Across the globe, December 1 is known as World AIDS Day of Remembrance. It was established in 1988 as a way to remember those who have died of the disease and those who are today living with HIV/AIDS. It also focuses on awareness, prevention and testing. World AIDS Day is the first time that a health day has been observed globally.
Peter Criswell, Executive Director of the LGBTQ Center in Kingston, said it has been 40 years since the disease was accurately diagnosed.
“It had a slow process of people trying to figure out what exactly was going on,” Criswell said. “Right off the bat there were questions about what is this thing and then trying to identify who and how it was contracted.”
Panels of the National Aids Memorial Quilt hung on one wall of the Center as a powerful visual reminder of the impact of the AIDS epidemic. The Quilt Project is the largest ongoing community folk arts project in the world. Created in 1987, today it consists of more than 50,000, 3ft by 6ft panels that have been individually sewn together into 6,000, 12ft by 12ft block sections. It weighs 54 tons and is comprised of 1.5 million square feet of fabric.
Merrill said the quilt, “is truly an enormous international treasure,” adding that two panels represent local residents Victor Lewis of Newburgh and Robert Counts of Kingston who have died from AIDS.
Keynote speaker Dr. Darrell P. Wheeler, President of SUNY New Paltz, is the first openly gay, black President to head a NYS University.
Dr Wheeler recalled growing up in a “racist Chicago” where he was bullied and was put down by teachers who told his parents that he was not “college material.” He went on to attend college in Iowa, where as a senior, he heard a news story about 41 men who were diagnosed with rare cancers. Though he felt safe at the time, “boy did it become real, quickly.”
Dr. Wheeler said the struggle for many to secure food and housing and a life without stigma, “are held in a commodity situation that are really elevated for use and access for the privileged few.” He added that people are still grappling with a central question surrounding the impact of HIV and AIDS; Is living a healthy life a right or a privilege. “Unfortunately we are fundamentally resting on the fact that it is a privilege and that is a bad place to be, 41 years post epidemic,” he observed.
Dr Wheeler urged people to hold their elected officials accountable, “for delivering on what they say are constitutional and fundamental rights and why are they denied to so many and being taken away from even more...We have to live in a space where we pass on the torch of righteous indignation to the next, next and next generation until this country gets it right and leads with the moral exigency that it claims to have and lives up to that for all people.”
Marlboro resident Joe Caserto grew up in the 1980s when AIDS was first identified.
“It was terrifying for a lot of people and I have friends who say they have never had a thought about sex that did not involve the risk of death,” he said.
Caserto is hoping the younger generation appreciates the seriousness of HIV/AIDS because it has not yet been eradicated. He characterized it today as a chronic, manageable disease, “but it’s not like I’m going to take two Tylenols and it’s going to go away.”
Milton resident Tim Lawton is pleased that World’s AIDS Day is being celebrated 40 years after the outbreak.
“I think if we weren’t celebrating it we wouldn’t be having the conversations we still need to have about social equality and health care,” he said.
Lawton said several years after graduating college he ‘came out’ officially in 1983. He recalls hearing in his hometown of Skaneateles, a suburb of Syracuse, that people in the gay community were becoming sick.
“I think immediately it scared me about a number of things; it was definitely an impact upon dating and an impact upon physical contact,” he said.
Lawton said World AIDS Day is always important to him. “I am happy that people are still saying this day needs to be remembered and I say thank you to the center for having that celebration,” he said.
Jack Maguire and Tom Cowan have been a couple since 1977 and are now married. They were living in Brooklyn in the mid 1980s and joined the Gay Mens Health Crisis [GMHC] center that was helping men with AIDS by doing their laundry, shopping and some cooking.
Initially, AIDS was called GRID – Gay Related Immune Deficiency.
Tom said in the beginning not a lot was known about the disease, “but eventually they realized that it was transmitted by bodily fluids and you could kind of shield yourself from that and still volunteer to help somebody with AIDS.”
Jack said a high degree of misinformation was being circulated in those early days of the crisis.
“We were going to be segregated into camps and we would be tattooed; there was a lot of stuff like that,” he recalled.
Tom also remembers that, “lesbians flocked to the cause and joined GMHC and became health care givers and volunteers,” with Jack adding that lesbians were helping the gay men’s community because of what they saw happening.
“The whole upshot of all of the AIDS thing was that it really made America eventually compassionate for all the struggles that gays had to go through,” Jack said. “Covid made people think about what it’s like to live during a plague. I think that just renewed their sympathy for gay people.”