San Francisco GLBT Historical Society & B.A.R. create on-line database of HIV/AIDS obituaties
November 29, 2009 12:06 PM   Subscribe

San Francisco's Bay Area Reporter, together with the GLBT Historical Society, are making available all of the gay newspaper's AIDS obituaries in an on-line searchable database. The database, to be unveiled on December 1, 2009, World AIDS Day, contains the obituaries for about 10,000 people.

Excerpt: Starting on World AIDS Day (Tuesday, December 1), every obituary that's appeared in the B.A.R. since 1980 is expected to be available through a searchable archive at For years, especially in the late 1980s and early 1990s, people who had died from complications related to AIDS dominated the B.A.R. 's obituary pages. Tom Burtch, a volunteer at San Francisco's GLBT Historical Society, has spent about three years scanning the obituaries from the paper's archives, which are stored at the society's Mission Street facility. The site will enable users to share memories and could eventually let them upload photos – "sort of like a Facebook page for each person," said Burtch.
posted by ClaudiaCenter (17 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
And: On August 13, 1998, the B.A.R. ran its famous "No obits" headline, marking the first time in years that the paper had not run any obituaries. But the article was careful to point out that the headline didn't mean no one had died of AIDS that week, just that no obituaries had been submitted. Coming a couple years after the advent of protease inhibitors, it marked a turning point of sorts in the epidemic.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 12:09 PM on November 29, 2009

Great post, thanks for writing it.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:11 PM on November 29, 2009

The site will enable users to share memories and could eventually let them upload photos – "sort of like a Facebook page for each person," said Burtch.

Ack. Not really the description I would have liked to see used for this project. I do understand the sentiment, and love the idea of an ever-expanding Web 2.0-ish memory book about all these casualties of the epidemic. Just not really sure Facebook needs to be the yardstick by which such projects should be measured.

Thanks for sharing this. I'll be looking through it later this week, and forever thankful my own journey of self-discovery took place post-Reagan and in a town with no actual gay subculture. I'm sure the timing and location saved my life.
posted by hippybear at 12:31 PM on November 29, 2009

I lost someone to AIDS when I was five or so. While I'm sure I would have found HIV and AIDS of great interest without that experience - as everyone should - I'm not sure I would have felt this much interest, at least not as early in life as I did.

Ack. Not really the description I would have liked to see used for this project.

Yeah, it's a little tasteless. Then again, if tastelessness is what is needed to bring these stories to the masses then I'm all for it. I just hope this survives long enough to make a difference to people.

Thanks for the post.
posted by neewom at 1:01 PM on November 29, 2009

Lately in the B.A.R. I've seen some 20-year memorial postings, for people who died 20 years ago. I think people are thinking a lot about history, looking back from the less chaotic and deadly present, and wanting to to hold on to the people who died, so that they are not forgotten or lost. I think Facebook is a decent and contemporary analogy for imagining an on-line place for pictures and memories about a person who didn't survive the epidemic.

On another note, my heart goes out to the two volunteers who went through 10,000 (10,000!!!) obituaries. An act of love but I am sure incredibly painful.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 1:14 PM on November 29, 2009

Fantastic post, Claudia. Thank you.
posted by rtha at 1:33 PM on November 29, 2009

Thank you for posting this. I remember afternoons sitting at Cafe Flore in 1993, reading through the stories that woven through the B.A.R. obituaries by the loved ones left behind.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 1:44 PM on November 29, 2009

This looks like a good post, but I can't help thinking it would have been better to wait a couple days until the content is active.

I probably won't remember to go visit it.
posted by pseudonick at 2:16 PM on November 29, 2009

This will be painful for me, but I expect to spend a fair amount of time within the database. Quite a few names to search. I actually love the idea of eventually being able to upload and share photos and memories of loved ones, lost...I definitely have a few albums worth stored away.

Does that make me morbid, or unwilling to forget?

My brother and his friends have a memorial facebook set up for a friend they lost to cancer and the photos and stories they have shared there has brought them all closer to her and each other.
posted by squasha at 3:41 PM on November 29, 2009


( x 10K )
posted by sien at 4:55 PM on November 29, 2009

I'm email favorites and commenters when the database is active.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 6:05 PM on November 29, 2009

Oh, what a wonderful project. Thank you for sharing it here.
posted by serazin at 6:45 PM on November 29, 2009

I'm not willing to forget- a largish number of my high school classmates died of AIDS and related diseases. In Indiana. Unfortunately, here there was no record like that kept. Our casualties are remembered in our memories.

