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November 30, 2007

AIDS Taskforce marks 25 years

Cleveland--The first “official” newsletter of the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland, dated December of 1986, opened with these words.

“No one wants to be sick. Few want to die. But AIDS is here and it’s here to stay for a long time. And it’s here in N.E. Ohio. Statistically, there were 24,189 cases nationwide and 194 cases in Ohio as of August, 1986, according to the Center for Disease Control. This ranks Ohio 19th in total cases. But statistics are cold facts. What about the human side of AIDS? How do we help? How do we as gay men and women respond?”

The truth is, the LGBT community in Northeast Ohio had already been responding, going back to 1981 and 1982. In 1983 a small group of people began meeting to lay the groundwork for what would be formally incorporated as the first AIDS organization in Ohio, in February of 1984—then called the Health Issues Taskforce.

This coming year, 2008, marks the 25th anniversary of the year that a handful of people came together to do something about the new disease that was spreading rapidly—along with panic and discrimination and confusion—in the Cleveland gay community.

That first name, the Health Issues Taskforce, says little and a lot at the same time. It was purposefully nondescript: it could be any health-related organization. Because it was intentionally vague, it says a lot about the fear that dominated the times—and in some ways, still does. Fear of illness and disease. An unrestrained homophobia. Fear, for people living with the disease, of ending up sick, alone, or victimized by discrimination and violence.

The years since then have been marked by remarkable progress and disappointing failures. There’s still no viable vaccine, and science isn’t even close to a “cure” in the traditional sense, but new medical treatments have dramatically improved the lives of people with HIV and AIDS. New laws, such as the Americans with Disability Act, have helped protect the legal rights of people living with it. And the spirit of activism mobilized in response to AIDS, largely emanating from the LGBT community, is alive and well: Marriage and benefits equality, universal health care, national non-discrimination policy, and a host of other debates are now on the table, and within reach—if not in the next few years, then in the imaginable future.

Still, we’ve lost much, and many. In the last seven years, the reign of arch-conservative ideologies has given us an intractable war that continues to bleed dry our national coffers, retreats in sexual and reproductive rights, an erosion of civil liberties and privacy, and a pervasive hunger for change—change that restores the value of each individual, in all our astonishing diversity, as the centric ethic in American life.

And many. Our friends, who we remember, sometimes at odd moments—while working in the garden, on a warm summer evening, at the AIDS Walk. We sometimes still feel their breath, like a soft breeze, against our face, and it sometimes seems like they are still walking, quietly, alongside us, urging us on.

In 2008 the AIDS Taskforce will be 25 years old, and in that recognition is embodied all of our victories and defeats, and the memory of all those who somehow live on. A host of activities and events are planned throughout the year—stay tuned—but overall it will be a time to honor, to remember, to extend our gratitude and thanks, to mourn, to rekindle our passion, and to recommit to those among us who are still struggling, and those behind us who face the perils of growing up in the Age of AIDS, with all its risk and possibility.

For now, and as an initial thought for our 25th anniversary, we’ll only say this. Many of you have been with us, some of you from the beginning, and we—people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS, and the whole LGBT community—can’t thank you enough. You didn’t just help sick friends; you built a movement, a movement that changed American society, how we view each other and care for each other, how we move from silence to speech to protest, how we live.

Thank you.

As Prior says at the end of Angels in America:

“You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.

And I bless you: More Life.”

Earl Pike is executive director of the AIDS Taskforce of Greater Cleveland.



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