January 28, 1952 – Bobbi Campbell:
”I’m scared to death. I just have this self-determination to live.”
He earned his degree in nursing from the University of Washington and volunteered at The Seattle Counseling Services for Sexual Minorities, the first gay-run counseling service in the USA, while being politically active in Seattle during those early days of the Gay Liberation Movement of the 1970s. He lived in the Capitol Hill neighborhood with other gay male activists at what was known informally as the ”East John Street Gay Men’s Collective”, a notorious house filled with eccentric, smart people (I lived on East John on Capitol Hill five years later and it was still talked about).
Campbell left Seattle for San Francisco in 1975, taking a job in a hospital near The Castro and immersing himself in the political and social life of a neighborhood that was the center for the LGBTQ community. By 1981, he had enrolled in a training program at University of California, San Francisco, to become an adult health nurse practitioner, with a view to focusing on healthcare in the LGBTQ community.
Starting with a case of shingles in February 1981, Campbell suffered from a series of unusual illnesses, including Leukopenia later that summer. After a hike with his boyfriend in September 1981, he noticed lesions of Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS) on his feet. KS was a rare cancer that usually was seen in elderly Jewish men. He was formally diagnosed as having KS by noted dermatologist Marcus Conant on October 8, 1981, Conant’s first diagnosis of a patient with what would become known as AIDS; Campbell brought Conant a rose each year to commemorate the anniversary of his diagnosis.
Campbell’s professional interest in gay sexual health inspired him to raise awareness of what was labeled as “gay cancer”, and in the same month he was diagnosed, Campbell put pictures of his KS lesions in the window of the Star Pharmacy (now a Walgreen’s) on Castro Street, urging men with similar lesions to seek medical attention. In doing so, he created and displayed San Francisco’s first AIDS poster.
He wrote a column for the San Francisco Sentinel to demystify AIDS. In his first piece published in December 1981, he proclaimed himself to be the “KS Poster Boy”, becoming the first person in the USA to publicly disclose that he was suffering from the new “gay cancer”. Campbell:
“The purpose of the poster boy is to raise interest and money in a particular cause, and I do have aspirations of doing that regarding gay cancer. I’m writing because I have a determination to live. You do, too — Don’t you?
His column in the Sentinel was syndicated in gay newspapers nationwide.
Campbell joined the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence at the time of the health crisis in early 1982. In his nun persona, “Sister Florence Nightmare RN”, he cowrote the first San Francisco safer sex manual, Play Fair!, using plain sex-positive language and humor to give practical advice. The Sisters became early fundraisers for the oncoming AIDS pandemic and continue to raise awareness of sexual health. God, I love those nuns!
In February 1982, Campbell and Dan Turner, who had just himself been diagnosed with KS, attended what turned out to be the founding meeting of the KS/AIDS Foundation, which later became the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, of which Campbell then served on the board. Campbell also became involved with the Shanti Project, which moved from its original focus of supporting people with terminal cancer, to help provide emotional support to people diagnosed with AIDS coming to terms with death.
In 1982, Campbell helped start the People with AIDS Self-Empowerment Movement (PWA), arguing that people with AIDS should expect to participate actively in the response to the AIDS crisis. The PWA Movement rejected the terms “AIDS victim” and “AIDS patient”. Campbell:
“… a headline read ‘Coalition treasurer KS victim’ and my friend, who was the subject of this interview, was very unhappy because the implication of ‘KS victim’ means the bus has run over you and you’re lying there in the street, flattened. And he’s very much alive; so am I. I do not feel like a victim.“
Campbell organized the first candlelight march to bring attention to the plight of people with AIDS and to remember those who had died. In May 1983, they marched behind a banner of Fighting for Our Lives for the first time, drawing around 10,000 people.
Campbell, with others, drafted the Denver Principles, the defining manifesto of the PWA Movement, which starts with a rejection of the terms “victim” and “patient”. Inspired by the Lavender Menace radical feminists storming the National Organization for Women (NOW) convention stage in 1970, Campbell and other activists decided to do the same at the closing session of the Second National AIDS Forum to present the Denver Principles. As each of the 11 men read out one of the 11 statements, they did so with the Fighting for Our Lives banner behind them; these words became the slogan of the PWA Movement.
After the conference, Campbell flew to New York City and organized a PWA organization in the city despite opposition from the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. They also planned a national PWA organization which opened in New York City in June 1984. PWA-New York went on to create the first safer sex poster to appear in a gay bathhouse in the city.
