By Scott Wiener
It’s Pride month, a time when San Francisco and cities around the world celebrate the strength, resilience, and sheer fabulousness of the LGBT community. If last year’s Pride was marked by celebration of our long overdue right to marry, this year’s pride feels more like a matter of life and death — *our* lives. As we continue to process the horrific massacre of 49 of our LGBT brothers and sisters in Orlando, we must come together, embrace, and celebrate one another like never before. Orlando was an extreme violation of a community safe space for LGBT people of color, and for those of us who have spent more nights than we care to admit partying, meeting friends and lovers, and building community in our LGBT nightlife spaces, this attack cuts to the heart of who we are.
(Photo: Castro vigil for Orlando massacre. Our community is under assault, but our community is strong.)
Politicians, corporations, and people of all stripes embrace Pride and wrap themselves in the rainbow. It’s critical to have straight allies — we could not do it without them — but we also need our own leaders, people for whom support for the LGBT community is wired in their DNA. We are so lucky to have these leaders in our community — LGBT advocates, nonprofit and corporate leaders, elected officials, and others who help move our community forward.
As a gay man and 19-year resident of the Castro, Pride is intensely personal for me, particularly as the person with the deep honor of occupying the seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors once held by Harvey Milk. There will never, ever be another Harvey, and we must remember what he stood for as we move forward as a community. Our community is under intense pressure on various fronts, whether violence, evictions and displacement, homelessness, or lack of access to healthcare. We have our work cut out for us.
I came of age as a closeted 17 year old gay man in 1987, at the height of the HIV epidemic when there was no effective treatment for the virus. People were dying, our community was being vilified, and there was virtually no support for those of us trying to come to terms with our sexuality. In 1990, shortly after I came out, my cousin Melissa and her partner Margie took me to a gay bar in Philadelphia. Margie told me: “It’s great that you’re out with the lesbians, but you also need gay guy friends. I wanted to invite some of my guy friends out with us tonight, but they’re all sick or dead.”
I had just turned 20, and that was my introduction to our community.
There’s been no more frightening time period for our community. I remember the first time I was tested for HIV, in 1991 in Durham, North Carolina, near my college. I went with my kid sister, and we were tested together. Back then, you had to wait a full two weeks for any test results. Those two weeks were marked by deep anxiety and fear.
I would not allow myself to be overcome by fear. Shortly after coming out, I began volunteering for an HIV hotline in Durham and with some training, began fielding calls from people who were in crisis or simply terrified. While our straight peers were hitting their sexual prime, our sex was all too associated with sickness and death. What I learned on the hotline was that we were all in some way experiencing profound isolation, fear, and anxiety about a basic human activity that for most people was intimate, connected, and joyous.
I was and am extremely lucky to have supportive friends and family, including my lesbian cousin, Melissa, my (now-deceased) transgender cousin, Denise, and my aunt Leah—a hero by any measure — who came out as a lesbian in the 1960s when being LGBT was still officially classified as a mental illness. My parents are the best people I’ve ever known, and they were unconditionally supportive. I’ll never forget the year they marched with me in the Philadelphia Pride Parade. They later joined PFLAG and wrote to their Congressman in New Jersey insisting that he support LGBT equality. My sister is a physician specializing in HIV care for low-income people.
These experiences have remained with me to this day and inform my advocacy for our community. HIV is still a very real threat. Our community continues to experience significant violence, with LGBT hate violence topping the list of communities targeted by hate crimes. LGBT people disproportionately experience homelessness. Because so many LGBT people lost much of their support networks during the HIV crisis, many suffer from isolation and depression, and too many LGBT seniors struggle with housing. Our transgender community continues to experience unacceptable levels of extreme violence (particularly transgender women of color), unemployment, and lack of adequate health care access. And, to this day, we have no federal civil rights protections as a community, and in dozens of states you can still be fired, evicted, or kicked out of a store simply for being LGBT. Indeed, North Carolina and other states continue to pass anti-LGBT hate laws that define us as second-class citizens.
