Sixth International AIDS Conference, 1990Hughes
You were president of BAPHR [1990-1991] when the Sixth International AIDS Conference met in San Francisco in 1990.
Yes. At the same time, I was also on the board of directors of Shanti Project [1988-1993]. I had been an emotional support volunteer for three years [1985-1988], and then I joined the board of directors. So I was intimately involved with people giving care and emotional support to PWAs [people with AIDS], their family and friends.
So when it came on the horizon that we were going to have this meeting here, it was at the same time that the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] was saying that no one who was HIV positive would be allowed to come into the country. That set the stage for another major ideological confrontation among gay organizations. Shanti took the strong stance that we would not participate at all, we would actively boycott the conference, because we were serving people with AIDS, and the government was saying they can't come to the conference from other countries.
The AIDS Foundation, on the other hand, was saying, "We think this is reprehensible, but we think it's important to go to the conference because it's an educational experience, and we cannot pass up this opportunity here in San Francisco to disseminate this knowledge."
So there was a great controversy in BAPHR about whether we should or should not attend. A large number of us felt we should boycott, that it made sense to boycott. We had a meeting where I came up with the idea that we should go but protest, and we could combine those two things. I thought that the best way to do it would be to wear an armband of some kind.
I got that idea because a few years earlier the American Psychiatric Association met here in San Francisco, and it was the time that people were wearing a black armband in support of the the ERA [Equal Rights Amendment]. I attended the first caucus meeting of gay and lesbian members of the APA. There was controversy about whether the gay and lesbian caucus should wear armbands in support of the ERA. Many of the men said that they
― 64 ―thought this wasn't our issue, and we shouldn't wear armbands. I remember getting up and saying, "How in the world can we not support something like equal rights for women? What are we thinking?" It seemed like my words swayed the group to go with wearing black armbands. At that APA meeting I helped a lot of other people pin on black armbands.
So that gave me the idea when the AIDS conference came: Let's have a symbol. My first idea was to wear a lavender armband. But then we decided in our discussion that a red armband was more appropriate because it represented blood, and because it was the red badge of courage. I remember that phrase, we thought of that.
So I wrote an article, that I have, that went in the BAPHRON, talking about the AIDS conference. It outlined that there again was this polarization: Don't come or do come. The BAPHR executive board had decided that we would go but we would wear red armbands as an active sign of our protest against the INS policy.
I went to the flower mart and bought rolls of red satin. Then we had 5,000 ribbons cut, and we had some signs made. I know I've got some pictures of it somewhere. I don't think I went to any of the meetings. I stayed outside and pinned about 1,000 armbands on people. Before the very first conference, I had already called Paul Volberding and John Ziegler. They were the two co-chairs of the meeting. I knew them because they had been on Merv Silverman's AIDS Task Force, where we had spent countless hours together. I called them beforehand telling them what our intention was, and I got them to wear these red armbands, and I pinned them on them myself. So as the conference opened they were wearing our ribbon armbands.
That meeting started, and the cameras were on them. By the time people had seen that, the participants, especially the gay ones, were very eager to have these armbands. So it was a very hot commodity. Everywhere I went, I was carrying armbands and safety pins, and pinning them onto their shirts or their suit coat or whatever. As the meeting went on, you could see more and more of these red armbands.
On the last day, Louis Sullivan (the head of Health and Human Services), was coming to the meeting and we knew there was going to be a big protest. On the podium that day--and there are photographs of it--everyone but Sullivan had a red armband on. Every other doctor up there. Many of the people in the hall had red armbands, and there was a massive protest. Whistles and shouting, no one could hear a word he said. We disrupted his speech with nonviolent civil disobedience.
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Right after that meeting we led a large group of doctors who were attending the conference to join the Gay Freedom Parade that coincided with the conference. We were there behind the banner with Volberding and Jonathan Mann, who was the head of the World Health Organization at the time. We left the Moscone Center where Sullivan had just spoken and joined the parade. So there was this huge outpouring of protesting people.
24. For John Ziegler's reaction to this experience, see his oral history in the AIDS physicians series.
Some weeks after this AIDS conference, I got a phone call from a friend who had watched some awards show on TV. He said, "You wouldn't believe what happened. There were people wearing these red ribbons for AIDS awareness. And somebody called and said, "Do you realize that these red ribbons that we started passing out have become a symbol?" We were all amazed. By the end of the conference, one of the things that we had noticed is that a few people, especially women, didn't want this big red armband pinned on their silk blouses, so they were taking a part of it and bending it and attaching it to something else. So it was a smaller fragment, but it was still the red ribbon. And as we know, the red ribbon became the symbol of AIDS awareness, which started as BAPHR's protest against the INS policy at the International AIDS meeting.
An amazing story.
An amazing story.
You don't know who took it from there?
We don't know who. Someone saw it, because of course this conference was internationally telecast. I specifically asked Paul Volberding in the opening comments for that conference to mention why he was wearing it and where he got it. He mentioned in the opening statement to that international conference that he was wearing this ribbon because a group called Bay Area Physicians for Human Rights were protesting this [INS] policy. So we knew that people were seeing it as a sign of protest, and then later someone decided to carry it on and wear it again at an awards ceremony, and then it just caught on.
It's also a story of activism and acknowledgement by the medical establishment that PWAs and other activists should be part of AIDS activities
― 66 ―Andrews
Did you feel that indeed was the attitude of the Sixth International Conference?
Very much. Paul Volberding and John Ziegler did an incredible job of organizing a scientific meeting that also included input and participation from AIDS and gay groups. It was, far more than any earlier international meeting, a meeting that addressed the psychosocial and political issues involved with AIDS. It was no coincidence that this happened in San Francisco. What was amazing is that it coincided with this crazy,
Reagan-style government position by the INS. It made no sense to discriminate against HIV-positive individuals, by attempting to prevent them from entering the country to attend the meeting, when we all knew that there was absolutely no way the virus could be passed by casual contact. To the many scientists and doctors attending the meeting, it painted a very clear picture that AIDS wasn't just a disease but had an enormous social impact. Many of the conference attendees told me they had never been politically active before, but they were eager to wear our red ribbons and join the protest. For the first time, they began to understand the implications of this disease, that this was also a social and political situation that had to do with homophobia, AIDS phobia, fear and ignorance.
John Ziegler told me that he actually marched in the Gay Pride Day parade.