AIDS-RIB.jpg (5440 bytes)World AIDS Day

There was a full moon trying to peek through the clouds and the lights of Old Sacramento, a tourist area of Sacramento, were twinkling and reflecting off the water of the American River. 

A group of about 200 of us shivered on the opposite side of the river.  There was a table piled high with donated bagels from Noah's and hot, strong coffee from Peets.  Near the coffee was a pile of candles inside paper cups.

There was a lot of milling around, people introducing themselves to each other.  I was there with Sam and her partner Coco, both of whom work for Breaking Barriers.  I met a lot of people, including a priest and two nuns who work with HIV infected people.

On the grass, near the river, and under the light of tall spotlights, on either side of a podium adorned with a huge AIDS ribbon, were panels of the AIDS quilt, which we were all invited to come down and walk around (I didn't, because I'll be working at a mall on Monday, where the quilt panels will be displayed, and handing out information on the quilt and on HIV/AIDS).

It was good for me to be there tonight.  In the mail today came a "hate letter," in response to my Boy Scout letter to the editor.  The writer, an elderly gentleman who usually responds when I defend the gay community, says that my letter has convinced him to go buy a Christmas tree from the Boy Scouts and go ring bells for the Salvation Army and "what a wonderful experience it is for me to greet and exchange with persons who are entirely normal and who, by the way, are instinctively kind and caring to the troubled."

It's not that I needed any convincing that the people involved with Breaking Barriers were "instinctively kind and caring," but it was nice to look around me at all of the love that was in that crowd, a lot of it coming from gay people.   Those "unnormal" people who apparently my correspondent feels are incapable of being kind and caring to the troubled.

In time, the mistress of ceremonies, one of the local TV commentators, climbed to the podium to begin the evening's program.  She explained that there are people in her family living with HIV and that she felt it was a cause near and dear to her heart.  She called for the color guard, all Leathermen, who brought forth flags--the US Flag, the Mexican flag, the Canadian flag, the California flag, the Sacramento flag, a rainbow flag and a couple I couldn't identify.  The Sacramento Gay men's chorus sang the Star Spangled Banner and then Amazing Grace

A catholic priest took the mic to give the invocation in which he called for us each to "light the candle of understanding in your hearts," and called for "love, compassion, justice and peace."  I wished my detractor had been there to listen to this kindly gentleman.

A dignified looking woman with a rainbow scarf wound around her neck placed a framed 8x10 photo of her son on the stage and climbed the steps.  Her head held high, she talked of her son, James, who was diagnosed with HIV in 1990 and who died at age 30 in March of 1996.  She spoke of the importance of giving unconditional love and acceptance and spoke of her shock at visiting her son during his first hospitalization when he was in the AIDS ward of SF General Hospital.  The ward was full and during the three days she was there, she was the only visitor on the entire ward. 

The stigma of AIDS has perhaps lessened a bit in the past 10 years, but my detractor proves that there is still a lot of hate out there against gay people.   "It never would have occurred to me to turn my back on him," this mother said, in speaking of her son's coming out at age 18.  She talked about how many years she would have missed if she had.  She ended by reminding us that we should never pass up an opportunity to show our love for each other.

A 42 year old African American woman who is living with AIDS talked about how she contracted the disease from her partner, an IV drug user, whom she nursed through his illness and then buried.  "Nobody suggested I get tested," she said, stating that she ended up in the hospital with meningitis and a diagnosis of full blown AIDS, with a life span of 3 days predicted.  She talked at length about how funding for AIDS education programs is being cut over and over again and how very important it is that young people be informed about the realities of living with AIDS.  

I thought of Steve and the awareness he brings, and the lives he changes and wondered if we could clone him.

She also talked about all the orphans that are going to be left behind as their parents begin to die of AIDS and asked what is going to happen to all these orphans.

A Yolo County Supervisor announced that the slogan for AIDS day for 2001 was "I care--do you?"  Sounded like a song cue for "When You Care," from The Last Session, but nobody else seemed to think that. 

Dr. Neil Flynn, HIV/AIDS Specialist gave statistics.  500-1000 people would contract the disease while we were standing there holding our candles.   1000 people worldwide would die of the disease in that same period of time.   Though there are medications now which can prolong life, there are 10 million people world wide who have no access to those medications.  The number of people who died in the World Trade Center attack equals the number of people who die of AIDS in 4 hours every day.  We will spend $40 billion in our War on Terrorism, which is ten times the amount needed to control AIDS worldwide.

The he asked, "What is it about HIV infected people that fails to bring out the same compassion as those who lost their lives at the World Trade Center?"  He asked "Are their lives worth so little?"  He also pointed out that the amount of money needed to control AIDS for a year was less than the amount given back as a tax break to the rich in this country.

He then talked about one place where there has been a proven cause and effect in the efficacy of fighting HIV, that being the syringe exchange program.  He pointed out that in this area, 1/3 of the HIV patients currently are either IV drug users or partners of IV ddrug users, surpassing that of the gay community, and that when syringe exchange programs are in effect, the number of infections drops.  Yet a woman who has spearheaded the program was recently arrested for handing out clean syringes.  As a result, the program has lost $350,000 worth of funds for combating HIV and AIDS among drug users.  "All that's needed is a little money and a little bit of courage by the Board of Supervisors," he said, bitterly.  The man has been fighting this disease in this community for more than 20 years and he looks tired and frustrated.

The featured speaker was Kevin Johnson, who played 12 years with the Phoenix Suns and who had flown in from Phoenix that morning to participate in World AIDS Day.  He spoke about the increase in HIV and AIDS among young people,   especially African Americans, stating that though African Americans make up 10% of the population in this area, they represent 25% of HIV cases.  He also pointed out that there are 13 million children worldwide who have lost both parents to AIDS.

Johnson has his own acronym for AIDS:  Awareness, Information, Direct Action and Success.  He is putting his money where his mouth is and has founded St. Hope Academy, for HIV patients.

At the end of the speeches, we all lit candles while the former president of the AIDS Interfaith Network read a "call to oneness," and invited us to think of people we've lost to this disease, and people we love who may be living with AIDS.  Faces paraded across my mind:  Arthur, John, Dan, Larry, Bill, Dickie and others.  And I thought of Steve and how I might have lost him before I ever met him, were it not for the new drugs that have kept him alive.  I thought of the way he is changing the world by sharing his story, and how there just isn't enough time for him to get to all the people who need to hear his story.

We need more than "a day" to think about AIDS. We need to think about it every day and we need to work tirelessly to make sure that nobody else gets this terrible disease.


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