How a 1980s AIDS Support Group Changed The Internet Forever
As the AIDS epidemic spread, Ben Gardiner took to the nascent internet — and shaped the way we share health information online
Ben Gardiner was a larger-than-life mainstay of San Francisco’s Castro neighborhood in the 1980s. He had wavy white hair, big eyebrows, and a bushy beard that took Santa Claus to task. He rarely left the house without his signature pair of coveralls. His voice boomed; when he entered a room, “he was a presence,” his friend Paul Boneberg told OneZero.
Gardiner joined just about every gay organization in the city, organizing mailing lists, hosting meetings, and leading marches. He seemed to work full-time as an activist, piecing together an income through freelance side projects. In a gay liberation movement populated largely by people in their twenties and thirties, Gardiner — who turned 60 in 1981 — took on the role of elder statesman.
He was also a techie. Gardiner had been fascinated by computers since at least the 1970s, according to Boneberg. He owned a rickety Osborn 1, one of the first commercially available computers, plus a slew of other early tech. When gay activists piled into Gardiner’s apartment for meetings, they’d find half of the room cluttered with computer equipment.
Meanwhile, in the 1980s, a plague had begun creeping across the city. At first, people in the community knew it only as a mysterious pneumonia; then they called it GRID, short for “gay-related immunodeficiency”; then, finally, AIDS.
AIDS was a virtual death sentence. Across the Castro, you would see signs of sickness: Posters for vigils plastered across telephone poles. Old friends who had lost so much weight that their bodies looked hollowed out. People checking their arms and legs and cheeks for purple skin lesions, an early symptom of the cancer that swept through the AIDS-infected population.
Gardiner was one of the first activists to take the disease seriously. In February 1982, just six months after the New York Times first reported on the “rare cancer seen in 41 homosexuals,” he invited Bobbi Campbell — one of the earliest known persons to become infected with AIDS — to speak to one of his gay activist…