Bay Area Heroes Among Us

First Published in SFgate

Singer Bette Midler loved San Francisco’s Castro and the men there loved her right back. When AIDS came to town, shattering the Castro and those in it to smithereens, it was a song performed by Bette Midler that wouldn’t stop playing in my head.

Broken windows and empty hallways

A pale dead moon in a sky streaked with grey

Human kindness is overflowing

And, I think it’s gonna rain today.”

Walking through the Castro in the in the 1980’s was a lot like walking through a movie set in the 1950s. Except unlike a 1950’s movie, most of the cute, well-kempt couples holding hands were men. Their faces invariably reflected a peace and gratitude. They came from all over the country, and much of the world, in hopes of finding a home free from judgment.

Then AIDS interrupted things. The Norman Rockwell painting began to blur.

Back then, no one knew what caused AIDS, how to fight it, or what to call it. Nothing like it had ever been encountered before.

Bay Area Crematoriums worked 24 hours a day…the solemn smoke ever billowing from buildings. I remember reporting on the story of a local pilot hired to scatter the ashes of the dead. He was so overwhelmed–that he finally admitted in court–the urns were mostly in his garage. He simply could not keep up.

Others, in positions of power, were unwilling to even try.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: “The louder he spoke of honor, the faster we counted our spoons.” That was certainly the case with our supposedly god-fearing president at the time. The more Ronald Reagan spoke of honor and virtue, the clearer it became he had very little of either. When it came to finding out what was killing San Francisco’s gay men, Reagan’s administration told Dr. Don Francis, then-assistant director of viral diseases at the Centers for Disease Control, to “Look pretty. And, do as little as possible.”

Instead, Dr. Francis asked the CDC to transfer him to California to work on the front lines.

Randy Shilts can tell you the history better than most. As his friends fell silent around him, Shilts began writing a landmark book called “And, the Band Played On.” It was later made into a stark and touching movie. Shilts was sick while writing the book and later died of AIDS himself. But he managed to live long enough to show us how a handful of dedicated and heroic people can change history.

These few scientists, health professionals and physicians became medicine’s version of The Untouchables—chasing the un-named disease like Elliot Ness pursued Al Capone. Unfortunately, they were often treated like India’s version of the Untouchables.

Enter Dr. Marc Conant—detective-warrior extraordinaire.

Conant is a dermatologist by profession.

Fearless by nature, Conant never expected to be on the front lines of the AIDS pandemic. But, that’s where fate led him. He could not turn away.

In a world where Kim Kardashian’s name is more recognized than Jonas Salk’s, clearly it is time to remind ourselves what, in fact, defines a hero. One sure sign is risking one’s own life in hopes of saving others. Another is giving up financial gain with that goal in mind. Jonas Salk gave his polio vaccine away. No money required. Giving it away was a slam dunk-no brainer for him. That’s a hero.

Human kindness is overflowing

And, I think it’s gonna rain today.”

With a pandemic raging, Dr. Conant opened the largest private HIV clinic in San Francisco…the largest in the world. He treated five thousand patients–sometimes hundreds per day, then gave briefings to Castro residents at night. He diagnosed the first case of Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a skin rash that meant the relentless march to death’s door was about to begin. Marc Augustine Conant—“Mac,” as his friends call him—refused to “Look pretty and do as little as possible.”

Instead, Conant became the anti-Reagan.

He began warning the sick to secure health insurance, explaining that ‘pre-existing condition’ clauses allowed insurance companies to drop coverage and leave them abandoned, sick and eventually homeless.

Many hospitals refused to take AIDS patients with or without insurance. Not knowing how the death sentence was delivered, more than a few health professionals refused to care for them altogether. Many a lover ran away from the dying just when Dr. Conant and the others came rushing in.

When the group began to understand that unprotected sex was a pathway for the virus, Dr. Conant took the wildly unpopular position of encouraging San Francisco to close its famous bath houses. He stood before a community that had dealt with homophobia all their lives and implored them to use condoms.

He fought the blood banks by trying to get them to test blood for signs of AIDS. At first they refused—it was “too expensive.” Meanwhile, another twenty-four thousand people became infected. By the early 90’s, it was not unusual for those living in the Castro to attend several funerals a day. With each funeral, Bette Midler’s voice played louder in my head.

Scarecrows dressed in the latest styles,

The frozen smiles to chase love away.

Human kindness is overflowing,

And, I think it’s gonna rain today.”

Don Francis, now a world-renowned epidemiologist and head of Global Solutions for Infectious Diseases, remembers what it was like working with Conant. “Marc got things done. His sheer will was amazing.” Francis continues, “He’s [Conant is] so insightful.  He’s a medical genius, so calm and so caring. He reassured those who got sick, and he was a dream to work with.”

Dr. Conant served as an advisor on AIDS to then Speaker of the California Assembly, Willie Brown. Francis remembers mad dashes to the state capitol.

“Often times we wrote what would become legislation while speeding down the road to Sacramento.” Francis names San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos, Speaker Willie Brown, Congressman John Vasconcellos, and David Roberti, President Pro-Tem of the California Legislature, as some of the prime movers providing life-saving money the Feds refused to offer.

On March 21st, Marc Conant will be honored at the 16th Annual Public Health Heroes Awards in San Francisco. He will be introduced by his good friend, Dr. Don Francis. I hope Francis tells this story. He’s given me permission to tell it here.

Shortly after “And, the Band Played On” was published, Dr. Conant and Dr. Francis received an “emergency” phone call from another scientist who did not fare quite so well in Randy Shilt’s book. Francis took the call.  After hanging up, Francis told Conant that the scientist accused him [Dr. Francis] of being Randy Shilt’s secret lover.

Conant looked at Francis then “Mac” said, “That’s ridiculous, Don…do you see how you dress?!

In these times when we are bombarded by a tsunami of spiteful, tit-for-tat infotainment…it helps to remember there are heroes walking among us. On March 21st, Dr. Marc Conant will walk into San Francisco’s Nikko Hotel and get a much-deserved pat on the back.

In Dr. Conant and Dr. Fransis’ honor, let’s take a moment to remember that occasionally people really do care. And every once in a while, those heroes can wrestle the course of history from the hands of those who don’t.

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