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 AIDS Walk San Francisco: Three Decades of Compassion in Action
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 $96 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.
Poster created by AIDS activist group,
ACT-UP, in the early years of the AIDS crisis.


Many people visibly affected by AIDS-related complications attend early AIDS Walks, a stark reminder of the work that needs to be done.
Thousands gather at the Bandshell in Golden Gate Park for the first AIDS Walk San Francisco in 1987.  

Though fundraising hopes are high for the fledgling event, participants surpass expectations by raising more than $667,000. The San Francisco Examiner (excerpts above and right) reports high praise for the Walk, spearheaded by “dynamic organizer” Craig Miller and his co-organizer, Richard Zeichik

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 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.

AIDS Walk Surges Amid Height of the Epidemic: 1997-2008

By 1997, AIDS death rates in the United States have begun to fall precipitously, thanks to the recent advent and subsequent availability of protease inhibitors.
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 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.
Mayor Gavin Newsom addresses the AIDS Walk crowd in 2005.

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 1995, while championing AIDS Walk on the air to millions of viewers for many weeks leading up to each event—both traditions which continue today.

New Challenges, New Paths Forward: 2009-Present

The Great Recession looms large at the end of the first decade of the 2000’s, threatening to curtail fundraising for HIV/AIDS and other causes nationwide. AIDS Walk San Francisco is ready with a potent message that “tough times won’t break our stride.” The public rallies around the call, and continues to turn out in vast numbers and raise millions for HIV/AIDS programs and services. With the help of this highly engaged community, the Walk and its many beneficiaries weather the economic storm to continue delivering much-needed services to thousands all over the Bay Area.
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 age 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 WashThelma Houston, and Norma Jean Wright.

Stars from RuPaul’s Drag Race along with Event Director Bert Champagne (left) celebrate a successful AIDS Walk San Francisco in 2017.
Suddenly, in 2020, a new crises emerged as we all faced the threat of the Coronavirus. But again, people living with HIV/AIDS were among those in the greatest peril.

In that moment, AIDS Walk San Francisco and more than 20 co-beneficiaries adapted to meet these new challenges. As the organizations we fund delivered care during the pandemic, AIDS Walk San Francisco altered its event format to reach people where they were and still need to be—AT HOME.

In our reimagining of AIDS Walk San Francisco, we pivoted into a bi-coastal, star-studded simulcast, in collaboration with AIDS Walk New York.

Then, in 2021, after nearly two years of pandemic and trauma, we saw a tremendous need and an exciting opportunity. So, yet again, we made a bold and innovative decision. For the very first time, we joined forces with AIDS Walk communities in Austin, Wisconsin, New Orleans, Seattle and Los Angeles—as well as New York. Together, we created a powerful and unifying virtual event that was highly successful, both nationally and locally

After two successful years of largely virtual events, AIDS Walk San Francisco reunited in Golden Gate Park on July 17, 2022! Friends, family and neighbors came together to honor those who have passed, celebrate all we have accomplished, and walk to support our shared mission. This much-anticipated return to in-person festivities was streamed LIVE by ABC7 Bay Area! Check out the full program below:

Last year, community members from across the Bay Area once again came together for AIDS Walk San Francisco 2023. Fundraising Participants enjoyed a Red Ribbon Pancake Breakfast before uniting in the Meadow for the Opening Ceremonies, featuring awards given to long-time sponsors, speeches from devoted Walkers, and a moving a capella rendition of You'll Never Walk Alone. All of our dedicated Walkers then embarked on our 5K route through the heart of Golden Gate Park, passing dance performances, brass bands, and drum group on their journey back to Robin Williams Meadow. Upon return, we celebrated our success together at the Post Walk Picnic, accompanied by fabulous and rousing drag performances from Bella Amada and Jackie Cox. 

While we consider every AIDS Walk San Francisco that brings the community together a success, we are exceptionally proud of how much dedication and care participants put into AIDS Walk San Francisco 2023 and our Co-Beneficiaries.

Through all of our hard work, 100% of money raised by each of these diverse organizations was able to be awarded, as well as an additional $100,000 in additional grants. 

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, thousands of walkers, and the dozens of organizations that provide 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.