SF World AIDS Day event to honor Olympic diver Louganis

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday November 21, 2023
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A Light in the Grove attendee placed a candle in the Circle of Friends at the National AIDS Memorial Grove at last year's event. Photo: Courtesy NAMG
A Light in the Grove attendee placed a candle in the Circle of Friends at the National AIDS Memorial Grove at last year's event. Photo: Courtesy NAMG

The Olympian dubbed the "greatest diver in history" will be recognized at the National AIDS Memorial Grove's World AIDS Day commemorations, which will also include its Light in the Grove benefit the night before.

Louganis, a gay man who has been living with HIV since 1988, will receive the grove's National Leadership Recognition Award at 1 p.m. Friday, December 1, during the grove's public observance. Previous recipients of the award have been former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and Dr. Anthony Fauci, former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Louganis was the second diver — and only man — in history to sweep the diving events in two consecutive Olympiads, in 1984 in Los Angeles, and in 1988 in Seoul, South Korea, leading him to be dubbed "the greatest diver in history."

He told the Bay Area Reporter that he is honored to be recognized after years of being involved with the grove.

"I've been involved with the memorial and all the things they've been doing for many, many years," Louganis said in a recent phone interview. "I was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1988 — I came out in 1995. There's been a long-standing connection."

In the late 1980s Louganis was facing several struggles that weren't being telecast worldwide — not only his own diagnosis but the deaths of friends.

"Back in the day we were going to memorials — several in a weekend. People we knew and loved were dying," he said. "Back when I was diagnosed in 1988, we thought of HIV/AIDS as a death sentence. They said, 'You have two years to live.' I thought I'd never see 30. Now I'm 63 and it's like 'oh shit — I gotta get a job. I'm going to be here for a while.'

"At that time, there was so much fear surrounding HIV/AIDS," he added. "People didn't really know and understand how you get HIV and also how you don't get HIV. Now, with all of the medicines and treatments, people are living pretty normal lives."

Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis will be honored at this year's National AIDS Memorial Grove's World AIDS Day observance. Photo: Richard Knapp  

In fact, Louganis hit his head on a diving board in the preliminaries for the Seoul Olympics in 1988. A doctor applied four stitches and Louganis returned to the competition, ultimately winning the gold medal. Seven years later, in an interview with ABC-TV's Barbara Walters, he revealed that he had been HIV-positive at the time.

In the late 1980s, there was much fear and stigma around AIDS, as Louganis acknowledged. He said that he was immediately concerned, telling Walters in 1995 that as soon as he realized he'd struck his head, "I didn't know if I was cut or not, but I just wanted to hold the blood in and just not [let] anybody touch it."

Today, there remains stigma around HIV/AIDS, though generally not at the level it was decades ago, at least in most parts of the U.S. In recent months, Louganis has decided to pay it forward by helping an AIDS organization in Indianapolis, Indiana, where the Olympic trials are held.

Louganis decided to auction off three of his medals to raise funds for an LGBTQ organization in Indianapolis. The trio of medals could be worth $2.4 million, according to KNBC-TV, which also reported in June his plan to auction them off at Bonhams Auctions in Los Angeles. Bonhams's website indicates they were part of a September auction.

"I don't know that there's any controversy — I put them up for auction," he said. "I was hoping to raise money for the Damian Center, an organization in Indianapolis that provides services for people living with HIV/AIDS. They have a food bank, doctors, dental, psychological, housing — all kinds of care and services."

Louganis will be visiting San Francisco from Topanga, in Los Angeles County, where he currently lives.

Other grove activities
The grove event, which kicks off at noon with a Dance AZTECA performance, is one of a variety of commemorations of the 35th annual World AIDS Day in the Bay Area. Founded by the World Health Organization and the joint United Nations Programme on AIDS, World AIDS Day seeks to call attention to the global epidemic that has killed 36 million people since it was first discovered 40 years ago in 1981.

The WHO's theme this year is "Let communities lead."

The grove's observance will also feature a reading of names, followed by a "light lunch," according to the release. Louganis will be preceded by a panel discussion featuring Imani Rupert-Gordon, a queer woman who is the executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights; Asmara Gebre, who is on the faculty of the UCSF School of Medicine; Aria Sa'id, the former president of the Transgender District; and Lashanda (Tootie) Salinas, the inaugural recipient of the National AIDS Memorial Hope and Inspiration Award.

