how much the community members did to care for one another.

When people were dying, the people of San Francisco were there to care for them, and comfort the mourners. They fed the hungry and carried burdens for those too weak to carry them themselves. It brought home the hypocrisy of Christian fundamentalists, who never lifted a finger to help these people, but gloated and damned and condemned.

In the early '80s no one really knew what was happening -- no one. It was a "cancer," a "plague," something no one could pin down.

There were community meetings I remember sitting in on; there were debates about prevention measures, with a community deeply divided. Every day, I would walk past the windows of the Names Project and see panels of the AIDS quilt on display.

I remember the display of the panels on the ground, one large quilt commemorating hundreds and hundreds of people who died. I walked between the panels crying over the deaths of people I didn't know, realizing how young so many of them were; worse yet, realizing how many panels there were that could not be displayed, or were never made at all.

I remember the AIDS candlelight marches down Market Street. They would begin on Castro Street, where I lived, march past my bookstore, and then end at Civic Center.

I remember the thousands and thousands of people. A long river of flickering flames stretched down the streets. Only the sounds of shuffling feet against the pavement broke the silence of the moment.

I remember repressive measures proposed by extremists, such as Lyndon La Rouche, who tried to pass a ballot measure to quarantine people with HIV. We fought those measures and defeated them, but wasted valuable resources that could have been used to care for those who needed it.

Each week, the local gay newspaper reminded us of how urgent matters were. There would be at least one, sometimes two pages of obituaries of the young men who died since the last issue.

Every day, I was reminded of various projects that would help people who were ill. There was Project Open Hand that fed of them; Shanti that cared for them, for instance, to name just two. There would be leaflets about meetings and upcoming protests.

There was anger. New drugs would be discovered which the FDA withheld from dying because the drugs might make them sick. No one understood that logic. It wasn't uncommon for activists to drive to Mexico to buy the forbidden drugs and bring them back for friends.

The whole experience was wearying. Being surrounded by death and illness on such a regular basis could dilute your soul and break your spirit. I know it is part of the reason I decided to leave The City, though I loved it -- and still do.

I escaped to South Africa. After witnessing the beginning of the AIDS crisis, I watched the death of apartheid.

I lost friends. Who of us didn't?

I remember Scott O'Hara, an erotic performer who was highly intelligent and didn't need the money. We were philosophical compatriots and friends. He volunteered to work in my bookstore whenever necessary. It was there he meet his lover, Bill Webber, an employee of mine. Scott died in 1998, while I was still in Africa. Sometime before that, he lost Bill, though I can't remember the year.

Scott would write me now and then. Periodically, I'd call him at his home in Cazenovia, Wisc., a luxury I could barely afford given the rates charged by the government phone company in South Africa.

My friend, John Dentinger, a Los Angeles writer on whom I always had a crush -- though I never told him -- died in 1992. He was just 39. It was about that time that my partner, who moved to San Francisco with me after we meet at university, told me he was HIV-positive. Thankfully, he is alive and well and there is no sign of the virus in his system today, but he had rough times in the past and I thought I'd lose him.

As years go by, you tend to forget. Pieces of memories vanish. Other pieces are just filed away. You are aware they are there, but don't want to go back. There was too much pain, too many tears. But pain and tears helped us reach the place we are at today, both collectively as a community and personally as individuals.

To forget the pain is also to forget the love. When faces in the obituaries are gone, so are faces of friends. It was a crisis that defined a generation of gay people. I have long thought that it is not the painful aspects of life that define us, but how we respond to them. By that estimation, the gay community has much to be proud of.