It had rained the night before, so the pavement in front of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was wet as well as being cold.
These were the early days of the AIDS epidemic, the days before World AIDS Day, when we seemed to dwell in the land that was doomed.
These were the "Reagan Years," 1981-1989.
AIDS was first reported on June 5, 1981 and soon became known as GRID (Gay Related Infectious Disease). About two years later, when the HIV virus had been isolated and identified as the causative agent - and, when women and children began getting ill - GRID had become AIDS, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.
It became complicated by a secondary epidemic of "AfrAIDS" - A fear of AIDS.
That contributed, in part, to the fact that it was years before the world woke up to find that we were in the midst of a world-wide "AIDS Pandemic".
The first World AIDS Day wouldn't be commemorated until 1995 in the U.S.
I had taken the train from Baltimore to DC to be part of a demonstration in front of the White House. I was part of the Baltimore Chapter of Larry Kramer's organization, ACT-UP - AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.
We were part of a demonstration of Civil Disobedience known as "Street Theater" - a "Carnival of Resistance and Protest" to the obscene, immoral government policies which limited scientific research into the causes and treatment of HIVD/AIDS.
About 500 of us gathered in front of the White House, ready to stage a "Die-In". After an impromptu rally on the sidewalks, where people had gathered to hear messages shouted through a bull horn, we were to wait for the signal and then simply lie down on the road, pretending to be dead.
Others would come by, once we were down on the pavement, and trace our bodies in white chalk, leaving the dramatic symbol of a crime scene.
Which was our point.
Some of us had agreed to walk away when the police came, leaving only the outline of their bodies. Others would stay, waiting to be carried away by the police and arrested for the crime of Civil Disobedience. Some of the lawyers for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force were standing by, ready to represent us and, if necessary, post bail.
I had been involved in Marches and Protests during the Civil Rights Movement as well as during the protests against the War in Viet Nam. I had once been picked up as part of a group and shuttled into an official police van, awaiting what we thought certain would be our arrest and imprisonment.
It didn't turn out that way. I remember being in the back of the van with about a dozen other people. I was scared. We all were. I was grateful to be singing some of the old gospel hymns of resistance as a way to steel our nerves for what was about to happen - what could happen - what often happened.
We had just started singing "Lift Every Voice" when the doors opened and we were told to leave. Just like that. It was over. We had the freedom of the right to peaceful assembly to protect us.
But, this was different. Very different.
We were part of a "peaceful assembly", to be sure, but participation in a "Die In" was taking this up a level. This was Civil Disobedience, writ large. This was taking personal responsibility for doing something that would stop traffic, disrupt business as usual, in order to make a point. It was, of course, against the law - an act not covered under "peaceful assembly".
We were doing well until the police vans showed up. There they were - DC's Finest - the Boys in Blue. They circled around the crowd, their normal air of confidence turning into arrogance. You could smell contempt in the air.
Those of us who had signed up for the actual "Die In" took our places in the street. People in the crowd started to sing Holly Near's, "We Are A Gentle Angry People".
There was a strange tension in the air. Something ominous.
Hearing hissing and boos from the crowd, I looked up and saw several police distributing among themselves plastic gloves and thick plastic ties - like large trash bag ties - which would be used to handcuff us.
It was the plastic gloves that had elicited the response from the crowd.
Yes, some of us were HIV positive. Some were visibly sick with AIDS. We knew that AIDS could not be transmitted by human touch. We hadn't considered that violence might erupt and blood might be shed.
The tension began so thick, I feared that our Peaceful Demonstration of Civil Disobedience might, indeed, become violent.
Just when my anxiety level was starting to kick in the "flight or fight" effect in my brain, and I was conscious that I was making a decision about which it would be, something happened that broke the tension.
Radical Faeries - a street theater group - began to skip among the bodies on the street, sprinkling fairy dust on us while taunting the police: "They'll see you on the news. Your gloves don't match your shoes."
The protesters began to giggle. That Radical Faerie was soon joined by other Radical Faeries who pranced among us, sprinkling glittery fairy dust as others began to outline our bodies in white chalk.
Everyone had picked up the chant, "They'll see you on the news. Your gloves don't match your shoes," as they laughed and giggled.
It was irresistible. Even some of the police began to laugh.
Well, it was miraculous, was what it was. The tension broke and were were all back to 'civil' part of the disobedience and the 'peaceful' part of the assembly.
While all this was happening, one of the Radical Faeries stood over me, looked at my clergy collar, gasped and said, "Oh, no, no, no, Mother - and that's not half a word," he smiled as he plumped his red feather boa.
"This will never do!" he said, as he began helping me to my feet.
"Wait!" I said, "What do you mean? I am planning to be arrested."
"Sorry to ruin your plans, doll," he said, "but we need you here. Everyone will be out in time for cocktails at the Eagle. You'll do more good by taking my arm and walking with me in front of the line of those naughty Boyz in Blue. So they'll KNOW you're here. And, I'm here. And, we're queer. And, we ain't goin' shoppin'."
