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‘It’s not over’: How rage pushed a Bay Area man into a life of AIDS activism

Long-time survivor Michael Bongiorni poses for a portrait at the AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. Thursday marks World AIDS Day. | Benjamin Fanjoy/The Standard

A “gay cancer.” Those are the first words Michael Bongiorni remembers reading about the AIDS epidemic. The four-decade survivor was about 30 years old when he saw a newspaper article about a mysterious disease killing gay men. He dismissed the stigmatizing clip at first, but soon enough, there was no way to ignore the fact that his friends were falling ill and disappearing.

That year, 1981, Bongiorni traveled to Austin from his home in New Orleans to help others suffering from the effects of the virus, which also disproportionately impacted hemophiliacs and intravenous drug users. “People were literally starving to death,” he said.

But when Bongiorni and his friend Troy “Bud” Webb, who died of AIDS a few years later, asked the Secretary General of Texas for support, they were met with cruel indifference.

“He just said, ‘You guys are in this one on your own. We ain't going to support you for this,’” Bongiorni recalled. The rage he felt in that moment intensified after Webb’s death. He was still angry when he made his first contribution to the AIDS Memorial Quilt in his friend’s memory.

Today, Bongiorni (who has been living in the Bay Area on and off since 1995) said he’s the last of his original friend group still alive.

Names are engraved on the stone at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco. Thursday marks World AIDS Day. | Benjamin Fanjoy/The Standard

Ahead of World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, Bongiorni is largely driven by hope. The AIDS Memorial Quilt is now a 54-ton tapestry of 50,000 panels honoring 110,000 individuals. Several sections of the quilt will be on display at the National AIDS Memorial Grove at Golden Gate Park this Thursday to mark World AIDS Day. 

The AIDS Memorial Quilt is a San Francisco creation, conceived of by human rights activist Cleve Jones in 1985. After Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk—the first openly gay man to serve in public office in California—were assassinated at city hall in 1978, Jones and other community organizers began organizing an annual candlelight march. In 1985, he invited San Franciscans to write the names of the loved ones they had lost to AIDS on placards, which they stuck to the wall of the Federal Building. When it began to rain, the colors in the placards melded together, and the patchwork-like imagery moved Jones and others to create the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.

A volunteer organizer with the project, Bongiorni was in Washington, D.C., when the quilt was first displayed on the National Mall in 1987. It was the first time he cried since his friends began dying of the virus.  

“This woman reached her arms around me and said, ‘That's my son next to your friend.’ And I will always remember that hug. It gave me the sense of compassion that people really do have. It saved my life,” Bongiorni said.

Michael Bongiorni poses for a portrait by the Circle of Friends at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. | Benjamin Fanjoy/The Standard

The 72-year-old Bongiorni, who now lives in Oakland, has contributed at least a dozen panels since the quilt’s creation. 

The National AIDS Memorial Grove will host a public observation of World AIDS Day on Thursday, Dec. 1, where community leaders,including Jones and National AIDS Memorial CEO John Cunningham, will speak. Sections of the quilt will be on display in a tent next to the grove. 

Vince Crisostomo, director of aging services for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, which serves long-term survivors, said that while there is an effective treatment for the virus today, he still urges people to remain committed to the fight against AIDS. “We want to bring the focus back to HIV and AIDS,” Crisostomo said. “It’s not over yet.”

An engraving reads “Circle of Friends” on the stone at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco. | Benjamin Fanjoy/The Standard

Tucked beside the National AIDS Memorial Grove, the Circle of Friends honors individuals who have died from HIV and AIDS, donors and loved ones. Bongiorni’s name is inscribed in the circle. Reading aloud the coiled list of names, Bongiorni said he’s moved by how far people have come in confronting the widespread bigotry and stigma around HIV and AIDS. Still, after tragedies like the recent mass shooting at Club Q, a LGBTQ+ nightclub in Colorado Springs, he has his moments of uncertainty.

“‘Have we made any progress?’ I ask myself, and then I look at my gay and trans nieces, and yes, we have,” Bongiorni said. “My hope is that they never have to face the hate and the bigotry that I faced when I was their age. I hope that it will end.”

Patrons observe the AIDS Memorial Quilt during the AIDS Walk Atlanta & Music Festival on Sept. 29, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. | Paras Griffin/Getty Images

Rain is in the forecast for Thursday, and the National Observance event is subject to change.

World AIDS Day National Observance

📍National AIDS Memorial Grove
🕑 Thursday, Dec. 1 | 11 a.m. - 1 p.m.