Volume 22, Number 52 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | May 7 - 13, 2010
Photo courtesy of GMHC and AIDS Walk NY
Top individual fundraiser Rita Fischer (in cap) walks the walk.
AIDS Walk NY turns 25
BY SCOTT STIFFLER
What motivates a person to spend a weekend morning — that rare chance to sleep in — by rising earlier than their workweek schedule requires in order to walk further before Noon than they usually do all day long?
Charity walkathon events are about more than altruism and racking up karma. They’re about activism, awareness and the comfort we derive from publicly declaring the loss of a loved one to a disease powerless to erase their memory.
This year, AIDS Walk New York achieves a milestone — 25 years of raising funds to benefit Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) and other AIDS service organizations in the tri-state area. Founded in 1986, the annual event has engaged millions of people in the fight against AIDS, and raised more than a half-billion dollars nationwide with the organization of AIDS Walks in various cities throughout the years.
Downtown Express recently spoke with GMHC CEO Marjorie J. Hill, PhD — who recalled that 25 years ago, “We decided to do a walk when HIV and AIDS was in a very different place. The LGBT and the HIV/AIDS communities were very much one community at that point in time.” The walk was a natural fit for a marginalized community, which achieved cultural visibility and political power through taking their concerns to the street. Hill: “The need to stand with someone and stand up for a community fit very well together.”
In the year of its inception, the walk pre-dated fundraisers whose focal point of activity is dancing, running and bike riding. “There were other walks at the time,” recalls Hill “such as the March of Dimes. But this was really the first time the LGBT community had taken a stand around fundraising in a way that went beyond just the affected community.” From the very first walk, participants included not only persons who were HIV positive, but their families and friends as well.
Today, Hill notes, the event “continues be an opportunity for the larger society to support the HIV/AIDS movement with both resources and visible support. It really has become a community event. I had the occasion last year to talk with a mother who has been volunteering to do registration at the park — and that’s like 7 a.m. on a Sunday. She’s been doing it for almost 15 years. Her daughter, who’s 17, has done it the last five or six years. It’s become, for them, this family tradition. It really is psychologically an opportunity for some people to emotionally heal. Individuals who have lost a longtime partner, they walk in honor of that loved one. Rita Fischer is about 80. She walks every year and raises 40 to 50 thousand dollars — and has been participating since her son died some 17 years ago. She will tell people she is doing it in his memory. You will see family groups with T-shirts with photographs on them.”
That the event makes HIV testing available, gives out massive amounts of condoms and puts the safe sex message at the forefront of our thoughts serves a purpose, Hill notes, that Gay Pride’s annual June good time party/parade lacks. “With Gay Pride, there’s been a little bit of distancing from HIV. At one point, in the early days, there was very little distinction between gay and HIV. You really don’t see, outside of the AIDS contingent at Pride, a lot of references to HIV and AIDS. At AIDS Walk, Juanita’s team passes by John’s team and Linda’s team. You see people who have these T-shirts made in honor of a loved one they’ve lost. As these teams pass one another along the way, that simple act is a way of communicating to children, partners and caretakers that they are not alone.”
AIDS Walk New York occurs on Sunday, May 16th. For information, call 212-807-9255 or visit www.aidswalk.net.