Cleve Jones reflects on life in San Francisco during the 1980s AIDS crisis

The AIDS crisis swept through United States in the early 1980s.  But the epicenter of that deadly epidemic was San Francisco.

Cleve Jones was there at the beginning when a mysterious and merciless virus began ripping through the heart of San Francisco's gay community.

"It was a time of great sorrow and overwhelming terror. It was not unusual to see people in this neighborhood collapse and die in the street," said Jones who became an AIDS activist.

People were dying from a virus that at first no one had ever heard of. Acquired immune deficiency syndrome, better known as AIDS, shuts down the patient's immune system, allowing in deadly infections.

"I was probably one of the earliest people to be infected with HIV in San Francisco. And one of the longest living survivors. There were many times I didn't think I would make it," said Jones.

UC San Francisco oncologist Paul Volberding is one of the pioneers of AIDS research.
He saw his first AIDS patient in 1981.

"Here's this 22 year-old guy dying from this tumor I never bothered to study, it was so rare," said Volberding.

At first doctors had no idea what they were dealing with. They would see young gay men getting horribly sick. There were no cures. All they could do was watch them wither away.

"Couples would come. Two men essentially married. One would die. The next would die. It was horrible," said Volberding.

The disease would eventually kill 20,000 people in San Francisco alone. Most of them were gay men. It was commonly spread through sexual contact.

Former San Francisco supervisor Jeff Sheehy was diagnosed in 1996 with HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS.

"I'm in bed with a fever of 104. I can't move. I'm paralyzed with fatigue," said Sheehy.

With AIDS came fear. Straight people wondered about sitting on buses next to a gay person. 'What if he sneezes?'

This is what happened when an a person with AIDS once came to San Francisco TV station for an interview: "The sound guy wouldn't mic the patient because he was concerned about coming too close to an AIDS patient," said Volberding.

AIDS also brought out homophobia.

"There were bumper stickers that said AIDS is killing all the right people," said Jones.

All this while one church in the Castro District was holding as many as four funerals a day for aids victims. As soon as one ended, another would begin.

But the federal government had stayed mostly silent about the so-called gay-disease. 

Then-mayor, now U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein says San Francisco set the standard for AIDS research and care:

"It became evident to me, when I saw some people wanted to ignore it, that we had to set an example.
We were really the first city to devote local funds for research and treatment," Feinstein told us by phone.

Jones, who started the San Francisco AIDS Foundation wanted to show the toll AIDS was taking.
In 1987 he created the idea for the AIDS Quilt. The names of the dead stitched together, one next to the other. 

"What was in my head was, I am going to take this thing and lay it on the [National] Mall and show Congress and the president the consequences of their actions. I was not prepared for the artistry of it. The beauty of it," Jones said. "It reminds me that 20,000 of my friends and neighbors were killed by the disease before treatment was found."

By 1996 researchers came up with a mixture of medicines able to suppress the virus. It became known as the AIDS cocktail.

"I took a fistful of pills three times a day and felt immediately sick. By the time I got over being sick from the pills I had to take another dose. But they kept me alive," said Sheehy.

Now Sheehy and other patients can now take just one pill.

There is still no cure for AIDS. People still die from it. But in San Francisco the crisis passed. The memory of it, for many, has not.

"We took care of people. There was a great deal of love. We created the meal delivery program, housing programs. The spiritual programs," said Jones."I think that as San Franciscans when we look back at our response, we have every reason to be proud."