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Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Faerie Dust and Prayer

It was unusually cold that morning, even for the normally mild weather in D.C.

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.

Some of us would cover ourselves with the American Flag or protest banners that said, "Ignorance = Fear. Silence = Death". Some had cans of red paint which they would pour on themselves and their T-shirts which read, "The Government has (HIV infected) Blood on Its Hands".

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.

One of the 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,
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]
she called us to break the silence with these words:
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.

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.
It's not like there aren't things to celebrate - progress made. As the Presiding Bishop pointed out in her message:
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.


Karen H. said...

Those early days were so horrific & oh dear Lord, we lost so many , many people. I am not nostalgic for the time. That being said, I keep hearing the Weavers song in my head today..."Wasn't that a time?" There was something about our focus, our determination, our willingness to do whatever had to be done for the sake of those others would gladly toss aside. I don't miss the times, but I do long for the return of such passion.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I think that's exactly what I was trying to say, but you said it so much more succinctly. Thank you.

Carol Huntington said...

Thank you. I remember well as the only AIDS social worker @ UMDNJ Newark 85- 90. Fifty African American on staff MSWs refused to deal.

So...They hired a white woman from Boston. 200 deaths a year .
I preseneted at Toronto. I will never forget those days and my friends.

it's margaret said...

Amen Karen. Amen.

Thank you and bless you Elizabeth.

A parishioner who works with those living with HIV and AIDS said there is a new and terrible wave coming with virulent strains that are not touched by drugs and a generation of youths who have no memory of those awful days, so they have abundant sex with no protection. She was weeping, saying she thinks it is time to retire because she cannot grieve another generation....

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Carol - I was in Newark during those years. I remember pastors refusing to do funeral services for those who had died with AIDS.

It was so hard - which made our work so much more important.

Muthah+ said...

Great article.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Margaret - the story of "mutant viruses" have been with us since the beginning. And, stories of rampant, "ignorant" sex have, as well.

And yet, the incidence of new cases has decreased.

I'm staying with hope, and hoping for a new generation of spirit-filled activists.

Wormwood's Doxy said...

Bless you for your activism, Elizabeth! You really did help to save lives.

I will note one small error in the post, however, The first World AIDS Day was actually celebrated in 1988. This year is the 23rd observance--and, finally, there is good news on the horizon: the CAPRISA microbicide study, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Study on preventing HIV from infecting human cells, and the new NIH study on pre-exposure prophylaxis.

Unfortunately, it is also not true that overall incidence of new cases has decreased. The HIV incidence rate has remained steady, at an estimated 56,300 new cases each year, since the mid-1990s.

Incidence in certain populations has decreased, but the incidence among men who have sex with men is rising again--a very troublesome development.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Doxy. Wiki says this: "Since 1995, the President of the United States has made an official proclamation on World AIDS Day. Governments of other nations have followed suit and issued similar announcements."

I'm happy that the overall incidence of new HIV infections is down. Clearly, we still have much work to do with "certain populations".

Wormwood's Doxy said...

That's true Elizabeth--but you need to go down a little farther on Wikipedia:

World AIDS Day was first conceived in August 1987 by James W. Bunn and Thomas Netter, two public information officers for the Global Programme on AIDS at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland. Bunn and Netter took their idea to Dr. Jonathan Mann, Director of the Global Programme on AIDS (now known as UNAIDS). Dr. Mann liked the concept, approved it, and agreed with the recommendation that the first observance of World AIDS Day should be 1 December, 1988.

Bunn, a broadcast journalist on a leave-of-absence from his reporting duties at KPIX-TV in San Francisco, recommended the date of 1 December believing it would maximize coverage by western news media. Since 1988 was an election year in the U.S., Bunn suggested that media outlets would be weary of their post-election coverage and eager to find a fresh story to cover. Bunn and Netter determined that 1 December was long enough after the election and soon enough before the Christmas holidays that it was, in effect, a dead spot in the news calendar and thus perfect timing for World AIDS Day.

The only reason I'm harping on it is to note that there have been many good people--yourself included--who have been working for decades to bring an end to the HIV epidemic and honor both those lost to us and those living with HIV and AIDS. I am grateful to Messers. Bunn and Netter, who envisioned an observance that would remind us of the past and point us to the future.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

I know, Doxy. I know. But I make the point that IN THIS COUNTRY, World AIDS Day was not observed until 1995. That, to me, is highly significant and makes sense of the hard work many of us did against a strong tied of opposition. The rest of the world was observing World AIDS Day in 1987. Here in the US, it was not until 1995 - 8 full years later.

Still takes my breath away. And, in an odd way, makes sense of all of our hard work.

Does that make sense to you? Probably not. It does to me. So, it's okay. Not a lot about AIDS has ever made sense to me, either.

JCF said...

Remembering, as I do every year, my friend and co-worker Jim H (d. 1989). His infectious laugh lightened many a long shift at Delilah's Cafe (Portland OR).

I'll never forget you, Jim.

PseudoPiskie said...

You reminded me of Ryan White and the fear so many had of him because of ignorance about AIDS. The superintendent of schools who accepted Ryan is married to the daughter of a friend of mine who died recently. At the funeral I was able to thank him again for his courage.

Matthew said...

Mark King summarized (and in video) what I think of that time and put to words better than I could think to write, what I think now and what it meant to me then. And, I echo the comment of Karen H.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - that piece is absolutely STUNNING. Thank you for it.