Since its inception in 1987, AIDS Walk San Francisco has inspired countless thousands of Bay Area residents to walk, donate, and volunteer in the fight against HIV/AIDS, raising more than $90 million for organizations across seven Bay Area counties. From its humble beginnings, the event has grown into, and remains, the largest and most visible HIV/AIDS fundraising event in Northern California. Below are some historical highlights.
The Early Years: 1987-1996
On July 19, 1987, 3,400 caring people come together in Golden Gate Park for the very first AIDS Walk San Francisco. Many are driven by concern for friends and family members who are becoming sick and dying in alarming numbers from the deadly new disease, while government, particularly the Reagan administration, refuse to act—or act irresponsibly.
Featured speakers at the first events include San Francisco Mayor Dianne Feinstein and People with AIDS/SF President and activist Tristano Palermino. Palermino loses his personal battle with AIDS in 1989, a tragically common occurrence among leaders who are literally fighting for their own lives as well as others’ in the early years of the epidemic.
ACT-UP, in the early years of the AIDS crisis.
The event inspires many to become heroes within the AIDS Walk movement, rallying enormous support and collectively raising many millions of dollars: people like Max Kirkeberg (Team Leader and longtime organizer of the SFSU School of Geography Team), Joanie Juster (volunteer, activist, former AIDS Walk organizer, and powerhouse fundraiser), and Robert Mansfield (leader of UCSF’s massive team fundraising coalition). They and others like them dedicate countless hours of time and energy to galvanizing their friends, family, and co-workers to join the fight.
Early on, some socially conscious Bay Area companies also emerge as crucial allies. Dedicated people working at corporate icons like Levi’s and Gap Inc. organize teams to participate and raise funds, and call upon their leaders to support the Walk through sponsorship and company matches. With ongoing grassroots efforts of their employees, both companies, along with dozens of others each year, continue to be powerful and highly effective partners of AIDS Walk San Francisco.
The support of high-profile actors, singers, writers, and more play an important role in the growing AIDS Walk movement, inspiring audiences, gaining much-needed media attention, and helping to break down walls of prejudice and fear surrounding the epidemic. In the Walk’s first decade, beloved figures like Michael Callen, Joan Baez, Robin Williams, Armistead Maupin, Leeza Gibbons, and Brian Green attend AIDS Walks to voice their solidarity with, and support for, people living with HIV/AIDS.
From left to right: talk show host Leeza Gibbons,
AIDS Walk Founder Craig Miller, and Robin Williams
at AIDS Walk San Francisco in 1996.
From the start, AIDS Walk San Francisco benefits not just one organization, but several. In 1987, proceeds benefit San Francisco AIDS Foundation, as well as AIDS Emergency Fund, STOP AIDS Project, the Black Coalition on AIDS, the Latino AIDS Project, and many others. This reflects a theme – not one voice, but many – that remains an important part of AIDS Walk San Francisco’s identity today.
At a time when the nation is distressingly inattentive to the looming crisis, courageous people and institutions bring a message of compassion and action visibly to the streets—and will continue to do so in the coming decades.
New infections, however, continue to skyrocket; long-term effects of the medications are unknown; many have no access to these new lifesaving treatments; and a cure remains far out of reach. Events like AIDS Walk San Francisco are, if anything, more crucial than before to support the growing numbers of people living with HIV and AIDS.
Fortunately, the AIDS Walk community remains engaged and growing, consistently raising millions each year, and continuing to draw tens of thousands of walkers from all over the Bay Area.
Mayor Gavin Newsom keeps up the proud tradition of strong Mayoral support of AIDS Walk San Francisco, helping to maintain public engagement through his supportive appearances. Newsom is an especially important ally during this period, connecting the AIDS crisis to the rallying cry for LGBT rights—like marriage equality—more broadly.
Other notable figures including Deborah Gibson, Gillian Anderson, Mike Meyers, and Rita Moreno deliver the AIDS Walk’s message that much work still lies ahead. News anchor Dan Ashley of AIDS Walk’s television sponsor, ABC7, takes on duties as emcee of the Opening Ceremony for the first time in 1997, while championing AIDS Walk on the air to millions of viewers for many weeks leading up to each event—both traditions which continue today.
As needs of the HIV/AIDS crisis change, so, too, do AIDS Walk San Francisco’s goals. By 2015, the event, has taken up the explicit mission of addressing the greatest unmet needs of people living with HIV/AIDS, with a renewed focus on supporting and nurturing the dozens of organizations large and small across the Bay Area that have long been a part of the event. These needs include the emerging issue of HIV and aging, as well as longtime drivers of the epidemic: hunger, homelessness, discrimination, and poverty. Using dedicated AIDS Walk funds, for example, Ward 86 at UCSF Zuckerberg General Hospital opens a unit providing specialized care for HIV-positive people over the age of 50.
Refreshed and reinvigorated Post-Walk entertainment in recent years brings in stars from RuPaul’s Drag Race, as well as disco icons such as Marth Wash, Thelma Houston, and Norma Jean Wright.
Through its elevated partnership with longtime beneficiary PRC in 2020, and with support from its visionary leader Brett Andrews, AIDS Walk San Francisco continues to channel its large base of support to the areas that are most pressing for people living with HIV/AIDS, as well as thousands all over the Bay Area who are affected by housing insecurity, hunger, and lack of access to medical care.
While much has changed since the dark, early years of the epidemic, the compassion of AIDS Walk San Francisco participants remains as strong as ever. Today, with the support of generous sponsors, corporate and community teams, and thousands of walkers, and dozens of organizations providing a crucial network of care for HIV-positive people, these efforts continue to change the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS, while addressing the root conditions that fuel its spread.