Rest in Peace
The Memories of Those Fallen Drive Us Forward
by Harry Breaux
On Monday night, December 2, 2019, activist and long-term survivor Harry Breaux joined a World AIDS Day candlelight vigil from the San Francisco AIDS Foundation to City Hall. On the steps of City Hall, he addressed the crowd.
I stand before you as a long-term survivor of AIDS. I have been HIV-positive since 1980 and had a full-blown AIDS diagnosis in 1996. That’s not the story I wish to tell, though. Instead, I have a story to tell of another time.
I divide my life into two periods, pre-Bobbi Campbell and post-Bobbi Campbell. When Bobbi posted in a window of Star Pharmacy at Castro and 18th warning of a new disease rearing its ugly head, a “gay cancer,” and that he had it, little did we realize what would become of us. What actually became of us has been documented in thousands of pictures, art, documentaries, articles, a quilt, and films. But I would like to tell you about the pre-Bobbi Campbell days.
Once upon a time, in the early 1970s, in a far-out city far out West, there was a sleepy little neighborhood at the intersection of Castro, Market and 17th Streets, that hosted an earth-shaking burst of freedoms.
After years of attempts by Frank Kameny, Harry Hay, Del Martin, Phyllis Lyons and so many others to win for us the right to be legal citizens with a seat at the table, a breakthrough occurred. A group of mostly gay San Franciscans realized that they could buy buildings in the Eureka Valley neighborhood and establish a gay beachhead for us to be recognized and, as the Twin Peaks bar so literally demonstrates, to be seen in public.
I first visited San Francisco in 1968. I toured the Haight-Ashbury, though my buttoned-down-collar mind couldn’t appreciate it. A couple of years later, after a few hits of LSD and several psychedelics shared among many, I was able to unbutton not only my shirt but my mind. I became a “Castro Clone”.
Heady times, the late sixties and early seventies. New ideas of consciousness and spirituality began to open up the post-World War II thinking many of us had inherited. We were trying, mostly, to lead with our hearts, and in many ways, we were winning. We burst through a little tear in society that had been prepared for us by thousands of homosexuals of all colors, genders, and beliefs. During the seventies, we ushered in a way for what we hoped to see, a society in which we could express ourselves in safety and respect. We aimed for inclusion for all types of people and realized that goal to the best of our ability.
We created new concepts of inclusion meant to welcome those previously left out. We did the best we could, given the times. We even managed finally to elect an out homosexual to public office: Harvey Milk. The ball was rolling for us.
When a leader is assassinated, a new leader can be found, another can step up. But when the group is assassinated, the power shifts and, to some degree, dissipates into a new focus.
Then a little-known virus interrupted this wave, and we now find ourselves here, tonight, memorializing the passing of so many individuals. I wish not to forget or diminish the deaths of these thousands of people, but to point to the time when they were alive, rebellious, liberated, free of AIDS thoughts or stigma, and proclaiming to the world that we’re queer, we’re here, and we’re not going away.
Those whom we “vigilize” here tonight had names, families, hopes and dreams for a better world than the one we grew up in. No longer would we be left out, left behind. The shift in society that we ushered in was powerful and lasting. We came to San Francisco with hope in our hearts and a new way to be in this world that, hopefully, would not be just for us, but EVERYONE!!!
We say to all you pioneers, you will NOT be forgotten. Rest in Peace.
What we cannot let “rest in peace” is the struggle that was seen, noted, fought and challenged during all those thousands of pre-Bobbi Campbell years. The struggle is not over.
I’m seventy-four now and will not be here for many of the struggles to come. So, to quote Harvey, “I want to recruit you”—not only to continue today’s work, but to ensure that the future embraces the hearts, minds and actions that will preserve what we few attempted—a world that includes EVERYONE, Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, Transgender, Questioning, Intersex, and, yes, Straight, and all those that we know not yet of.
Thank you and goodnight to Jimmy, Danny, Tim, Steve and thousands of others.
Rest in Peace.
Harry Breaux made his way to San Francisco in 1970 and participated in the grand explosion of the gay transition and identification of the Castro district. He settled between a commune in southern Oregon and the streets of San Francisco. His goal was to share in the freedom that was available to many young gay persons in the centers of discovery. Now his focus is to advocate for those who have been lost in the shuffle. He volunteers with SFAF, GLBT Museum, Castro Ambassadors and other organizations fighting to bring social justice to all. As a long-term survivor of AIDS, he appeared in three documentaries: Last Men Standing, I Will Speak, I Will Speak and the recent, powerful 5B about the courageous AIDS nurses at SF General in 1983.