Sobering black-and-white image of a gay men’s choir reminds of loss of life during AIDS epidemic

10 June 2021, 16:31 | Updated: 25 April 2022, 09:17

San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus demonstrating impact of AIDS on the choir - May 1993
San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus demonstrating impact of AIDS on the choir - May 1993. Picture: Getty

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

A powerful image of a San Francisco men’s chorus shows how the 1980s epidemic devastated the gay community.

A resurfaced photo on social media shows the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, the world’s first openly gay choir and one of the world’s largest male choruses, and its harrowing history with the AIDS epidemic.

In the now-viral portrait, the majority of the men are dressed in black, some in white.

The singers in white represent the remaining living members of the original choir, while those in black represent those lost to AIDS.

Dr Stan Hill, the choir’s conductor from 1989 to 2000, calls the epidemic era “the world of times”, and says he spent every Wednesday and Sunday visiting sick members in hospital.

Members who died of AIDS, and other causes, became known as the choir’s ‘Fifth Section’.

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One choir member, Michael Jay Stauffer Joyce, commented on a recent Facebook share of the photo, which was originally taken in 1993. “I am a member of SFGMC and so is my husband,” Joyce said.

He explained that in the spring of 2018, the choir did a recreation of the photo (see below). “There are now 305 members in our fifth section. A few fifth section members I have known and miss them dearly.”

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San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus photo, recreated in 2018
San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus photo, recreated in 2018. Picture: Michael Jay Stauffer Joyce/Facebook

The AIDS virus was first clearly identified in San Francisco in the early 1980s. According to the Foundation for AIDS Research, the virus had killed more than 234,000 people in the US by the end of 1993.

Since the beginning of the epidemic, an estimated 700,000 people have died of HIV/AIDS in the US, and nearly 13,000 people in the US die of AIDS every year.

A powerful caption above the photo of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus on Facebook, reads: “Remember this when people say the gay community survived the epidemic. We had to start over because we lost a whole generation.”

Founded in 1978, the chorus is still going in 2021 and is holding auditions for new members and returning alumni this August. Today, they are the musical group most widely credited for establishing and galvanising the LGBTQ+ choral movement.

One member of the chorus is quoted as saying, “I would have never been able to survive the things I have without my brothers in the chorus.”