I'm very glad they're doing this; but it makes the losses here more bittersweet.
posted by pjern at 9:17 PM on November 29, 2009

In the early '90s, I used to manage a record store across the street from Mac's, a gay bar in downtown San Jose. The owner of the record store was a lesbian, and my best friend was gay, so the two of us had been going to gay bars pretty regularly for quite some time.

Though located near most of the downtown's upscale nightclubs of the time, Mac's was cheap and easy, in the best sense of the word. $1.50 drinks being served right next to places with $5+tip well drinks. Many of the "cool kids" from the nightclubs would drop by Mac's at some point during the night, regardless of orientation, to fuel up there. This would, during the course of the evening, change the chemistry from gay and thirtysomething to one that was simply youthful and "sexual"... diverse, with the possibility of anything happening.

The old Mac's was perhaps the narrowest bar I have ever seen... little more than a long hallway with a long bar in it. Navigating to the back of the bar on a busy evening when the downtown nightclubs around Macs were hopping was a long, drawn-out process, as you would inevitably be obstructed by a crowd of people greeting, hugging, and kissing other people, like some kind of reception line.

I oftentimes would check out the latest B.A.R. while there, to see what was happening culturally and clubwise, and it was just shocking and stunning how much of the paper was taken up with obituaries. It was like a hidden reality that you didn't see in the San Jose newspaper. It was practically a supplement to itself... it stuck out like the escorts section of the Las Vegas Yellow Pages.

At the same time, the entire back of the bar was entirely filled with pictures of people who weren't there anymore, as well as ribbons you could buy to help fight AIDS and honor all those who had died.

Mac's moved a few years after that... it was an old building. The next Mac's just wasn't the same anymore. Tame. Sedate. Gentrified. And the thing is, despite there likely being a larger LGBT community at that point, it seems like all of San Jose's gay nightlife was on the skids, as compared to during the late Reagan/Bush/early Clinton era. Some of their biggest clubs had shut down throughout the Bay Area.

In retrospect, a huge, societal wrong was done against the gay community. They were largely ignored, and left to die by the tens of thousands by the powers-that-be. There was a lot of fear and hopelessness, and even sometimes, a kind of resignation in the gay community based on how widespread the disease was. And there was also anger, creativity, and the desire to have as much fun as safely possible.

S.F.'s Pride Days were larger and livelier then than they are today. More people seemed willing to go out clubbing in the middle of the week, only to drag themselves into work the next morning on five hours of sleep.

Small comfort, perhaps... but still worth noting.
posted by markkraft at 2:36 AM on November 30, 2009

It's easy enough, with SARS and anthrax and H1N1 and Ebola and all the other potentially life-threatening illnesses that have made headlines in the last 20 years, along with all the geopolitical dramas and everyday stresses of life, to forget the immediacy of fear of AIDS that was pervasive in the U.S. in the '80s. We have our widely-available testing and our drug cocktails and our survival rates and our safer sex strategies, and we do not, most of us, feel an immediate threat from AIDS or HIV.

We've lost tens of thousands of people to this epidemic every year, most of them loved and missed but now more on a personal level than a community level. We look at photos of our loved ones or walk the panels of the quilt and cry and laugh and remember, but the motivating outrage and fear have dissipated in most quarters.

We could use some of that outrage. World AIDS Day serves to remind us that millions worldwide are struggling with HIV and AIDS and feeling that fear that struck and surrounded us here in the '80s, particularly those of us in or close to the LGBTQ community. Right now, two-thirds of HIV infections world-wide are in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as nearly three quarters of the world's deaths from AIDS. There are still over 2 million new cases of HIV worldwide every year. The epidemic is far from over.
posted by notashroom at 6:54 AM on November 30, 2009

Here it is.
posted by gingerbeer at 11:46 AM on December 1, 2009

It took me a while to look at this, Here's one good man, a friend and activist, Patrick. He was out doing needle exchange just a week before he died.
posted by goofyfoot at 6:26 AM on December 15, 2009

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