"We commemorate the 35th anniversary of World AIDS Day by doing what we do best — uplifting the voices that contribute to the broader, intersectional narrative of health and social inequities that defines the AIDS movement," John Cunningham, a gay man who's CEO of the National AIDS Memorial Grove, stated in a news release. "Through brave conversations with those on the front lines, we seek to personalize and contextualize where we have been, where we are, and what remains to be done to fight stigma and discrimination and to build a more just, equitable, and healthy future for all people, in every community."

The grove in San Francisco is the only federally designated memorial to the AIDS epidemic. The grove's dell in Golden Gate Park on November 30, the eve of World AIDS Day, will be the site of its annual fundraiser, Light in the Grove, billed as "a one-of-a-kind evening of remembrance, renewal and action."

The grove receives no public funding, as it notes on its website, and relies on donations and proceeds from Light in the Grove for its operating costs. Tickets for the evening event are $300.

Inscribe in the Castro
George Kelly, a 63-year-old gay man who lives in the Castro and has been HIV-positive since 1984, has been organizing his own event, Inscribe, for eight years now. It provides an opportunity for people to remember their lost loved ones by writing their names in chalk on the sidewalk.

Kelly told the B.A.R. that the project began in conjunction with the Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy, the public elementary school in the Castro, in 2015 after a teacher died of AIDS complications. This was also around the time that the first phase of the Rainbow Honor Walk recognizing deceased LGBTQ luminaries was being installed in the Castro neighborhood.

(The San Francisco Unified School District declined a request to comment for this report, citing the fall break.)

"I've lost a lot of friends," Kelly said. "They should have a bronze plaque along the honor walk, but instead we decided to do it in rainbow and chalk.

"Fifteen thousand people died of HIV/AIDS in the Castro since 1981 and 25,000 in San Francisco," he continued. "It's an honoring of the people who used to work in those bars, who used to dance, who used to shop and work in those businesses. They were there, they were people, they were part of the community. So we are invoking those spirits on World AIDS Day."

The chalk — donated by Crayola and provided through Cliff's Variety — will be available from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. at "Hibernia Beach," as the area near the Bank of America at 18th and Castro streets is often called, Kelly said.

"This year George has requested three cases of sidewalk chalk (576 sticks) for a value of about $100," stated Asten Bennett, a straight ally who is co-owner of Cliff's and president of the Castro Merchants Association.

Kelly said that DJ Michael Chu will be playing the music from the "lost generation" at Hibernia Beach. Chu did not return a request for comment.

Other events
There will be an exhibit of a panel from the AIDS Memorial Quilt at Grace Cathedral, 1100 California Street in San Francisco, including a block for Tomm Rudd, a choreographer with the San Francisco Ballet who died of AIDS complications in 1994. (The AIDS grove is now steward of the quilt, which was co-founded by Cleve Jones and Mike Smith, both gay men, and Gert McMullin, a longtime ally.)

Rudd choreographed a five-minute dance called "Mobile," a film of which will also be presented at the cathedral, which will be open for its World AIDS Day observance from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Entrance for World AIDS Day is free if the staff is informed that is the reason for the visit.

Gay artist Keith Haring's "Altarpiece: The Life of Christ" was his final work before he died of AIDS complications in 1990. It is always on display in the cathedral's AIDS Interfaith Chapel.

East Bay Getting to Zero will be commemorating the day with an event at 665 Bellevue Avenue, near Oakland's Lake Merritt, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday, November 30. Free tickets are available on Eventbrite. The event will feature a fireside chat and an update on the East Bay HIV strategic plan.

Advocate claims victory on HIV funding cuts
Carl Schmid, a gay man who is the executive director of the HIV + Hepatitis Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., is touting a U.S. House of Representatives vote of 109-324 against an amendment to the Labor and Health and Human Services appropriation bill that would have eliminated the HHS Minority HIV/AIDS Fund as a major victory.

As the B.A.R. previously reported, the House GOP is seeking heavy cuts to HIV-related funding — including the Ending the HIV Epidemic initiative started under Republican former president Donald Trump.

"It is time for the House leadership to scrap their divisive plans, which clearly do not enjoy support from a majority of the Congress, and instead focus on appropriation bills that can pass and are in line with the budget agreement, as the Senate has done," Schmid stated after the vote on November 14.

The House also rejected, in a 144-282 vote, an amendment to the Treasury and Housing and Urban Development appropriation bill that would have ended the Housing Opportunity for People with AIDS, or HOPWA, program.

Schmid told the B.A.R. that the votes are "a good sign that you can't do this stuff," referring to efforts to scuttle various HIV/AIDS programs.

"We are at a crossroads right now," Schmid said. "It's not that we've given up or have been defeated; but we are facing strong headwinds."

Tickets for Light in the Grove are available here.

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