40 years later: San Francisco honors lives lost to AIDS with memorial quilt

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Honoring the lives lost from the HIV/AIDS epidemic, a ceremony was held Saturday in the National AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park commemorating 40 years since the CDC reported the first cases of what would become known as AIDS.

40 panels of the AIDS quilt were on display, a massive piece of art that first debuted in 1987.

RELATED: 40 years ago, the first cases of AIDS were reported in the US

The quilt had been stationed in Atlanta until last year, when it was moved back to San Francisco.

As a young congresswoman, Speaker Nancy Pelosi had helped facilitate the quilt's debut on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

"It's come home to San Francisco where we will honor it and protect it," said Pelosi at the ceremony Saturday morning.

The grove was open throughout the afternoon for the public to view the quilts.

RELATED: Coronavirus: AIDS Memorial Quilt volunteers using extra fabric to sew masks

It was the first time San Francisco resident Erin Lavery had ever come to the grove, having lived through the height of the epidemic herself.

"It was scary. Very scary time," she said. "I'll never forget it."

Browsing the quilts, she worried what might happen if she recognized a name, though she admitted, "I'm kind of hoping to see somebody. It's weird."

Throughout the afternoon, volunteers came to read a list of names of people who have died from AIDS.

"Reading the names seems a little morbid at times. But every time a name is said, that somebody passed away, I'm convinced they live," said Donna Sachet, gay activist and drag queen who came to read names, including those of friends who died young.

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It's been 40 years since the first published report identifying what we now know as AIDS. Since then, there's been progress made, but stigmas remain.

The Chief Executive of the National Aids Memorial, John Cunningham, described the 80's as "war-like"

"In the early days, it was clear no one was coming," said Cunningham. "We had a government that chose not to respond."

He said he has been living with the virus for 25 years, something that's only been possible due to medical breakthroughs.

While there still is no cure, there has been progress. Not just for HIV prevention and treatment, but for the lifesaving vaccine of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"That was done under the emergency use authorization from the FDA. That was created from the AIDS crisis," commented Cunningham.

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