A History of Reaching Out

By Neil G. Giuliano

When AIDS first emerged in our community in 1981, there was so much confusion. At first it was known as the “gay cancer,” because it seemed to affect only gay men. It manifested itself in skin lesions, hallmarks of a rare cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma. People were getting sick and dying quickly. And for nearly two agonizing years, nobody knew how the disease was spread or how to stop it.

Answers finally came in 1983, when researchers began to learn that HIV is spread primarily through sexual contact. The U.S. Public Health Services issued its first recommendations for preventing transmission of HIV through sexual contact and blood transfusions. Armed with that knowledge, community organizations across the country began distributing condoms. It was a watershed moment in the early fight against HIV/AIDS.

That same year, San Francisco AIDS Foundation, then known as the AIDS & KS Foundation, mobilized to distribute free condoms in our city. It was among the first significant outreach efforts to change the course of the epidemic, and bolstered the foundation’s proud legacy of providing services to our community at no cost.

In June of 1983, a coalition of foundation staff members and supporters marched in San Francisco’s Gay Pride parade. As they made their way down Market Street, they handed out thousands of condoms to spectators. Not only where they putting a life-saving tool into people’s hands, they were also educating our community about how HIV is transmitted and how people could protect themselves.

At San Francisco AIDS Foundation today, we will never forget the bravery of that first Pride contingent and how it banded together to fight HIV/AIDS. This year alone, we will distribute more than 800,000 free condoms in our community. Condoms remain one of the most effective ways to prevent HIV transmission, and that’s why we want everyone to have access to free condoms whenever they want them.

This year at San Francisco Pride, members of the foundation will again march in the parade and will staff booths at the festival in Civic Center. Just as we’ve always done, we will distribute thousands of free condoms and information about all the other free services we offer at San Francisco AIDS Foundation, including community support groups, alcohol and other drug counseling, housing assistance, medical case management, and needle exchange.

We also know that one of the best ways to prevent the spread of HIV is to know your current status. So staff will provide free, rapid HIV tests at Civic Center to anyone who wants a test. It takes just 20 minutes to get the results.

But attention to good health should not stop when Pride month ends. That’s why the foundation will provide more than 12,000 free HIV tests and screenings for other sexually transmitted infections this year alone at Magnet, our gay men’s health center in the Castro, at our foundation offices at 1035 Market Street, and at satellite testing locations throughout the city. We will also continue to be a leading advocate for emerging prevention tools such as PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, which shows tremendous promise in protecting HIV-negative people from infection.

As San Francisco AIDS Foundation marks its 30th year of answering the call, we reflect on the men and women who pioneered our early outreach efforts, at Pride and beyond. We draw tremendous inspiration from their work and we stand on their shoulders as we continue to provide effective prevention tools to all members of our community.

Our commitment today is the same as it was when AIDS first emerged in the 1980s: to be here for our community, unwaveringly, until our services are no longer needed.

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