It was 20 years ago today, Aug. 13, 1998, when the Bay Area Reporter ran its famous “No Obits” story. For the first time since 1981, the paper had no AIDS-related obituaries to run. The news made the front page, and now the original writer of that piece, Timothy Rodrigues, has returned to the Bay Area Reporter to reflect on his article and its significance.
The Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco‘s famed LGBTQ newspaper, famously ran in-depth obituaries on members of our community that died from HIV-related illnesses. The paper became one of the first to encourage people to submit photos of their lost loved ones, along with real reflections of the people lost.
The Reporter received praise for running these in-depth obituaries for everyday people and not just the famous victims of the HIV crisis like Gay Games founder Tom Waddell.
In Allen White’s piece written during the 10-year anniversary of the “No Obits” story, he wrote, “Lives of many — whose lives were perceived as pedestrian — glistened with discovery of obscure acts of excellence known to but a very few.”
The “No Obits” story was controversial even at the time. Bay Area Reporter staffers debated whether or not the headline would give the false impression the HIV epidemic was over.
Then-editor, Mike Salinas, told the Los Angeles Times, “We said in our article, and we all know, that this is not in any way a scientific measure, that it doesn’t mean people didn’t die of AIDS in this country last week, aren’t still dying of AIDS. But it is a canary in a coal mine. We’ve reached a new level. People are living longer with the virus.”
Rodrigues wrote that Salinas chose him to write the “No Obits” piece both because of his work at an AIDS nonprofit, and his own recent HIV diagnosis. Thankfully, with advances in treatments like PrEP and anti-retroviral treatment, Rodrigues remains healthy and happy.