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Speaking Their Names

“We are here in the memory of those who have parted …”

The lyrics float up through the rotunda of San Jose, Calif.’s City Hall. It’s Dec. 1, 2009, World AIDS Day. I’m one of the two altos singing in an a cappella octet, under the direction of composer Ruth. It’s my first public performance in 14 years.

Three people away from me on the stage is a grey-haired man with a seeing-eye dog. Karl’s gorgeous tenor sends the music soaring. HIV is robbing him of his vision, but not of his vigor. He’s active on the city’s HIV/AIDS task force, teaches A Course in Miracles, helps run an HIV support group, works as a church administrator and leads the congregation in song. I know he does a whole lot more that I know nothing about. He is just one of the people in my life who live with HIV or AIDS.

There are a few more performances after we have sung our songs, and several speeches. At one point, we are asked to call out the names of loved ones whose lives were taken by AIDS. I name Mat M. and Ric T. Both of them were gifted performers, gone far too soon. I am a former actor and a theatre junkie; far too many of my friends in the community have been affected by this horrible disease.

We are then asked to name someone in our lives who is living with HIV. I name the friend I’ve never met in person. Byron is a former Broadway actor and author. As kind as he is handsome and talented, Byron has sent me notes of encouragement and support during some very dark times of my life. His story is that of someone who faced enormous trials with a level of grace to which I can only aspire. He is a true inspiration to me every single day.

We are then asked to name caregivers: those who help our loved ones. To my embarrassment, I draw a blank. Then, someone names Marianne. She recently retired as the director of the Neal Christie Center, which helps people living with HIV and AIDS.

I helped serve Thanksgiving dinner to the Christie Center’s clients just two weeks prior to World AIDS Day. I met wonderful people and heard more stories of grace and inspiration. How can I call my life hard when I’m talking to a man who is grateful that he has a motor home to live in after he and his partner lost their house in the face of catastrophic medical bills?

That day, I told Marianne that I wanted to help somehow even though the Christie Center’s hours were reduced to two days a week and to times when I was at work.

“You are helping, honey. You’re here,” she said.

I remember the early days of combating AIDS, when one of the bands I worked with did a benefit for San Francisco’s Shanti Project. The man who came out from the group was surprised that I was so willing to return his hug.

“So many people think it’s passed just by touching,” he said.

So much ignorance still abounds about this disease. I see it daily on the Internet in discussions about marriage equality. The implication is always that it’s a “gay man’s disease” – despite statistics that show heterosexual women of color to be the largest growing patient population. There’s always an undercurrent in those comments that we should just let HIV/AIDS patients “suffer for their sins.”

To that attitude, I must ask, “What sin did the HIV+ infant commit?” Moreover, what sin did anyone with this disease commit? HIV and AIDS are amoral. The virus doesn’t care if you’re gay, straight, male, female, black, white … it just is.

I am grateful that HIV/AIDS is no longer the death sentence it was 25+ years ago. We know so much more now. Yet, we are far from having a cure – and I firmly believe that the “gay man’s disease” attitude is the reason.

For many years now, I have felt helpless to do more than throw money at this devastating disease. Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS gets most of my donations; they help organizations in 44 states as well as providing local support to my beloved theatre community. I always find myself wondering what else I could do, particularly when funds are too tight to donate.

So here I am, using my gift of words to name my friends: wonderful and inspirational people who also happen to be HIV/AIDS patients. To say how much I loathe the disease and the ignorance that still surrounds it. To honor the memory of those who have parted, just as we sang on World AIDS Day 2009.

To say that it’s past time for a cure.

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Sharon: Your tribute and human response is appreciated. The plagues of mankind, whether they be viral, bacterial, social, sexist, racist, psychological, religious, or political divide us from each other, make us into groups who cannot share our common triumphs, failings, and destination. I read your piece and felt its simple, matter of fact power.

Macresarf1 -- Glenn Anders -- Alex Fraser

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Thank you, Alex

I am grateful for your comment.  I believe that all humanity is connected, and that failing to care for one another is a real downfall.

I am glad that you enjoyed the piece.

Best, Sharon