friends lost to AIDS
by Seth Hemmelgarn
Thirty years after the AIDS epidemic began devastating San Francisco, singer Martha Wash recently recalled how she started helping to combat the disease.
"When it first started, it was just ravaging so many people that I knew and had worked with off and on over the years," Wash, who's perhaps best known for the song "It's Raining Men," said in an interview earlier this month.
She said she and her partner in the duo Two Tons of Fun, Izora Armstead, started getting calls from organizations asking them to help raise money.
"We just wanted to be involved with it and help as many people as we could ... and I've just kind of kept up with it," Wash said.
Wash will be in San Francisco Saturday, December 1 for World AIDS Day 2012, for which numerous events in the city have been planned. She'll perform at the AIDS Emergency Fund's 30th anniversary gala Under the Big Top.
The benefit will take place 7 to 11 p.m. in the National AIDS Memorial Grove, located in the eastern end of Golden Gate Park at the intersection of Bowling Green and Middle Drive East, across from the tennis courts.
AIDS Emergency Fund will give Wash a lifetime achievement award to honor her friend Sylvester James, the singer who died from AIDS in 1988, and for her years of work raising money and awareness to combat HIV and AIDS.
Mike Smith, AIDS Emergency Fund's executive director, pointed to Wash's efforts to help HIV/AIDS organizations and LGBT causes over the years.
"Having someone of her stature and talent give so much of themselves to the community has helped those organizations raise hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years," Smith said. "Long before there was Cyndi Lauper and Lady GaGa, Martha Wash was there for our community."
James was usually referred to just as Sylvester. The flamboyant, openly gay superstar was best known for the disco hit "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)."
Wash, who was a backup singer for Sylvester, indicated her friend would have given pop stars like Lauper and GaGa some healthy competition.
"Sometimes, you never knew what to expect, but he was a great entertainer, and he just kind of put himself out there," she said. "I believe that he was way ahead of his time. I think if he was still alive today, I don t think there would have been any kind of problems with him, as far as the entertainment industry. I just think he was really way ahead of his time."
As for the progress that's been made fighting the disease that killed Sylvester and others, Wash said, "It has gotten better with the research, which I'm glad about, but there still needs to be awareness. It hasn't gone away. People still need to be concerned and careful, because it hasn't gone away."
Wash declined to share her age but said, "Let's just say I've been around for a while. I'm seasoned." Something Good , her new CD, will be available on iTunes in December. For more information, visit http://wwww.facebook.com/themarthawash.
Individual tickets for the AIDS Emergency Fund gala are $300. According to Smith, 30 tickets were left as of Tuesday, November 20. For more information, visit http://www.aef-sf.org .
Several other events are planned to mark World AIDS Day. All are set to occur December 1 unless otherwise noted.
More grove events
The National AIDS Memorial Grove (http://www.aidsmemorial.org ) will hold Light in the Grove Friday, November 30. A VIP host reception will be from 5-6 p.m. and the commemoration and celebration are set for 6-9.
At the event, for which tickets are no longer available, William D. Glenn and Prescott W. Hafner will be honored for their work.
"Together and separately they have provided generous support, leadership, hope, comfort, and care to countless lives, nonprofit organizations and community endeavors in the fight against HIV/AIDS," organizers said in a statement. "They are beacons of light who exemplify the very best qualities of our community."
The gathering will be in a clear, heated tent and feature food and cocktails.
The next day, December 1, the grove will host its annual World AIDS Day observance beginning at 12 p.m.
The program includes dedication of the Nancy Pelosi Leadership Walkway, in honor of the U.S. House minority leader. The San Francisco Democrat was instrumental in passing legislation in 1996 that designated the woodland dell in Golden Gate Park as a national monument to those lost to the AIDS epidemic. It is the only federally recognized AIDS memorial in the country.
Pelosi will receive the National Leadership Award, while Gina Gatta is being honored as the grove's 2012 Local Unsung Hero. Gatta served for over 12 years on the National AIDS Memorial Grove board before resigning last year.
The grove is a very special place," Gatta, who co-chaired 10 consecutive observances, said in a statement. "If I had to say one thing that the grove has given me, it would be peace. It became a place for me where I could come to terms with the AIDS epidemic that was not necessarily a hospital bed or another death or another illness. It gave me hope; it gave me peace. It has let me heal. Slowly, it has let me heal.
A light lunch will be served at the December 1 event, which is free and open to the public.
Paint the Castro Red
Several of San Francisco's HIV/AIDS service organizations are hosting Paint the Castro Red ( http://www.paintthecastrored.org/).
The event is meant to commemorate the thousands of San Franciscans who have been lost to AIDS, inspire people to get tested for HIV, and raise funds for local AIDS service providers.
Paint the Castro Red will benefit AIDS Emergency Fund, AIDS Legal Referral Panel, Asian and Pacific Islander Wellness Center, Maitri, National AIDS Memorial Grove, Positive Resource Center, Project Inform, Project Open Hand, San Francisco AIDS Foundation, Shanti, and Visual Aid.
Activities will include free HIV testing at Magnet, 4122 18th Street, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Alliance Health Project, 501 Castro Street, 1:30 to 4:30 p.m.; and MOMS Pharmacy, 4071 18th Street, 6 to 11 p.m.
A group of Castro district businesses, restaurants, and bars will donate a portion of their sales on World AIDS Day: Body, Citizen, Diesel, Emergence Healing Arts Studio, Harvey's, Hortica, Hot Cookie, Lookout, Louie's Barber Shop, Midnight Sun, Moby Dick, Midnight Sun, Mollie Stone's, P.O. Plus, Q Bar, San Francisco Upper Cervical Chiropractic, Spunk Salon, The Edge, and Twin Peaks Tavern.
Additionally, San Francisco AIDS Foundation will present a sold out screening that night of the documentary How to Survive a Plague at the Castro Theatre. The film tells the story of the emergence of the activist group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in New York City.
The organization was largely made up of HIV-positive people "who refused to die without a fight," an AIDS foundation news release says. "The film captures both the terror and hope of the early days of the AIDS epidemic," and the "epic battles" that finally made AIDS survivable.
Following the screening, there will be a candlelight vigil at 8:30 p.m. at Harvey Milk Plaza, Castro and Market streets.
Obituaries site sees milestone
Also on World AIDS Day, the GLBT Historical Society is marking the third anniversary of its online database of every obituary that's appeared in the Bay Area Reporter since 1979. (http://obit.glbthistory.org)
The majority of the 10,344 notices, "especially those from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s," reflect the devastating impact AIDS has had in San Francisco, Tom Burtch, the historical society volunteer who conceived the project, said in a statement.
"As one of the first places where AIDS was recognized, we feel a special responsibility to ensure that the toll taken by the epidemic is never forgotten," he stated. "This website gives us a way to honor those we have lost."
Each listing includes the full obituary and offers a guestbook for visitors to contribute their memories. The site receives an average of 3,000 visits a month, and the listings are updated regularly to include new obituaries published in the B.A.R.