On the corner of Castro and 18th streets on Friday, George Kelly unbuckles the top clips of his chalk-dusted overalls, revealing a shirt that reads “HIV+” in a red and yellow font similar to what you’d see branded across Superman’s chest.
Kelly, now 63, discovered he was HIV-positive when he was a 20-year-old college student studying health care in Texas.
“The doctor said I had six months to two years to live, make my peace with God and stay close to my family,” Kelly said, reflecting back to when he was diagnosed.
He made his way to San Francisco as a young adult, motivated to leave Texas by both a fear of his family seeing him deteriorate physically as well as a desire to get involved in local efforts to understand and fight the pandemic, which started in 1981.
Dec. 1 marks World AIDS Day, an international day of mourning and raising awareness about the ongoing HIV/AIDS pandemic, which the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates has killed over 40 million people worldwide since it began.
World AIDS Day has been observed since 1988. It's a particularly important day in San Francisco, an early epicenter of the illness that devastated the city's LGBTQ+ population in the '80s and '90s—and continues to affect residents today. In both the Castro and Golden Gate Park, San Franciscans attended community gatherings in honor of the day.
“It’s about remembering our friends—the people that were here, the people that we loved and played with and lived with that are no longer here to celebrate with us,” Kelly said.
Following a poignant event in Golden Gate Park’s National AIDS Memorial Grove on Thursday night, the National AIDS Memorial hosted two educational conversations Friday looking at the intersectional issues facing people currently living with HIV/AIDS. Both conversations emphasized the importance of continued conversation about and de-stigmatization of the illness.
The Origins of a Solemn Tradition
Nine years ago, Kelly was volunteering at the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, a primary school in the Castro, when he learned of a teacher who had passed away from AIDS complications a few years prior. He saw the story as an opportunity to share his own and to educate young students about how the disease has impacted loved ones in their community.
From there, “Inscribe” was born, an annual World AIDS Day event that Kelly hosts along Castro Street between Market and 18th in which people are encouraged to grab some chalk and write the name of someone they want to remember who has passed away from HIV/AIDS complications. Over the course of the 12-hour event, the street filled with hundreds of names, each representing a loved one gone too soon.
Though modern medicine has made strides in the treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS, there is still no known cure, and the WHO says that hundreds of thousands of people still die annually from AIDS-related illnesses. So as research continues, World AIDS Day is a way for San Franciscans to come together with the global community and keep advocating for a better future.