On the rainy morning of Dec. 1, Chicago Parks Foundation and the AIDS Garden Chicago Board of Directors hosted a World AIDS Day commemoration at AIDS Garden Chicago, just south of Belmont Harbor on the Lakefront.
AIDS Garden Chicago was officially unveiled in June 2022 and is the city's first public monument to tell the story of the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Chicago. The 2.5 acre park was built on the site of the former historic Belmont Rocks location and features a 30-foot tall Keith Haring self-portrait, personal community memories digital collection and a walkway.
The free public gathering remembered the lives that have been lost due to the AIDS epidemic this past year as well as express solidarity with those living with the HIV/AIDS virus. World AIDS Day has been commemorated since 1988 and in that time more than 40 million people have died worldwide of HIV/AIDS related illnesses.
AIDS Garden Chicago Board President Yoni Pizer said in a press release ahead of the event, "I can think of no better place in Chicago to gather as a community to mark World AIDS Day than in AIDS Garden Chicago. The park's purpose is to honor, respect, remember and celebrate those we have lost to and those still affected by HIV/AIDS. This special place also serves as a symbol of the hope and resilience of the LGBTQ community and our allies and of the will, power and perseverance of any community under siege, even in the face of incredible challenges."
Speakers included Pizer, Anshe Emet Synagogue Rabbi D'Ror Chankin-Gould, Former Dem Illinois House Majority Leader Greg Harris, KAM Isaiah Israel Congregation Cantor David Berger, LGBTQ+ Activist and Town Hall Apartment Resident Donald Bell, ALMA Chicago Co-Founder and Board President Julio Rodríguez, Joel Hall Dance Company's Joel Hall, LGBTQ+ Activist Robert Castillo, Rainbow Railroad USA Board Chair Bruce Koff and Brave Space Alliance CEO Channyn Lynn Parker.
Pizer noted that 2023 is the 35th year that World AIDS Day has been in existence, and added that the community's circumstances have changed dramatically since 1988.
"We are here to commemorate, remember, mourn, celebrate and educate," Pizer said. He also singled out the work of activist and Legacy Project Chicago plaque inductee Danny Sotomayor, whose AIDS Quilt square is hanging at Center on Halsted.
Chankin-Gould spoke about being there to represent the many religious and spiritual leaders in Chicago. He also praised medical providers who are advocating for resources, educating the community and treating those with HIV/AIDS. Chankin-Gould said that a person close to him who was HIV positive and died over a decade ago changed his life, and that he was there to honor his friend's life and legacy, along with every other person who has died of AIDS.
Harris said that after his 1988 HIV positive diagnosis, he did not think he would see another year, nor did he imagine he would be alive over three decades later. He added that there were other World AIDS Day remembrances taking place in every corner of Chicago, and that there is still work to be done to get to zero new transmissions in Illinois.
Berger spoke about growing up in Buffalo Grove and said that the first person he knew of who died from AIDS was his "fabulous" elementary school music teacher. He then sang a song focused on "remembering people who are so often left out of the stories," with the audience singing the chorus "we remember them."
Bell said that as an elder his focus now is on connecting with and educating young LGBTQ+ people so "generational warfare" in the community does not happen. He added that the younger generations have to carry on this fight against HIV/AIDS with a focus on three groupsyoung gay men, young men of color and a new demographic, the aging.
Rodríguez spoke about Sotomayor's work being the inspiration for ALMA's creation. He also said that, years ago, when a friend was diagnosed as HIV positive, that friend was immediately rejected by his Jehovah's Witness parents and shortly thereafter, his chosen family embraced him. Rodríguez said one of ALMA's missions is to ensure, through education efforts, that therejection by biological families of LGBTQ+ and/or HIV positive family members is eradicated.
Hall said, "We are all survivors … strong and colorful individuals who have so much grace and dignity." He added that it is imperative to invest in and educate the younger generations so they will carry this "werkq!" forward.
Castillo said it was "appropriate that we are here in the rain, and I would like to think these are the collective tears of many of us over the years who have lost friends and loved ones to AIDS." He also said he was "in awe of the work" Sotomayor did, and said "the AIDS crisis is not over," adding that LGBTQ+ folks of color especially still face significant risks. Castillo cited the uneven COVID pandemic response for many communities of color as another example of this disparity.
Koff spoke about a documentary he participated in last year, about the LGBTQ+ community in Chicago during the 1970s. He said that, after the documentary interview he came to the AIDS Garden to center himself during the early days of spring, when the leaves and flowers were not fully visible. Koff also said that each person who is still living can carry hope forward into the future.
Parker said it is important to remember reasons for celebration amidst this commemoration. She added that "AIDS-activism taught us to raise our voices louder than we could ever imagine" and invoked previous leaders whose example has been passed down. Parker said that everyone is living with HIV, whether they are positive or not and thanked the "researchers, doctors and long term survivors who made it possible for me to stand here today."
The event also featured performances by Lakeside Pride Music Ensembles Board Chair Brandon Strawn who played the ukelele to the song "I Am What I Am" with modified lyrics to commemorate World AIDS Day and also read from something he wrote years ago about his HIV positive status as well as poet and performer Mondeaux who read from poem inspired from one of his favorite gay icons James Baldwin called, "I dreamed an interview with James Baldwin."
ASL interpretation for each speaker and performer was provided by Jordan Brown.
Pizer also invited those in attendance to take a ribbon and tie it around one of the trees as a symbol of remembrance, and/or take a rock and write a message to a loved one and leave it somewhere in the AIDS Garden at the conclusion of the program.
To close out the event, Strawn led the crowd in singing "Seasons of Love" by Jonathan Larson from the hit Broadway musical Rent.
See aidsgardenchicago.org/ and chicagoparksfoundation.org/ .