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    Bobbi Campbell: AIDS Poster Boy

    By Dr. Bill Lipsky–

    Bobbi Campbell (January 28, 1952–August 15, 1984) would have been 70 this year. He was only 30 in 1982 when he and Dan Turner brought together a group of people to found what became the People with AIDS Self-Empowerment Movement (PWA). The term AIDS did not yet exist, so during the first few months he spoke and wrote about having Kaposi’s Sarcoma (KS), the disease that first brought attention to what was still an undiscovered epidemic with global implications.

    The group had what then seemed like revolutionary ideas. It rejected the then commonly used term “KS victim,” Campbell explained, because “’KS victim’ means the bus has run over you and you’re lying there in the street, flattened … . I do not feel like a victim.” It argued for self-empowerment, for people with the disease to participate actively in the response to the crisis they were caught up in. It became the first organization created by and for people with what in a few months became known as AIDS.

    The previous October, Campbell became only the 16th young man in San Francisco to be diagnosed with Kaposi’s Sarcoma, until then a rare skin cancer seen mostly in elderly people with compromised immune systems. Because of his professional and personal interest in gay men’s sexual health, he realized that the entire community needed to become aware of what was being labeled, with shame and censure when it was mentioned at all, as “gay cancer.”

    How to do that, when many people and most media were denying a serious reality or ignoring it completely? Campbell created and posted San Francisco’s first AIDS awareness poster. The same month that he received his diagnosis, he put a notice of the illness, including pictures of his KS lesions, in the window of the Star Pharmacy at 18th and Castro streets, the intergalactic crossroads of the gay world. He urged those with similar lesions to get medical attention.

    Less than six weeks later, Campbell wrote an article that appeared on page one of the December 10, 1981, issue of The Sentinel, a bi-weekly community newspaper. Headlined “Nurse’s Own ‘Gay Cancer’ Story” and titled “I WILL SURVIVE,” the piece began with a simple, extraordinary statement that, because of the stigma many already associated with the disease and some with homosexuality itself, almost no one at the time was willing to make: “I’m Bobbi Campbell, and I have ‘gay cancer.'”

    “Let me tell you something about myself,” he continued. “I’m a 29-year-old, white, gay man who’s lived in the City for six years. I work as a Registered Nurse at Ralph K. Davies Medical Center, and I’m studying at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) for a Master’s Degree in Nursing as an Adult Health Nurse Practitioner. When UCSF’s Graduate Division asked me what my focus of study would be, I wrote that I was most interested in specializing in gay health care.”

    The most important contribution he could make to his chosen field now, he believed, was to tell others about the very real risks they were facing. As he wrote: “I’ve become so active in publicizing KS and the other gay illnesses to friends and media that I’ve taken to referring to myself sardonically as the ‘Kaposi’s Sarcoma Poster Boy.'” He concluded his article, which became the first of a series, with an urgent, personal appeal. “I’m writing because I have a determination to live. You do, too—don’t you?”

    Campbell more than deserved his title as the “Kaposi’s Sarcoma Poster Boy.” The next year, after joining the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence as Sister Florence Nightmare, RN, he and Sister Roz Erection (aka Baruch Golden), also a registered nurse, led the group that created Play Fair! If not the first guidelines for safer sex written for gay men by gay men, then the brochure almost certainly was the first to share information about STDs with humor, even drollness, while presenting extremely serious and practical advice.

    Campbell began to devote more and more of his time to gay men’s health issues and to the social and political issues that were now surrounding them. In early 1982 he and Turner also attended what became the founding meeting of the KS/AIDS Foundation, later renamed the San Francisco AIDS Foundation; Campbell then served on the board. Awareness, he soon realized, was not enough, and he began to argue that people with AIDS had to speak up and out for themselves.

    The next year, Campbell helped to organize the first AIDS Candlelight March, held simultaneously in San Francisco and New York. On May 2, 1983, he and some 10,000 people marched from the Castro to Civic Center behind a banner reading, “Fighting for Our Lives,” proclaiming to the world that gay men, even when confronted with ignorance, disdain and indifference, “do not go gentle into that good night.” Less than a month later, the statement’s four powerful words expanded into a statement of principles and actions.

    During the last week of May, Campbell and Turner attended the Fifth Annual Lesbian and Gay Health Conference in Denver. There they met with some dozen other PWAs who, together, created a statement of truths, now known as The Denver Principles, that summarized the rights and responsibilities of healthcare providers, people with AIDS, and anyone who was concerned or touched by the epidemic. Above all, it asserted the right “to receive human respect …” and “to die—and to LIVE—in dignity.”

    The importance of The Denver Principles cannot be stressed enough. Never before had a group of individuals with the same disease come together to assert their right to participate in the decisions that would determine the rest of their lives. Its basic tenets have influenced how we are involved in our own health care and transformed the way that care, as well as the social services and legal protections needed to support it, are provided and received, benefiting millions of individuals during difficult times.

    Verifying his status as the “AIDS Poster Boy,” Campbell and his “friend” Bobby Hilliard—the magazine apparently was unable to embrace them as lovers—appeared on the August 8, 1983, cover of Newsweek. The article, “Gay America: Sex, Politics and the Impact of AIDS,” its second cover story about the epidemic, showed no more understanding of the health crisis than any other mainstream publication, but it still did better than a president who did not mention AIDS publicly until two years later.

    Campbell worked tirelessly until he died. On July 15, 1984, he spoke at the National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights, held during the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco. He was introduced as “a feminist, a registered Democrat and a Person with AIDS.” Telling his audience that he had hugged his boyfriend on the cover of Newsweek, he then kissed Hilliard on stage, “to show Middle America that gay love is beautiful.”

    Exactly a month after his speech, after 3½ years living with HIV/AIDS, he was gone. Two days later, Castro Street was closed for people to gather there to mourn his passing, celebrate his life, and honor his great contributions to human dignity. In 2014, a Castro Street History Walk plaque commemorated him and the day he posted the “first notice about ‘gay cancer’ on Star Pharmacy’s window at 498 Castro Street.” This year he was selected as an honoree for San Francisco’s Rainbow Honor Walk.

    Bill Lipsky, Ph.D., author of “Gay and Lesbian San Francisco” (2006), is a member of the Rainbow Honor Walk board of directors.

    Published on May 5, 2021