Atlanta Pride AIDS Vigil: HIV @ 30 St. Mark United Methodist Church
October 5, 2011
by Craig Washington
“I check the mirror for spots, telltale signs, irregularities.” And so begins “It Begins”, a poem from The Adodi Muse, a gay Negro ensemble. Nine words that capture the fear, the turning point, the holy shit moment after which life would never be the same.
It is a peculiar anniversary that marks a generation, a span from birth to full grown, three full decades, since the dawn of the greatest public health issue of our time. More than anything, loss is what this commemoration signifies most. Loss beyond measure, rendered in memorial quilt snapshots of real lives lived, loss evoked in the chants of survivors who touched the untouchable, fed their beloved, wiped up the puke and shit, and were given neither a passing mention nor a place at the family mourning table. It is 1985 and I am a 25 year old New York homosexual when I first feel swollen lymph glands. I have only just begun when “It begins”.
By the time I had arrived here in 1992, AIDS had already left its indelible stain on local queer life. I heard hilarious and heart wrenching stories of brave souls who roared to end the deadly silence, nameless caregivers who nursed others until they themselves succumbed, and those artful performers who inspired with their music and fanciful light. Imagine what a different city this would have been had all that sound and fury not been drained by the plague.
The most radical elements of queer communities in Atlanta were drafted into the war. Surely many of the soldiers we lost would have resisted the assimilation bent that dominates today’s queer activism. They would have continued to queer repressive and counterrevolutionary values, beliefs and policies about race, class, gender, age and sexuality that we so often uncritically accept. We also derived gifts through this experience borne out of the valor it summoned from within us. AIDS was a most compelling imperative that required us to work together across the dividing lines brokering unlikely coalitions and bedfellows.
We must make room to share the stories, recall the events, and name the names. In doing so we make sure we do not forget. Tonight we give testimony to our tears and our triumphs, to give thanks to our sisters and brothers whose fallen spear we now carry as Essex Hemphill did for Joseph Beam, as Pat Hussain did for Fannie Lou Hamer, as Mary Anne Adams did for Audre Lorde. What must never be forgotten are the responses to the plague, the best and the worst it summoned from us. It is in our responses to AIDS that we discovered and recreated its meanings. In the face of a NYC City Hall representative asking why he should care about “300 faggots (who) fucked each other to death” gay activists crafted the first safer sex literature. Other Countries, a black gay mens’ writing collective, gave voice to our will to endure, to love and exchange pleasure. In Atlanta, queer men and their allies struggled through tangled interests of sexual agency, free will and community survival to craft initiatives that laid the groundwork for AIDS activism and safer sex education. Men like Duncan Teague and Jeff Graham. Women of color raised their voices demanding greater inclusion in the arenas of HIV treatment, research and awareness. Women like Debbie Thomas Bryant, Denise Khan, and Dazon Dixon Diallo. Lesbian trailblazers like Dixon Taylor and Edie Cofrin stood with us without the incentive of self preservation. Those who used injection drugs and were scorned by many others rose to self advocacy and led street outreach programs. Transgender and intersex freedom fighters rose up to make sure our gender queer would not be erased either outside or within queer communities. People like Monica Helms, Dee Dee Chamblee, Cheryl Courtney Evans, and Darlene Harris.
Back in the day, circles of friends and concerned providers banded to form the first generation of caretakers and educators. These were bold outlaws we have to thank for rapidly forcing the public health institutional complex albeit oppressive at its core, to become more inclusive and community centered than ever in its history. Long before the Ryan White Care Act was signed into law, they birthed the community based organizations that are indispensible to care, education, treatment and advocacy. In 1981, Paul Popham was starting on organization they called Gay Mens Health Crisis, out of his friend Mel Cheren’s SRO hotel apartment. His Atlanta friend Graham Bruton asked Paul if he needed his help. Graham was willing to relocate to New York to join Paul and Paul advised him to remain in Atlanta since he would have enough to deal with at home. Indeed Graham did stay home and worked with his local friends to found AID Atlanta, now one of the largest AID service organizations in southeast. We have to tell the stories.
By what standard do we measure AIDS@30, the distance between that incredible then and this unsure now? Certainly we have garnered key victories over this stretch. Consider the contrasts and parallels between a president who killed through his silence and the president who launched a National HIV/AIDS plan and lifted the federal ban on needle exchange. We had breakthroughs that delivered us from dependency on AZT monotherapy to our current expanded toolkit. We have rejoiced over recent success stories that reported effective microbicides, the potential of PrEP, and the HPTN 052 study which demonstrates how treatment yields prevention.
While these gains must be noted, we have to confront the disturbing underside of this milestone. The U.S remains a nation of incredible possibilities and insufferable contradictions. In the face of a recession and slashed state funding, key pharmaceuticals raised their already sky high prices on vital meds. Then there are the waiting lists. In July 2010, the Obama administration’s $25 million bandage in response to the $125 million requested to boost ADAP was an affront to activists across the country. As of September 2011 there were 9,066 individuals in 13 states on ADAP waiting lists. Georgia has the second largest list with over 1,659 people. Most of these lists are within the South the region that also holds the most new infections. This math is most troubling.
Many of us have grown comfortable with the successes of the past 30 years, as if they were granted without blood, death and other tolls untold. Arrange a screening of Sex in an Epidemic or Marlon Riggs’ Black Is Black Ain’t to teach and remind that none of our freedoms were gained without struggle. You do not need a keynote speaker to talk about ADAP and PrEP at your local coffehouse. Let this anniversary prompt us to mobilize our communities into strategic action rather than romantic rhetoric. Gay men and transgenders across the nation, especially young black gay men are becoming infected at rates much higher than any other group. Incarcerated individuals in Georgia are denied access to condoms due to puritanical policies. Transgenders are criminalized on sight by midtown police and denied employment and access to shelter. The racist and sexist campaigns that plaster billboards in black neighborhoods portraying women’s reproductive rights as genocidal will continue uncontested unless we take a stand. We cannot leave that up to Paris Hatcher and SPARK. The anti-immigrant machines are trampling over the rights of brown and black immigrants. That is not just the work for Paulina Hernandez, Jerry Gonzalez or Project South. That is our work. The struggle to liberate queer students is not just for Anneliese Singh or Riann Lippe. It is our struggle. If 30 years of HIV has taught us anything, it is that our Silence = Death, and that our Action=Justice =Freedom=Life. That is the Pride.
I choose to celebrate if not the anniversary than our survival. Every 3rd Saturday night of the month I can be found at the Mixx, the club at the front corner of Ansley Square. Ron Pullman has a classic house night that is such a joy. My soul is stirred not only to shake the tail feathers I have left, but also to see other black gay men dancing to the music of our younger years. How inspiring it is for those of us who have few recreation spaces left, to be assured that at least one night a month we can stomp and shout to the late Loleatta Holloway’s “Love Sensation”. The significance is enriched by the remarkable fact that many of us are survivors of the generation hardest hit by AIDS, the same generation as those Caucasian witnesses whose experiences are recorded in “We Were Here”, “Longtime Companion”, “And The Band Played On”. Our very presence, the sash in our sashay, the moves we cannot quite make now but we reach for anyway, all give thanks, all defy the odds that we not only were, but are here still. When we dance we holler “Here we Are”. Testimony without words. I get life and Tcells in that dancery. I invite you to continue to fight, remember our past, live, breathe, love your present, live your now to its fullest and go out and get Life! Happy Pride!
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