Thirty-three years ago today Mark Feldman of San Francisco died of AIDS complications. He was one of the first in the city to disclose publicly his diagnosis in talks and newspaper interviews and on radio and TV reports. He was the first to coin the term “person with AIDS” and thus rejected the identity foisted on him and many others of being “AIDS victims.” He also refused the less-offensive tag of being an around-the-clock “AIDS patient.” “I am a person, a person with AIDS,” he proclaimed. He would be neither a pariah nor a disease.
In the six-and-a-half months he had before succumbing to AIDS, Feldman helped lay the foundation for what became an international People with AIDS movement. These PWA’s – the shorthand they used – demanded a voice in AIDS policy, treatment, and politics. Their perspective on the epidemic disease was one that needed to he heard. Their efforts contributed to the activism that changed national and global health care and services.
Today I googled Mark Feldman to see what the internet now carried about him. I found an article from ten years ago by Dan Pine writing for the J Weekly.com, a publication covering the San Francisco and Bay Area Jewish community. Titled, “How AIDS Battered One SF Synagogue: A 25-Year Retrospective,” it begins:
Mark Feldman had the world on a string.
He was young, gregarious, and smart. As director of admissions at New College, his career was on the ascent. As a co-director of publicity for Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, a largely gay and lesbian San Francisco synagogue. He was an emerging leader in the local Jewish and gay communities.
So synagogue colleagues were dumbstruck when Feldman announced at a board meeting he had come down with the “gay disease.
The year was 1983. The term AIDS had not yet become widely known. And no one then fully understood what had descended so lethally on the gay community. But Feldman knew that he was facing a grave illness, and when he succumbed a short time later at age 31, he became the first Sha’ar Zahav congregant to die of AIDS.
AIDS activism by and for people with AIDS, distinct from gay activism responding to the threat of AIDS on the behalf of the whole community, started as a way of resisting the phenomenon of social death. Social death, in which people are considered “as good as dead” and denied roles in community life, posed a unique threat to people with AIDS.
- “AIDS and Grief: A Personal Experience,” COMING UP! (the San Francisco-based lesbian/gay monthly), September 1983. Available in the archives of the San Francisco Public Library and the GLBT Historical Society of San Francisco.