Steve Gibson ‘88 remembers the moment he walked into the Knox College cafeteria, clad completely in denim in an attempt to raise awareness and acceptance of gay men and women on campus during a time when there were few openly out LGBT students.
After spending hours silk-screening pink triangles onto pieces of denim for students to wear in solidarity, Gibson recalls the outfit he wore for the first organized Denim Day in 1988: ripped jeans and a crisp white shirt with a pink enameled lapel pin. Standing in the middle of the cafeteria, Gibson remembers seeing a group of his friends sitting at a table wearing denim. He felt safe.
“There was one student on campus who felt compelled to organize a counter protest,” Gibson said. “He made flyers that said, ‘Don’t wear denim, say yes to clean, normal sex and say no to AIDS and certain death.’”
Growing up in an era when being gay was associated with having AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), Gibson remained closeted throughout most of his time at Knox before coming out during his senior year. Facing the discrimination against LGBT students on campus head-on, he was one of only three students openly out.
“The joke at my high school was, ‘Are you gay?’ and the punchline was, ‘Got AIDS yet?’” Gibson said. “To a 16 year old who was gay, that was very telling. So, I was terrified.”
Gibson’s experiences as an activist on campus through a club known as Helping Understand Gay Students (HUGS) helped shape his career path in social work and eventual involvement in HIV/AIDS community organizing.
“I, as a gay man, grew up afraid of sex most of my entire life. It was greater than death. The most intimate way I could express myself with another partner meant I could die,” Gibson said. “In 2017 it was a radical transformation [with the creation of new medication]. For the first time, if you’re HIV-positive or negative, it doesn’t really matter.”
On Friday, Feb. 16, Gibson, along with Harvey Sadow ‘68, Greg Duick ‘68 and Stephen Herzog ‘09, were presented with the 2018 Alumni Achievement Awards. According to Alumni Director Carol Brown, the awards are given to alums who are nominated by the faculty and staff and are selected by a committee of five alums in August.
Gibson was invited to give a presentation on HIV (human immunodeficiency virus)/AIDS the night before the awards ceremony. During his talk, Gibson gave a brief history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States as well as some of the organizations he was involved in.
After graduating from Knox in 1988, Gibson earned a master’s degree in social work from St. Louis University. During his time in St. Louis he was called a ‘shameless agitator’ for his involvement in activist groups. Gibson also formed an LGBT organization during his time at the university.
Once Gibson finished his master’s degree, he worked as a community organizer for the STOP AIDS Project. Later, in 2003, he founded Magnet, the first integrated sexual health services and community center in San Francisco. After working as the director for Magnet for 13 years, Gibson resigned and is now the HIV Prevention Branch Chief at the State Office of AIDS in Sacramento, Calif.
Senior Libby Richmond attended Gibson’s presentation of the history of HIV/AIDS because she is currently enrolled in Comparative Policy Responses to HIV/AIDS in Latin America and the United States with Visiting Professor Angela Ju, who encouraged her students to attend the talk.
“I think that it’s important for students to be involved in activism in some way. It doesn’t necessarily have to be AIDS activism, but some sort of activism,” Richmond said. “Hearing from community organizers, regardless of what subject it is they’re organized around, is always useful.”