Starting that first day on the HIV hotline in North Carolina 25 years ago, a deep personal resolve formed in me to fight for the LGBT community. It’s that resolve that led me to public service, and it's that same resolve that has me more determined than ever to eradicate these inequities. Along the way, I’ve been honored to know and work with stellar LGBT advocates and to be mentored by them. Together, we have worked to support and strengthen our community:
- Building the LGBT Community Center: When I arrived in San Francisco in 1997, our city did not have an LGBT Community Center. I joined with, and was mentored by, an extraordinary group of community leaders, to build the Center — people like Pat Martel, Dana Van Gorder, Randi Gerson, Dave Latina, and Scott Shaffer. We went to hell and back to get it built, but we got it done thanks to smart community organizing and a tremendous outpouring of support.
- Stopping Anti-LGBT Violence: When gay men were being raped on the streets of the Castro in 2006, I was proud to join with brilliant community organizers like Carlton Paul and Joe Gallagher to found Castro Community on Patrol, a neighborhood walking patrol, to keep our community safe from these attacks. Almost overnight, several hundred volunteers patrolers came together to say “no more.” It was inspiring and something that moves me to this day.
- Fighting for Federal Civil Rights: I had the honor of serving for a decade on the national board of the Human Rights Campaign, largely during the George W. Bush administration, when we were under constant attack. I got to see the inspiring leadership of Elizabeth Birch, Joe Solmonese, and other national LGBT leaders who were determined to ensure that our community always has a seat at the table.
As a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, I’ve continued to be inspired by our community’s strong leadership and honored to be able to work with these leaders:
- Back-Filling Federal HIV Budget Cuts: A month after I took office in 2011, we were hit with the first of what would amount to tens of millions in federal HIV service cuts — devastating for our most vulnerable HIV-positive residents — due to Washington’s budget meltdown and lack of commitment to our community (despite Nancy Pelosi’s heroic efforts to protect HIV funding). San Francisco’s tenacious and resourceful HIV advocacy community came together, and working as a team we have backfilled in our local budget every penny of those federal cuts and ensured that low income San Franciscans with HIV continue to receive the care they need.
- Ending HIV Infections in San Francisco: Doing what San Francisco always does around HIV — lead the way — we recently formulated a strategy to end new HIV infections in San Francisco, called “Getting to Zero.” This partnership between city government, community-based organizations, and our advocacy community is already paying dividends, as San Francisco’s infection rate continues to fall. I’ve had the honor of serving as part of this consortium and also partnering with the San Francisco AIDS Foundation to create Strut, our new comprehensive health center on Castro Street for gay, bi, and trans men. I’m also a Strut client in my effort to protect my own sexual health.
- Going Public About My Taking PrEP: In 2014, with support, encouragement, and mentorship from leaders at the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, Project Inform, and UCSF, I became the first elected official to talk openly about my taking Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), a much-stigmatized daily pill that reduces risk of HIV transmission by nearly 100%. I shared my personal story in a piece in Huffington Post entitled “Coming Out of the PrEP Closet.” Working together, we were able to take a significant step to raise awareness about PrEP, reduce the stigma surrounding it (similar to the stigma all too prevalent around sexual health in this country), and expand access to it.
- Helping LGBT Seniors: As our community ages, with more and more LGBT people achieving senior status, we have yet to fully grapple with how to address the very unique needs of LGBT seniors around health, housing, and other challenges. Several years ago, our senior advocacy community came together and approached me with the idea of studying the issue to come up with solutions. I joined forces with Supervisors David Campos and Christina Olague to author legislation to create an LGBT Aging Task Force, which, over the course of 18 months, formulated some terrific recommendations. Based on those recommendations, I worked with the community and authored legislation creating a bill of rights for LGBT seniors in long-term care facilities and legislation requiring data collection around LGBT people in city-funded programs, as well as obtaining funding to address dementia and isolation among LGBT seniors.
