AIDS in the World

[Speech for the World AIDS Day vigil in Newcastle, December 1, 2004.]

Tonight I’m thinking about some of the places I’ve lived and visited, and some the people I’ve seen and known, over the last twenty years. Many of those people have been touched by, or concerned about, AIDS, and a lot of them are marking this evening in some way – it’s easy for me to imagine what they might be doing tonight.

For starters: the other side of the world – in Hong Kong, the elegant young woman who runs AIDS Concern will be directing various helpers in a smallish, polite, but well-organized event, among steam trays of dim sum. Young Dr. Chan will make a brief speech, then smile hello to some of his patients. Later, young men in short-sleeved rayon or cotton will escape the clattering of caterers’ pans to dance the night away at loud fundraisers in Zip, then the Powerhouse, until they disband into taxis scattered along the steep hills of Central.

In Sydney, a colorful crowd surging through Oxford Street is creating an impromptu street festival. Most are wearing red ribbons – some as tattoos on their biceps – and dropping money into baskets held by drag queens, each competing to make more money for the AIDS clinics. Summer is starting to peak, and brawny, sweaty guys with their arms around each other are shrieking with laughter at Pam Ann, who, dressed as a stewardess and standing on an outdoor stage, throws condoms at the crowd while maintaining a stream of insults in her rambunctious Ozzie accent. At dawn there will be couples of all sorts staggering home to take Panadol, then drag themselves in to work.

Crossing the Pacific, in Los Angeles, a benefit with this year’s crop of Hollywood names takes place at the dazzlingly postmodern Bonaventure Hotel. Michael Kearns will probably speak, exhorting the acting community to stay involved, and everyone will network, smiling, wearing red ribbons and watching to see if they can get into camera range. Down in West Hollywood, my friend Terry, her fashionably cut hair dyed a color I may not have seen yet, could be herding her HIV writing group through a poetry reading at the glass-and-steel Gay & Lesbian Center, or maybe this year she is performing in a radical-political cabaret with other riot grrrls at a lesbian club.

Trisha, in Phoenix, may be performing one of her surreal stage works, with political overtones that refer to people with HIV, illegal immigrants, and the Iraqi war, all at the same time. She has a small but serious audience of students from the local university, the men with long hair and glasses, the women in jean skirts. Joining her on stage are her ex-girlfriend and her dog, both of which are trained to help her in the tangled, symbolic ending.

If we fly to New York, the big professional AIDS organizations are holding benefits in Victorian hotel lobbies and in bare white galleries; women in gray power suits, Armani-suited lawyers and city politicians are joined by some scruffily dressed activists and artists. But most of the activists are down in Chelsea at an ACT-UP demonstration, posters and chants at attention, striding past bored, patient policemen who have watched this every December for what seems to them like decades.

Further south, in the suburbs of Washington, my mother is watching television. She will probably see some news show, or perhaps a public television documentary, that talks about World AIDS Day. She won’t say anything about it, but in a day or two my eldest sister will send me an e-mail: hey, Mom hasn’t heard from you in weeks, you’d better give her a call. And how are you doing, anyway?

Berlin: the president of the German AIDS Foundation is introducing pop stars at their big yearly benefit at the Komische Oper. Down in the Kleiststraße, Heinz spends the time until the late leather crowd starts to come into the bar filling a rack with postcards of handsome, shirtless men, pictured smiling and saying, Safer Is Better! In Sitges, in Rome, in Gran Canaria, the bars pause the music for a brief remembrance in the tiled courtyards.

In Cape Town, the earnest, charming Mandisa is on a platform, restlessly moving back and forth as she exhorts a gathering of students, children of a generation of apartheid activists, to focus their political efforts onto getting medications for their country. Her fellow activist Henry, who is looking a bit thin these days, will be talking to a group in his native Uganda, emphatically handing out condoms, especially to the young men who are hanging out in groups, snickering and looking at the girls.

In the great city of London, an apparently endless network of events in churches, shops and nightclubs is building up to Friday night’s Red Ribbon Ball, where AIDS activists of all stripes will come to dance and decompress after so much work. Carl, who hardly ever stops taking charge, is still working though, managing the volunteer booth and making sure everything happens on schedule – until he finally gets out onto the floor to dance the night away.

And I think of other friends, scattered far from the big cities: among the small beach towns of eastern Florida, people from Ma Jaya Bhagavati’s ashram have been cooking for days to prepare their trips around hospitals up and down the coast. Ma herself, brash, cheerful, and so beloved by the patients who see her each month, will talk to every one, swooping in and out of hospital rooms while bringing them cakes and biscuits, creating a chaos that the nurses have learned to fit into their schedules.

Meanwhile my friend Jay, in his small house in the dry California mountains, doesn’t go out much these days, because side effects from his medications make him shy of being seen by people. Tonight he is at home with his dog, perhaps lighting a fire against the cool night air, and working on his historical novel, adding to the rows of binders on shelves along the wall.

A few hundred miles north, in my beloved San Francisco, there’s a certain calm, as there has been for some years – as though a great storm has passed over. Because in San Francisco, many of the dead are long dead, and most of the living are taking their pills, going to the gym, and planning to be around for a while.

Among the small hilly streets and gingerbread houses dotted around the Castro, someone is complaining, don’t take that candle, it’s an expensive one – and further down the street it’s – you’re not going to wear that, are you?

But finally, at the last minute, or a little later, they’re grabbing jackets, clattering down the stairs and out the door into the chilly Pacific night, to join, halfway along its length, a vast wave of people carrying candles, walking up and down the little hills along a darkened Market Street, all transformed into a great quilt of tiny lights as they reach the monuments of the Civic Center.

It is a quilt, really. Like the AIDS Quilt, but not quite like it – not a memorial, but a living network of people who remember, people who may be worried or frightened, people who are calm, or happy that their medicines are working, people who have lost someone, or who have learned to go on…

And, like the other quilt, every panel is beautiful.


PPT - Patient Participation Team