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Photo of a San Francisco Fire Department ambulance.

 

Ryan White Voices

Activism Wasn’t New to Cliff

“I remember preaching to everyone that I thought health care was a right,” he says, “and that the richest country in the world should be able to provide health care to all of its citizens.”

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Cliff Morrison: Continued

Almost immediately Cliff’s feelings about nursing began to change. He realized that he didn’t have to be a doctor to make a difference. He loved nursing—so much so that after earning his associate’s degree and moving to Miami, Cliff finished a bachelor’s degree. Still, he wanted more and enrolled at Florida International University, earning a degree that would now be the equivalent of two—in business administration and in public health. And for the better part of a decade, Cliff continued to study and practice nursing. By 1979, he was teaching an undergraduate nursing class and working towards a master’s degree in nursing and a master’s in adult education. Cliff didn’t know it—and neither did anyone else—but HIV was already in America, primarily in New York and San Francisco. And San Francisco was where Cliff was headed. He just needed a little push.

“Human Rights Are Absolute”

That push came with an unplanned appearance on the evening news. Activism wasn’t new to Cliff. “I remember preaching to everyone that I thought health care was a right,” he says, “and that the richest country in the world should be able to provide health care to all of its citizens.” But this time, his activism was on a different topic. He decided to go to Miami’s Gay Pride March. It was the sign he carried that landed him in a spot on television. It read: “HUMAN RIGHTS ARE ABSOLUTE.”

“You’re going to have a lot of explaining to do,” a colleague told Cliff the next day. “We’re not supposed to be involved in stuff like this.”

Before that moment, Cliff was like many gay people. He was “out” to his friends, but not at school and certainly not in the workplace. “My being on TV created problems at school.” Cliff says, noting the recurring question of opponents to gay rights, Do we want homosexuals teaching our children? He knew then that things would never again be quite right at his job.

But Cliff’s sign – and its mantra for human rights – had opened a door. “I’d always wanted to live in San Francisco, but had been making all these excuses for years about why I couldn’t do it. All of the sudden, I knew—I can do this now.”

And with that, Cliff was soon on his way to where he would be needed most: San Francisco at the start of the AIDS epidemic.

Someone Had to Stand Up

Cliff joined the staff at San Francisco General, a public hospital, in 1980, as a clinical nurse specialist in the Department of Psychiatry and Forensic Services. Most of his patients were inmates who were too sick to be in jail, with chronic medical conditions or wounds. He helped meet their emotional needs as well as their physical ones, and found himself advocating for his patients. He found himself thinking about “how I would do things if ever I were in a position to do them.”

He also found himself with a serious case of burnout.

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