The new documentary, “We Were Here,” (see our special Q&A with director David Weissman) takes audiences on an emotional journey back to 1981, when gay men in San Francisco’s Castro district came to the horrifying realization that a cluster of unexplained deaths was the start of a viral epidemic.
The actions of the sick and dying — and of the living, who refused to stand idly by — led to enormous strides in understanding HIV and AIDS. While there is not yet a cure for AIDS, great strides have been made in understanding, treating and preventing HIV transmission.
Just as gay men and others in the LGBT community in San Francisco were forced to face the ravages of the early years of the AIDS Crisis, so, too, did LGBT community members in places like North Carolina. Men and women of all ages, stripes and backgrounds came together to make change, making history in the process.
The world then, for those in as far flung places as San Francisco and right here at home in the Carolinas, was a drastically different time and place from today. Three decades after the beginning of the still-continuing AIDS Crisis, the world is radically different — with technology and opportunity that the earliest victims of AIDS could hardly imagine. Here’s a look at some of the facts, figures and events that shaped our pre-wireless, pre-internet world of 1981:
U.S. population: 229,465,714
U.S. unemployment rate: 7.1 percent
Cost of Living
Median household income: $19,074
Cost of a gallon of unleaded gas: $1.38
Average cost of a movie ticket: $2.78
Price of a first-class U.S. postage stamp, June 1981: 20 cents
Top 5 films at the box office: 1. “Raiders of the Lost Ark”; 2. “On Golden Pond”; 3. “Superman II”; 4. “Arthur”; 5. “Stripes”
Top 5 TV shows: 1. “Dallas”; 2. “60 Minutes”; 3. “The Jeffersons”; 4. “Joanie Loves Chachi”; 5. “Three’s Company”
Top 5 singles of 1981: 1. “Bette Davis Eyes,” Kim Carnes; 2. “Endless Love,” Lionel Richie and Diana Ross; 3. “Lady,” Kenny Rogers; 4. “(Just Like) Starting Over,” John Lennon; 5. “Jessie’s Girl,” Rick Springfield
Headlines and History
Jan. 19: The U.S. and Iran reach an agreement to free 52 Americans held hostage in Iran for 444 days.
Jan. 20: Ronald Reagan takes the oath of office as the 40th president of the U.S.
Jan. 25: The Oakland Raiders defeat the Philadelphia Eagles by a score of 27-10 at Super Bowl XV.
March 30: Reagan is seriously wounded in an assassination attempt.
April 12: The space shuttle Columbia lifts off as STS-1, the first shuttle mission in history.
May 13: Pope John Paul II is shot and seriously wounded in Rome.
May 21: Francois Mitterand becomes president of France.
June 5: The Centers for Disease Control publishes a report of the first five cases of pneumocystis carinni pneumonia; two of the men in the report die. All of the men are gay. It is the first official report of AIDS.
July 17: Two skywalks at the Hyatt Regency in Kansas City, Mo., collapse, killing 144 people.
July 29: Britain’s Prince Charles marries Lady Diana Spencer.
Aug. 1: MTV goes on the air for the first time at 12:01 a.m.; the first video is by a group called The Buggles: “Video Killed the Radio Star.”
Aug. 3: Airline traffic is disrupted as air traffic controllers strike; they are fired eight days later.
Sept. 25: Sandra Day O’Conner is sworn in as the first female justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Oct. 6: Egyptian President Anwar Sadat is assassinated.
Dec. 20: “Dreamgirls” opens at Broadway’s Imperial Theater. It is nominated for 13 Tony Awards, including best direction of a musical for Michael Bennett, who will succumb to AIDS-related lymphoma less than six years later, at the height of the 1980s AIDS epidemic.