In June 1984, San Francisco’s Gay Freedom Day Parade was dedicated for the first time to people with AIDS. Dykes on Bikes have led the parade since the mid-1970s and People with AIDS followed immediately behind.
Initially, there was very little coverage of the AIDS crisis outside the gay community. In 1982, with 350 AIDS-related deaths in the USA, there were only six stories about AIDS on major network news and print media except in San Francisco. Lawrence Altman, medical writer at The New York Times had a piece refused in 1981, and Jerry Bishop, a science writer at The Wall Street Journal, had a piece on AIDS refused by his editor in early 1982. But the San Francisco Chronicle hired Randy Shilts to report on AIDS full-time in 1982, and Campbell, along with Larry Kramer and James Curran, who led the CDC AIDS task force, were interviewed for CBS News.
In 1983, The New York Times increased its coverage of AIDS. One of the most high-profile early pieces introducing AIDS to the heterosexual community was the cover article of the August 8, 1983, edition of Newsweek, showing Campbell and his lover Bobby Hilliard and the headline EPIDEMIC: The Mysterious and Deadly Disease Called AIDS May Be the Public Health Threat of the Century. How Did it Start? Can it Be Stopped?. It was only the second time an openly gay man had appeared on the cover of a news magazine, even though Hilliard was identified as Campbell’s “friend”.
The following week, Campbell and other activists met with Margaret Heckler, Ronnie Reagan‘s Secretary of Health and Human Services. Heckler listened and, when Campbell pushed the issue of delays in people with AIDS’s claims for Social Security Disability benefits, she promised to raise it with her counterpart at the SSA, and then didn’t.
At the first Clinical Nursing Conference on AIDS, in Washington, D.C., in 1983, Campbell presented a poster in white pants and a lab coat. The poster was designed to help medical workers understand the message of the Denver Principles, about respect for people with AIDS. While at the conference, he discovered the National Institutes of Health recommended the use of electric green “AIDS Precaution” tags on AIDS patients’ rooms, blood tubes and laundry. He shouted his disgust from the back of the room and arranged an impromptu meeting of the National Association of People With AIDS, where they decided to pay a little visit to Heckler at her office.
In January 1984, when Dan White, the former cop and San Francisco City Supervisor who murdered Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone, was due to be paroled, Campbell and Hilliard stood outside the prison. The media had little to cover beyond Campbell with a sign reading “Dan White’s homophobia is more deadly than AIDS“, bringing more national attention to the epidemic.
Campbell gave one of his last speeches at the National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights when the 1984 Democratic National Convention was held in San Francisco in July. He was introduced as a feminist, a registered Democrat and a Person with AIDS. Campbell told the crowd that he had hugged his boyfriend on the cover of Newsweek, and then kissed Hilliard on stage, “…to show Middle America that gay love is beautiful“. He criticized the Christian right for using scripture to justify their homophobia, and the lack of action by the Reagan administration. He held 15 seconds of silence for “the 2,000 who had died of AIDS at that point and for those who will die before this is over”. He presented a list of concerns for politicians to address, including increased funding for both research and support services and a warning of the potential for discrimination with the advent of a test for the virus HTLV-3 (now known as HIV), calling on all candidates in the upcoming elections to meet with people with AIDS.
Two weeks later, Campbell appeared on CBS Evening News in a live interview with Dan Rather. While the rumors and fear of AIDS had reached a mainstream audience, the facts had not, so Campbell was placed in a glass booth, with technicians refusing to come near him to wire up microphones for the interview.
A few days after the DNC speech, Campbell came down with another case of shingles; within weeks he was hospitalized. At noon on August 15, 1984, exactly a month after his DNC speech and after two days on life support in intensive care, Campbell left this world with his parents and Hilliard by his side. Campbell was 32 years old and had lived for over 3½ years with HIV/AIDS.
Two days later, Castro Street was closed for Campbell’s funeral. 1,000 people gathered to remember Campbell. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence chanted, followed by speeches by Hilliard and local performers Lea DeLaria and Holly Near.
The 1985 Lesbian/Gay Freedom Day Parade was dedicated to Campbell. He is memorialized on four separate panels of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.
In the HBO film And the Band Played On (1993) adapted from Shilts’s book about the early days of the AIDS crisis, Campbell is played by Donal Logue. Campbell is portrayed by Kevin McHale in the miniseries When We Rise (2017) written by Dustin Lance Black about the early days of the Gay Rights Movement.