I laughed and allowed him to "chalk" my body. And then, he gallantly extended his hand and helped me to my feet. The other Faeries applauded as I pushed my arm past his feather boa and placed my arm in his as we paraded ourselves in front of the line of the Men in Blue who smiled and waved to us as if we were the Queen and . . .well. . . the Queen of the Ball.
"Elbow, elbow, wrist, wrist, wrist," he whispered to me, making certain knew how to properly perform the Royal Wave.
"Just like the Queen," he said as he smiled and nodded and waved.
When we had finished our oh-so-civil demonstration - he walked me back to my group, bowed deeply and then kissed my hand. "Thank you," I said.
"Oh, don't worry, doll," he smiled, "I'll meet you at the Hippo in Baltimore later for drinks. The first one is on you," he smiled as I laughed and nodded in agreement.
"Right now, we need you to pray. Pray hard. And, give us hope. That's your job," he said with sudden intensity and passion. "And this," he said, flinging his red boa over his shoulder and kicking up his fashionably pumped heel, "is mine."
"It's a tough job," he called over his shoulder as he swung his way back into the crowd, "but somebody's got to do it."
I thought about my friend this morning as I said my prayers, remembering all my friends who lost their battle to live with AIDS.
I've thought about the message of "Good News" from the Archbishop of Canterbury, which was a startling contrast to the message given by our Presiding Bishop.
While Bishop Rowan droned on and on in hopeless, uninspiring tones about "celebrating the good news," Bishop Katharine called us to action.
Framing her message with the words from scripture:
While gentle silence enveloped all things,she called us to break the silence with these words:
and night in its swift course was now half gone,
[God's] all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne,
into the midst of the land that was doomed. [Wisdom 18:14-15, NRSV]
The first priority: continue to advocate forcefully for government investment in the fight against AIDS both here and abroad. The U.S. government's has, in the past two years, decreased our nation's promised investment in HIV/AIDS abroad. This reduction had included both funding for particular countries, and our investment in the multinational Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote compellingly of President Obama's unfulfilled commitments in a New York Times op-ed this past summer. As the President prepares his budget for the coming fiscal year, I urge Episcopalians to challenge him and the new Congress to keep America's promises to the world. Joining the Episcopal Public Policy Network will connect your voice to those of other Episcopalians working in this and other areas of social justice.It's not like there aren't things to celebrate - progress made. As the Presiding Bishop pointed out in her message:
The second priority: Episcopalians must continue to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS within our own communities. This Church still has AIDS, and urgent challenges remain. Stigma continues to be a major issue in the United States and around the world. Encouraging routine testing is essential, particularly among adults over age 50. I commend to all Episcopalians the work of the National Episcopal AIDS Coalition, which has done much to raise awareness of HIV and AIDS and avenues of healing within our own communities.
Finally, I urge your prayers. As we prepare to mark the thirtieth year of the world's awareness of HIV and AIDS in 2011, pray for all who have died from this terrible disease. Pray for those living now with HIV and AIDS. And pray for a future without AIDS.
These past weeks have brought us new signs that such a future is indeed possible. Pray that we will use our collective resources, imagination, and will to make a world without AIDS a reality.
The UNAIDS report released last week notes that the rate of new HIV infections has either stabilized or been reduced significantly in 56 nations. New infections have fallen 20% in the past decade, and AIDS deaths have fallen 20% in the past five years. The director of UNAIDS urges the world to break "the trajectory of the AIDS epidemic with bold actions and smart choices." The Centers for Disease Control identify HIV/AIDS as one of six diseases which can be overcome. Research results released last week show promising results in clinical trials of a new prophylactic drug, designed to prevent HIV infection in at-risk communities. This success comes in the wake of recently publicized advances in identifying HIV 'controller genes,' which may lead to advances in vaccines or treatment.There is, indeed, cause to celebrate.
And, there is much work left to be done.
As Gregg Gonsalves said in a speech at the 2006 Toronto AIDS Conference,
"AIDS is essentially a crisis of governance, of what governments do and do not do to and for their people – we have the drugs to treat HIV infection, we have the tools to confront the risks that drive HIV transmission and prevent infection itself – what we don’t have is national political will necessary to scale-up our response. We have demanded too little from our leaders, excused far too much."What we need on this World AIDS Day, I think, is a healthy sprinkling of some Faerie Dust.
Thirty years later, we know what we've always known. In the words of musician, Bob Geldof, "The condition is medical. The solution is political."
We need a new generation of "gentle angry people" to call the world to a new form of activism so that we can "break the trajectory of the AIDS epidemic with bold actions and smart choices". We need to expect - demand - more from our leaders.
And, we need a new generation who understands what we learned in the early days of AIDS - that there are deep, spiritual connections that exists across barriers of geography, culture, race and religion.
I am convinced that activism and prayer got us through the initial crisis of AIDS and AfrAIDS by demanding that the scientific and medical and governmental agencies respond.
I am equally convinced that activism and prayer are a powerful combination which will get us through these days of painful silence and gathering doom.
Faerie Dust and prayer.
Thirty years later, it's still a tough job.
But someone's got to do it.
As Mother Jones used to say, "Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living."
That's my prayer on this World AIDS Day.