- Protecting LGBT At-Risk Youth: Too many of our LGBT youth are homeless or otherwise at-risk. We have a tremendous network of community-based organization’s working to meet their needs, including Larkin Street Youth Services, the LGBT Center, and LYRIC. Each year, I’m honored to work with these groups and others as part of our budget process to ensure our at-risk youth have the housing, health, education, nutrition, and other resources they need to survive and thrive.
- Supporting Our Transgender/Gender-Nonconforming Kids: We also need to look out for and support our transgender and gender non-conforming children and adolescents, to ensure they have happy healthy lives as their real selves, that they have access to healthcare, and that they aren’t being bullied. I’m collaborating with UCSF and its innovative clinic to help these kids and their families.
- Housing Challenges: Our community struggles with housing, with far too many people facing eviction or other loss of housing and the very real prospect of being forced from the city they helped build. We are finally taking meaningful steps to address this growing need. The 55 Laguna Project, sponsored by Openhouse, will create LGBT-focused senior affordable housing, and it has been an honor for me to support these efforts, including obtaining funding to help educate the LGBT community about how to access affordable housing. I’ve also worked with the community to extend rent control to low income people with HIV housing subsidies and to support long-term HIV survivors facing loss of housing.
- Transgender Healthcare Access: Our transgender brothers and sisters face severe struggles with healthcare access. Several years ago, advocates who had been fighting for years to remove an exclusion for full transgender health access in San Francisco’s health plan — including Theresa Sparks, Masen Davis, and Cecilia Chung — approached me for help. We partnered and persuaded the Department of Public Health to remove the exclusion.
- LGBT Nightlife: As we were reminded so vividly by the Orlando tragedy, our LGBT nightlife is part of our LGBT identity, and our bars and nightclubs are crucial community-building spaces. While I don’t go out quite as much as I used to — and no longer sneak home from the clubs after sunrise — I am passionate about supporting our LGBT nightlife, whether working with Heklina to make Oasis a reality, helping the Eagle reopen, collaborating with Folsom Street Fair to navigate city bureaucracy, supporting the Castro’s thriving bars and clubs, or working with advocates to author legislation to make it easier to create nightlife and live music in San Francisco. Many of our city’s best nightlife advocates are LGBT, like Audrey Joseph and Terrance Alan, and they’ve taught me an awful lot about how to protect and help our nightlife scene flourish.
- Fighting Anti-LGBT Hate Laws: We are currently working to put San Francisco firmly on record in opposition to anti-LGBT hate laws, such as the one in North Carolina. I recently introduced legislation to prohibit our city from entering into contracts in states with these laws or funding travel to those states.
- Moving Forward After the Orlando Massacre: In response to the tragedy in Orlando, we are working hard to have a very positive response in San Francisco. I convened and worked with a broad coalition of community leaders to hold an inspiring vigil in the Castro the night of the shooting and, two days later, convened a meeting of LGBT bars and nightclubs and our police department, to work toward a safe Pride and safe nightlife.
. . .
Today, more than ever, I am immensely proud to be a gay man. Together, we have fought and survived the worst days of the HIV epidemic. We have come out of the shadows and claimed a seat at the table, winning elected offices around the country and even a United States Senate seat. We no longer have to rely exclusively on allies to push our agenda for us. We now have the capacity to put our own community members in positions of power to get the job done. We have demonstrated our immense capacity for love and achieved marriage equality. Make no mistake, we face very real challenges ahead, but we are resilient and we get stronger with every setback. We will win in the end, whatever the challenge. (Take note, NRA — we’re coming for you.)
Pride is about celebrating our community, looking back at what we’ve done and what we need to do, and, for me personally, remembering the happiness, and at times pain, that come with being a gay man. But that pain will never define us — because only we can define us. Here’s to an uplifting and beautiful Pride in San Francisco, in Orlando, and around the world.