Twenty Years Fighting a Scourge

AIDS Walk, without waning in effort, reflects epidemic’s changing face

For the 45,000 people who came to Central Park on the morning of Sunday, May 15, for the 20th Annual AIDS Walk New York, it was a time to remember loved ones lost to the disease and to help raise funds to treat new infections. But while the threat of HIV has continued, the face of the epidemic has changed. Where the gay community was once in the vanguard fighting first for its own survival, now it finds itself as the minority community rallying troops to battle the spread of HIV among women and heterosexuals.

Sunday’s event raised $5.8 million, making it the most financially successful AIDS Walk to date.

Ana Oliveira, the executive director of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the event’s sponsor, said, “Forty-five thousand people came to Central Park to participate in AIDS Walk New York as a testament of the power and breadth of our diverse communities in mobilizing to end AIDS. It is a very powerful show of strength and commitment to each other and to the value of our lives. AIDS is the defining health crisis of our time, especially here in New York. There is no better way to honor the lives of those living with HIV and those we have lost.”

The annual fund-drive always attracts a crowd representative of the city’s rich diversity, with several walkers interviewed remarking upon the seeming increased participation of heterosexuals, including those from educational and corporate groups.

During a pre-walk stage show, speakers noted how the AIDS epidemic has moved from the gay community to impact nearly everywhere else. The actress Judith Light, an outspoken gay rights supporter, said, “Today we may be walking in New York, but we are walking for the world.”

Light shared the stage with various other celebrities, including comedian Bruce Vilanch; “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” cast members Kyan Douglas, Ted Allen, Jai Rodriguez; and actors Hal Sparks, Rita Moreno, John Spencer, Bill Brochtrup and Richard Thomas. Performers included poet Jessica Care Moore, and singers Norah Jones and Marsha Malamet, who sang “Love Don’t Need A Reason,” which she co-wrote with Peter Allen and Michael Callen, a songwriter who was instrumental forming the Community Research Initiative, a grassroots organization that fought AIDS, before he succumbed to the disease in 1990.

Broadway star Maureen McGovern performed the annual kick-off song, “You Will Never Walk Alone.”

Despite a glowering sky, the walkers set off through Central Park to 101st Street, entertained by Cheer NY and other groups along the way. The crowd then cut west to Riverside Park, then south to 77th Street, where they turned east again, to return to Central Park for a post-show that included performances by Lisa Jackson, Leon and the Peoples and Eugene.

In his opening comments, AIDS Walk founder and producer Craig Miller recalled the early years, when he said city officials scoffed at his request to use Central Park in the spring time. He recalled the administration of the late President Ronald Reagan. “We can never forget The Great Communicator’s silence on AIDS,” and how it marked the first time a public-health crisis was relegated to a political struggle, said Miller.

That the gay community managed to control the spread of HIV in the face of the federal government turning a blind eye is an accomplishment that may have been short-lived with infections on the rise amongst New York’s African-American and Latino gay communities.

Internationally, the virus is wreaking destruction in many underdeveloped nations. “One-third of new infections are of African and Latino women,” said City Councilwoman Margarita Lopez. “If we were able to reduce infections in the gay male community, there is no reason why we should not be able to reduce it for everyone.”

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