The early days of San Diego’s AIDS epidemic

Posted: March 4th, 2016 | Columns, Featured, Out of the Archives | No Comments

By Jen LaBarbera | Out of the Archives

Our annual fundraising gala, “Heroines, Pioneers, and Trailblazers,” is quickly approaching and this year, we are honoring the history of women who stepped up in the early days of the AIDS epidemic in San Diego.

As head archivist at the Lambda Archives, I’ve had the unique pleasure of researching the rich history of these brave women and the lives they lived. I wanted to take this opportunity in my column this month to follow up on previous pieces we’ve shared about this history and highlight a few of the women we’ll be honoring on March 19.

In preparation for the gala, I watched the oral histories we’ve conducted over the past few weeks with our transgender, lesbian and straight women honorees.

In these interviews, the women give more than just an account of their actions during the early days of the AIDS epidemic. This is history I know distantly, not personally, but watching these women tell their stories gave me an emotional connection. When asked about their motivations to step forward as heroines during such confusing times, each woman spoke of both love and sadness. They shared stories of the loss of close friends and family members, of weekly funerals and the near devastation of the community.

“In those days, you couldn’t walk into a bar and not hear about who had died,” noted Laurie Leonard, who founded Mama’s Kitchen out of necessity and loss. She had lost her brother to AIDS and as she saw this need in her community, she knew she couldn’t wait for someone else to fill it.

I also want to note something inspiring that is evident in the myriad conversations and interviews with these women. Our honorees, all very worthy of honor and personal distinction, were hesitant to take the spotlight for themselves; almost universally, these women mentioned the other women they thought we should honor, other people that also contributed to these services and activism.

While they’re honored that we’ll be recognizing their contributions at our annual gala, our honorees all also wanted to lift up the other women that worked with them during this time. They are truly a community.

Nicolette Ibarra, another of our honorees, is a transgender woman that spent 15 years shuttling donated medications from San Diego, Orange County, and Los Angeles medical facilities to a clinic in Tijuana. For Nicolette, as with so many of our honorees, it didn’t seem like a laudable effort; she was just responding to what she saw as an “overriding humanitarian crisis,” and to the needs that she saw of her friends, and the disparities between medical services here in the states and in Tijuana.

This sentiment was echoed by so many of the narratives of our honorees; these great services that the women provided during the early days of AIDS were so clearly needed that they couldn’t just look away.

Ruth Henricks, who started the Special Delivery meal service in her restaurant in 1991, also saw no other option. She talked a lot about the emotional toll — and reward — of providing direct services to so many people that were dying.

“I got this call one day from a fellow I knew and he said, ‘Ruth, I want to go on meal service for two weeks. And I want you to deliver my meal every day, no one else.’ I got there and I said, ‘Paul, how do you know you’re only going to be on meal service for two weeks?’ And this was so hard for me — he said, ‘In two weeks, I’m going to have assisted suicide.’

“But it wasn’t that he had given up! During that time, he still tried everything possible … The last day that I delivered to him, he showed me the cardboard stand where he had put together his own celebration of life. I went home that day and I just cried and I thought, ‘all I wanted to do was feed people!’ This was too much information for me. But this was common. And it made me so angry that we couldn’t get a handle on this disease.”

In Ibarra’s oral history, she called attention to the enormous devastation — and enormously under-documented — of the transgender population during the early days of AIDS, especially transgender women.

“I think in a lot of ways, we really ignored the trans women population,” she said. “The story is so much about gay men, but trans women were dying, too and also in huge numbers.”

Even our records from that time aren’t instructive and contribute to the erasing of these trans women from the early days of AIDS.

“I don’t think people today realize what we went through,” Leonard said. “Now they think it’s just like diabetes — you take your cocktail and you can go to work — but it was a war. And we didn’t win it. It’s getting better and I hope to see AIDS cured someday, but I think this generation loses sight of what we went through.”

I don’t share this quote to shame young people or this generation — that’s my generation, too, after all. But for those of us that didn’t live through it, the devastation of the AIDS crisis — and the strength necessary to keep serving this community in the face of loss after loss — is hard to fully grasp and comprehend.

This is why Lambda Archives is dedicated to documenting these stories through oral histories, highlighting them and honoring them. I hope you’ll join us in honoring these stories and these women, either in spirit or in person at our gala on March 19.

More information about our gala and all of our honorees, visit­­­

Editor’s Note: More information is also found here

Leave a Comment