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AIDS grove commemorates 40 years of epidemic

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Stacked stones and a seasonal streambed are shown amid redwood trees in the National AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park in this April 2017 photo. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Stacked stones and a seasonal streambed are shown amid redwood trees in the National AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park in this April 2017 photo. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

As the country prepares to mark the 40th anniversary of the first cases of what is now known as AIDS, the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park will open to the public for what organizers said would be a moving tribute.

There will be a 40-block display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which the grove took stewardship of in 2019, and people can experience the 10-acre living memorial that honors lives lost, survivors, and heroes, a news release stated.

It was June 5, 1981 that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report noted five cases of pneumocystis pneumonia among previously healthy gay men in Los Angeles. Over the ensuing years, thousands of people died from the disease, including gay men, women, trans people, hemophiliacs, and injection drug users.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, capacity at the grove for the Saturday, June 5, event will be limited, and people will need to sign up online for a timed entry. Masks and social distancing will be required. It will run from noon to 6 p.m.

"COVID pulled the curtain back on so many areas of struggle and revealed so much of the AIDS crisis," AIDS grove Executive Director John Cunningham, a gay man, told the Bay Area Reporter during a recent Zoom call. "The grove is the final resting place for thousands, the quilt is solace for many. We see this as an opportunity to share the power of healing."

Some members of the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus will perform and people will be able to read names of those lost to AIDS and leave personal tributes to loved ones lost to the disease on special AIDS quilt signature panels.

The observance will help raise greater awareness about the plight of HIV/AIDS today, the continued fight for health and social justice, and serve as a call to action to finally find a cure four decades later, as there have been 700,000 lives lost to AIDS nationwide, according to the release. There are currently 1.2 million Americans living with HIV today, and the disease particularly impacts young people and communities of color.

Cunningham noted that the grove has been open throughout the pandemic, though there haven't been large public ceremonies. He said that the popular volunteer work days at the grove are expected to resume soon.

Online observance
People will also be able to watch a special observance and ceremony online beginning at 2:30 p.m. Saturday afternoon. (It will be available for virtual viewing later as well.) That will include House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco); Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Oakland); gay state Senators Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) and John Laird (D-Santa Cruz); Assemblyman David Chiu (D-San Francisco); and San Francisco Mayor London Breed and gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman.

Also taking part will be long-term AIDS survivors Cleve Jones, co-founder of the quilt; and grove board member Lonnie Payne. Young leaders on hand will include Ima Diawara, the recipient of the grove's Mary Bowman Arts in Activism Award and grove board member Antwan Matthews.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, will make a virtual presentation. Fauci was on the frontlines of the AIDS epidemic decades ago and over the last year was often the public face of the COVID pandemic.

Kevin Herglotz, a gay man who was recently named chief operating officer for the grove, told the B.A.R. that the dignitaries will lay a wreath in the Circle of Friends and see the 6,000th quilt block that will be unfolded.

Cunningham said that representatives from Vivent Health, Gilead Sciences, and Quest Diagnostics will be part of the online ceremony. All have provided financial support to the grove and the quilt.

To sign up to attend the public day of remembrance and tributes and/or read names, go to https://www.aidsmemorial.org/aids40

The AIDS grove has a special section, "40 Years of AIDS," on its website, along with the virtual exhibition of the AIDS Memorial Quilt and other features.

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