For more than 30 years, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — among others — have used December 1 as a day to remember those who have died from HIV/AIDS.
This year in Long Beach, we have to set aside the traditions of the reading of the names at St. Mary Medical Center or the candlelight walk from The Long Beach LGBTQ Center due to COVID-19.
Instead, we will have a self-guided walk from Harvey Milk Park to the Lions Lighthouse at Rainbow Lagoon. For those who make it to the lighthouse, they will have a chance to write remembrances, and read messages left by others.
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For those who plan to stay at home, the Long Beach HIV Planning Group has set up a page where visitors can leave their own remembrances. The page will be active through Saturday.
For those who take the walk, the Lions Lighthouse, Convention Center, and Rainbow Esplanade along the route will be lit up in red.
In the mid 1990s, I remember attending my first World AIDS Day service at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Long Beach. We wrote down the names of those we had lost to AIDS and tied them to red balloons, releasing them into the night sky.
Those were the darkest days, literally due to the time of the year, and because no effective treatments were available.
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With my own plummeting T-cell count, it was easy to imagine my own name tied to a red balloon in the coming years.
My feelings of despair and loss were so overwhelming — for both myself and my community — that it would be another 15 years before I would attend another World AIDS Day event.
That next event was a luncheon at St. Mary Medical Center where I was a new hire. It was a somber event, with a reading of the names of clients we had lost in the past year. Unlike the past event at St. Luke’s, I was on effective treatment, undetectable, with a full complement of T-cells.
More importantly, I was surrounded by friends and colleagues, all fighting the good fight, working to prevent transmission and keep my HIV+ peers healthy.
It was my community that transformed World AIDS Day from a day of despair to one of strength and hope.
We won’t be walking as a group this year. I plan to walk the route twice this year — once with my HIVE walking group (HIVE stands for HIV Elders), and again in the evening (with a mask and socially distanced) with a couple close friends.
It won’t be a large gathering as in years past, but I will still feel the support of my community, virtually.