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Clinton to Speak at AIDS Grove

by Cynthia Laird

Former President Bill Clinton
Former President Bill Clinton  (Source:Courtesy CBS News)

Former President Bill Clinton will deliver the keynote address at the National AIDS Memorial Grove on World AIDS Day, December 1.

As first reported on the Bay Area Reporter's blog last week, in 1996 Clinton signed the legislation spearheaded by Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) that designated the grove as the country's sole federally-designated national AIDS memorial.

Clinton has never visited the grove, though he did send a video message when he was honored by the organization five years ago.

John Cunningham, executive director of the grove, told the B.A.R. that now is a great time for a visit from the former president.

"It was 26 years ago when the memorial was created, and I remember living in the Castro when he ran and won," Cunningham said.

The first diagnosis of AIDS in the U.S. was reported in 1981. Ten years later, at the height of the epidemic, a group of individuals created a place in Golden Gate Park where people seeking healing could gather to express their collective grief through a living memorial, which was referred to at the time as San Francisco's AIDS Memorial Grove.

"I believe he and his administration listened," Cunningham said, referring to various actions Clinton took in office. "Thirty-six years into the epidemic, I think it's an appropriate time for the epidemic, the city, and the former president to stand in its place. We're back in a place where we feel no one is listening."

Since leaving the White House in 2000, Clinton has become even more involved in efforts to decrease HIV/AIDS cases. The Clinton Foundation has funded programs in developing countries to combat the disease, including lowering the costs of medications for people.

"We are so proud to have President Clinton be such an important part of our World AIDS Day commemoration and honor his global commitment to provide care and help find a cure for this devastating disease," Cunningham said.

Cunningham told the B.A.R. that no current or former president has ever visited the grove. Former first lady Hillary Clinton attended the ceremony establishing national recognition of the grove.

Cunningham said that grove officials reached out to Clinton's team several months ago, wanting to honor the former president for federally designating the grove. According to Cunningham, Clinton's representatives came back and said the former president would like to deliver an address for World AIDS Day.

An email to Clinton's press team seeking comment was not returned by press time.

The grove's theme for its World AIDS Day events is "Bending the Arc Toward Justice," and will honor people who have made a difference in the fight against AIDS.

In addition to Clinton's address, the grove will honor David McMurry, retired global public health manager at Chevron, with its Humanitarian Leadership Award. Ruth Corker Burks, also known as the "Cemetery Angel," will receive the Thom Weyand Unsung Hero Award for her work in the darkest days of the epidemic in Arkansas, where she cared for hundreds of young gay men abandoned by their families.

Preceding World AIDS Day, the grove will hold its Light in the Grove benefit gala Thursday, November 30, from 6 to 9:30 p.m. The event includes candlelight reflection at the Circle of Friends and special musical and choreographed performances. Gay former state Senator Mark Leno, now a candidate for San Francisco mayor, will receive a Lifetime Commitment Award for his decades of philanthropy, activism, and leadership in support of HIV/AIDS, the LGBT community, and civil liberties.

Tickets for the November 30 event are $250.

The December 1 event featuring Clinton will take place from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and is free, like previous World AIDS Day commemorations. Due to security, it will be ticketed this year, Cunningham said. Tickets for the public will be available online beginning Monday, November 20, at http://bit.ly/2ho7NGX. Additionally, visitors will have to go through security. Backpacks and other bags are discouraged, since there will be bag checks, he said.

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