Guest Opinion: Changing the pattern for a future without AIDS

  • by John Cunningham
  • Wednesday November 30, 2022
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Cathy Jefferson placed a flower on the name of her brother in the Circle of Friends as part of the December 1, 2016 World AIDS Day remembrance in the National AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Cathy Jefferson placed a flower on the name of her brother in the Circle of Friends as part of the December 1, 2016 World AIDS Day remembrance in the National AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park. Photo: Rick Gerharter

As our community comes together this World AIDS Day, it's hard not to look around and see who's missing — our friends, lovers, and family we've lost over four decades of this horrific, cruel disease. It always brings tears and we carry so many emotions, particularly in thinking about what could have been.

But for me, as a man living with HIV/AIDS, I shift to a brighter space, choosing to look around me, thinking about so many of us still here, living and thriving. We survivors, who have so much to be thankful for, also have a heavy burden to share our own stories and journey so history is less likely to repeat itself.

However, behind the smiles, so many of us remain furious. Today, people are still dying and there should have been a cure, long ago. We are angry because bigotry, hate, and stigma still persist today in society. And we carry shame, because communities of color, and LGBTQ+ and other marginalized populations, continue to be disproportionately impacted by HIV and discrimination, and it shouldn't be this way.

It is time to change the pattern.

While at times faint, there is light and hope. Progress continues to be made, but that doesn't mean we have to accept the timetable that's been laid out before us. In fact, we shouldn't. Rather, it's our responsibility to change the narrative, to raise the flag high, and to demand more action, change, and justice.

We know our collective voices are powerful. History proves it with Stonewall, the civil rights movement, the marches on Washington and in our streets, Black Lives Matter, women's rights, protests against gun violence, and the AIDS Memorial Quilt.

Our activism is rooted in not accepting the status quo and for what are perceived as norms in society. At a time when some in society take us to dark places through violent attacks, rhetoric, and otherisms, we meet the challenges of our times by taking on causes larger than ourselves.

On this World AIDS Day, we gather in the nation's federally-designated memorial to AIDS — the 10-acre National AIDS Memorial Grove — to remember, in the peaceful surroundings of nature. This year we honor Cleve Jones for his activism and visionary work in carrying Harvey Milk's bullhorn in the fight for health and social justice. His vision for the quilt, to lay our dead on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol with quilts made the size of a grave, captured hearts and minds in a way previously unimagined, and created what is now the largest community arts project in the world.

In communities all across the country, sections of the quilt are on display, being used as a teaching tool, and to continue its long tradition of raising resources for local HIV/AIDS service organizations. This includes the largest display ever in Alabama, where HIV is on the rise, and a panel made by legendary civil rights leader Rosa Parks for her friend who died of AIDS, just blocks away from where she stood her ground exactly 67 years ago — on December 1, 1955 — unknowingly starting a movement that continues today.

The symbolism is powerful. Standing here in this moment, we know that Parks' work — and that of so many in the fight for health and social justice — is not complete.

It is our responsibility to channel that same fury, passion, and love to continue to change the pattern — today, tomorrow, and into the future.

On this World AIDS Day we celebrate all those who have carried that movement forward in their own way, with their own voices, to demand action. We share their stories in remembrance, to educate, and to inspire young and old from all walks of life to continue delivering on the promise.

Whether for civil rights, human rights, LGBTQ+ rights, or a cure for HIV/AIDS, our health and social justice movements never stop, because new leaders emerge from each new generation to chart a new path that leads to a day when we can live without fear and, finally, see justice and equity for all people in every community.

John Cunningham is CEO of the National AIDS Memorial, steward of the 10-acre National AIDS Memorial Grove, 50,000 panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, and educational programs to ensure that the story of AIDS and the AIDS movement is never forgotten. Learn more at

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