By Lawrence Pfeil, Jr.
In 1988, seven years after the New York Times first reported, “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals” HIV/AIDS was deemed a pandemic actively spreading in both gay and straight populations. Yet, there was virtually no treatment, no cure, nor a vaccine and few people in a position to do anything cared enough to act.
In response, World Health Organization designated December 1st each year as…
“World AIDS Day,
an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV; show their support for people living with HIV and to commemorate people who have died.”
At that time, an AIDS patient’s average life expectancy was between 6 and 19 months; though because of the “retro” nature of the virus, some long-term survivors miraculously still exist.
The future is different than the one on World AIDS Day 1988, which first sought to unite the global community behind a cause threatening to kill millions of men, women, and children in its wake. There are treatments and prophylaxis, if one has access and can afford them, but four decades later there is still no cure or vaccine.
Despite these realities and the fact that AIDS has killed an estimated 40.1 million+ people, World AIDS Day is barely acknowledged. Even in New York City, once the epicenter of the AIDS crisis where more than 100,000 of its own denizens lost their lives to the disease, the home of GMHC, BroadwayCare/EquityFightsAIDS, and ACTUP, the Empire State Building doesn’t bother to light up RED anymore.
The late Stephen Sondheim wrote, “There are only two worthwhile things to leave behind when you depart this world of ours – children and art.” The art we’ve created to remember those who departed due to AIDS has helped us grieve, celebrate life, give hope, and will tell our children and their children’s children their stories and the story of how we survive as a Community.
Here’s a few of our most cherished examples.
At a memorial in San Francisco, Cleve Jones saw the names of people who died of AIDS written on sheets of paper and taped to a building in 1985. He imagined the patchwork design, but on a grander scale; 3’x6’, the size of a human grave and sewn together as one. Each panel would memorialize the life, potential, and loss of someone made by those who loved them.
The “NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt” was first displayed on the National Mall in Washington DC in 1987. Weighing an estimated 54 tons, it is the largest piece of community folk art in the world and was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. The following year Common Threads — Stories from the Quilt won the Oscar for Best Documentary, only the second gay subject film in Academy history.
Last seen in its entirety in 1996, The Quilt has become too large ever to be displayed again at once. If it were, and laid end to end, it would stretch more than 50 miles long. Yet, it’s estimated to only represents 20% of those lost to AIDS.
Tony Award winner Lena Hall performs the title song from Elegies For Angels Punks and Raging Queens
Keith Haring was a visual artist who used his imagery as an activist voice for political and social causes including fighting the stigma of AIDS. He painted fervently up until his death from AIDS on February 16, 1990, at the age of 31.
NYC AIDS Memorial Park at St. Vincent’s Triangle
From the website,
“The NYC AIDS Memorial honors more than 100,000 New Yorkers who died of AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). It also recognizes the contributions of caregivers and activists who mobilized to provide care for the ill, fight discrimination, lobby for medical research, and alter the drug approval process, effectively changing the trajectory of the epidemic. The Memorial aims to inspire and empower current and future activists, health professionals, and people living with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS) in the continuing mission to eradicate the disease.”
Two time Tony Award winning choreographer and co-founder of the Bill T. Jones Arnie Zane Dance Company created the breathtaking work “Still/Here” about and by people living with life threatening illness, his partner’s untimely death from AIDS and being HIV positive himself.
Finally, Tony Kushner’s immortal words of hope and encouragement from his epic, Angels in America.
“This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come… You are fabulous creatures, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.”
(main image: Red Ribbon Installation at Museum of Broadway by artist Eric Rieger @HOTxTEA)