Chicagoans gathered at the lakefront the morning of June 2 for the ribbon-cutting and grand opening of the city's long-awaited AIDS Memorial Garden.
"There are so many ones who have passed who have come to witness this sacred moment," said poet-playwright Osiris Khepera in a spoken-word performance introducing the morning's events. "…This is a space for all. This is a space for living."
AIDS Garden Board Chair Yoni Pizer said, "This, indeed, is a park with a purpose."
Among the officials also speaking June 2 were Gov. JB Pritzker, Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Ald. Tom Tunney (44th Ward), State House Majority Leader Greg Harris, Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton and Chicago Parks District CEO Rosa Escareno.
Located at Belmont and the lake, the three-acre Chicago AIDS Memorial Garden is anchored by a rendition of the Keith Haring sculpture Self-Portrait. According to its website, the garden's "[v]isitors will be guided with markers and milestones through a variety of intimate and collective garden spaces all providing a sensory nature experience, the most notable being a memorable grove of gingko trees and a perennial garden of natural plantings at the entrance."
"I expect this beautiful garden to become the city's most treasured gem," said Escareno.
Tunney spoke of the garden both as "a symbol of resilience" of LGBTQ+ community members and a memorial to lives lost to government indifference. He further reflected on how the Belmont Rocks, the lakefront summertime gathering-spot once occupying the space the garden now stands on, was so integral to LGBTQ+ Chicagoans.
Frequently choking back tears, Harris discussed his HIV and AIDS diagnoses, recalling his physician telling him that he likely only had about six months to live. He also spoke of the sting of indifference, at a time when persons with HIV/AIDS could lose their jobs and insurance, and could be refused medical services: "We had a president who didn't care and politicians who used our community as punching bags to score cheap political points."
"I'd love to be here looking out at a sea of my friends and colleagues" now gone, Harris said.
"This is a historic place, a place of joy [and] a place of remembrance," said Pritzker, who said that the path around the garden "reminds us of the progress that the LGBTQ+ community has made." He added that the spot holds in itself both "immeasurable losses" and the "vibrancy of a community."
"Never forget those brave individuals who acted up," added Pizer.
Lightfoot spoke about efforts Chicago Department of Public Health are putting forth in combatting new HIV infections, particularly in BIPOC communities. She noted that the City had appropriated about $40 million towards HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment.
But Lightfoot also urged vigilance for the LGBTQ+ community, warning that the community's rights will likely be under attack across the country, especially when right-wing activists will be emboldened following the likely overturning of the Roe v. Wade decision.
Lightfoot noted that Roe is couched in the issue of privacy, and that means that challenges to LGBTQ+-rights will come soon after. Noting that the Right is already challenging the rights of trans and queer children with so-called bathroom bills and don't say gay legislation, Lightfoot said challenges to LGBTQ+ adults' rights will follow.
"We need to be ready, and not just let things happen to us" as a community, Lightfoot said.
"Rights can be gone in an instant," Harris similarly said.
Stratton said the garden should stand as a metaphor for the state of Illinois itself, a place where LGBTQ+ residents "don't have to hide" and "be all that they want to be."
"That's what JB and I want for all of Illinois," she added. "Together we can make Illinois a place that respects the dignity of every person's existence."
State Sen. Sara Feigenholtz, state Rep. Margaret Colke and Cook County Commissioner Kevin Morrison also attended the June 2 event.