In only a few days, nearly 25,000 people from around the globe will descend upon Washington, D.C. for AIDS 2012, the XIX International AIDS Conference being held in the United States for the first time since 1990, following President Obama's lifting of this country's 22-year travel and immigration ban against people with HIV.
I will be attending the conference, along with many of my fellow HIV advocates and activists, as a media representative for Positively Aware magazine, as I have for three of the last four conferences. World AIDS, as the biennial conference has been dubbed, is quite a spectacular event to witness, especially if you've never experienced it before, and the theme of this year's conference is "Turning the Tide Together." The conference is a great way to meet and network with others who are working in the field, to share ideas, and to get the latest data on advances in HIV prevention, research, and care, and to take the opportunity to renew our passion and commitment by marching and demonstrating for our rights, as well as the rights of those who are unable to advocate for themselves.
The conference will also be an opportunity to reflect and to honor and remember those who we've lost along the way, in this now 31-year struggle against HIV and AIDS. One of those opportunities will be by visiting and taking in the impact of The AIDS Memorial Quilt, which is on display that same week on the National Mall and at various sites around the capital.
I volunteered at the Quilt when it was in D.C. back in 1996, and it was an incredibly powerful experience. The unfolding ceremony in itself is extremely moving, and there are even boxes of tissues strategically placed, for that moment when suddenly you are overcome with emotion as you come across the panel of a loved one, or maybe even a stranger, whose life is all wrapped up and gently handed to you like an offering, in a tidy little patch of fabric.
Following the Quilt in 1996, there was a candlelight march from the Capital Building to the Lincoln Memorial in which many of my friends and co-workers took part, along with 100,000 others who had gathered in our nation's capital. As we came upon the now obligatory "Reverend" Fred Phelps contingent holding up signs that declared "God Hates Fags" and "The Wages of Sin is Death," I suddenly became filled with anger that welled up from somewhere deep within. I began shouting "Shame! Shame! Shame!" and "God Doesn't Hate!" and soon hundreds of people were joining in. I was literally shaking in my boots, but my brothers and sisters around me who were voicing their support lifted me up and gave me the strength to continue. That night, an activist was born.
Another chance to look back and reflect will be when I have the privilege to attend a benefit performance in D.C. of The Normal Heart at the Arena Stage the week of the conference. Larry Kramer's powerful 1984 play written during the early days of the epidemic chronicling the apathy and indifference to the looming epidemic is receiving rave reviews, but I know from what I've read and heard that it is going to be an emotional evening. More tissues will be needed.
It's difficult for many of us who have lived through such devastation, and the loss of so many friends, lovers, and loved ones, to dredge up those emotions, once again, and over and over. Sometimes it's necessary to push them down and tuck them away, because the pain is too unbearable.
So I realize it's going to be a busy week, a fulfilling weekbut also an emotional week for many of us. But the way I look at it, at least we have the luxury of even being emotional. My friend Eugene, who passed away in 1989the same year I was diagnosed with HIVregrettably does not have that luxury. So I will march for him and for the many, many others who were gone far too soon, and way ahead of their time. I will shed my tears for my friend and mentor Lou. I will report on advances in treatment, care and prevention, and cure research, for my good friend Carl.
And when it all seems like it is maybe becoming a bit too much, I will retreat, for Ian, and tend to my wounds, and provide some self-care. Then I will get up, and I will continue to fight for all of those who are no longer with us, for those who are still with us but who have no voice, and wage war against the apathy and complacency around us that makes our work at times an uphill battle.
Fight we mustand remember we will. We must never forget. Because we are still here, and this is our calling.
And if we don't fight the fight, who will?
Jeff Berry is the director of publications for the HIV/AIDS agency Test Positive Aware Network.