The world was just two years into the mysterious new disease still thought of as a “gay plague” when Willie Brown got an urgent request for help from a San Francisco activist. If doctors were going to find out what was causing this deadly illness, the activist pleaded, they needed money, real money, for research. The year was 1983, two years before news of Rock Hudson’s diagnosis broke and actress Elizabeth Taylor hosted her first Hollywood fundraiser for the cause. President Ronald Reagan had yet to utter the word “AIDS” in public, but Brown, then Speaker of the California State Assembly, felt the agonizing toll of the disease. Several close friends and political associates of his were dying and doctors couldn’t say why.
He convened a group of community organizers and medical researchers at his Los Angeles office and issued a simple charge. “Sit down and figure out how much money you’ll need for the next year, and I’ll get it done,” he told them. The group locked themselves in that Friday and toiled over the weekend until they had worked out a detailed budget. Over the opposition of the Republican governor, Brown engineered passage of the bill, generating the first-ever state funds dedicated to AIDS research. The $3 million grant helped researchers isolate the HIV virus and launched many of the earliest epidemiological studies.
Willie Brown has approached the fight against HIV/AIDS with the same vision and intellectual curiosity that has characterized his long career in public service. Elected to the California State Assembly in 1964, Brown became the state’s first African American speaker in 1980, a position he held for an unprecedented 15 years, until he was elected San Francisco’s first Black mayor in 1995.
A longtime champion of civil rights, Brown was a staunch ally of the gay and lesbian community long before the AIDS epidemic began. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he worked to successfully decriminalize sexual acts between consenting adults in the State of California, a hallmark victory for gay rights in the state. His approach toward AIDS, he says, is shaped by the same civil rights values. “If all you do is address this disease from a medical standpoint,” says Brown, “quite frankly, you’ve missed the issue.”
The scope and dimension of Brown’s work in combating HIV/AIDS has changed as the disease itself has changed. In the late 1980s, he championed a bill that removed the threat of product liability litigation, freeing scientists to work on and test vaccines. Over the next decade, advances in the science of AIDS, combined with the alarming growth of infections worldwide, brought a dramatic paradigm shift in the way people thought and talked about the disease. Noticing a need for a forum to address the new medical and social dynamics, Mayor Brown sponsored San Francisco’s first AIDS Summit in 1998. The event drew policy makers, community and business leaders, medical professionals, and scientists from around the country to discuss such challenging topics such as whether to report names of HIV-positive individuals to health authorities, the difficulty with ensuring adherence to new HIV treatments, and how to encourage the re-entry of HIV-positive people into the workforce.
One of the most alarming trends in the ongoing progression of the disease, says Brown, is its rapid growth in communities of color. More needs to be done, he says, to tailor education and prevention messages to African Americans. “We need to be as ‘Black caucus conscious’ of the needs of our community in addressing this as an issue as we are with almost every other issue that we confront in society,” says Brown. “With respect to this disease, African Americans constitute a crisis-based unit of the population. Special attention is required.” Twenty years into the struggle, HIV/AIDS has become a mainstay of Willie Brown’s ongoing public agenda. He says he draws inspiration not only from the memory of the dozens of friends he has lost to AIDS, but also from the lives of the dozens more who continue to live with the disease. The mayor still holds regular briefing sessions with his personal council of community and medical advisors, many of whom were with him at that first groundbreaking meeting in 1983. They advise him on the latest in treatment protocols, research papers being delivered, and topics of concern in local neighborhoods. From those sessions has come a constant wave of AIDS-related policy initiatives—from pushing for more funding, to realigning health department priorities, to advocating for more AIDS education in San Francisco schools.
But as important as this government-level commitment is, says Brown, a relentless community commitment is needed as well, especially in communities of color. “It just takes one or two people in a given community to deliver the message. That’s all,” says Brown. “It does not take a big elaborate operation, but an ongoing addressing of the issue.”
Brown has faith that African Americans will step up to continue the fight against HIV/AIDS, simply because they have no choice. “There’s no dwelling on the existence of this disease. No lamenting,” he says. “We must treat it matter-of-factly if we are to come to grips with it.” As African Americans struggle to do just that, they can be assured that Willie Brown will be there as well, pushing the debate forward.