Three months into my first job out of grad school, my boss dressed up as a giant bagel and lay down in the middle of Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn. The police dragged him away while a crowd of supporters cheered him on. The occasion was Dec. 1, 2009, World AIDS Day, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg was holding his annual bagel breakfast to mark the day. The activists were calling out Bloomberg for what they considered his disregard for people with HIV and AIDS.
I worked for Housing Works, an AIDS service and advocacy organization that was dedicated to fighting AIDS and homelessness. When I joined the agency, I had little idea what I was getting into. I applied for my position because I was interested in housing development. But while we did indeed build housing, it was clear that the heart of the agency lay in advocacy.
Housing Works grew out of ACT UP, the grassroots coalition of AIDS activists that formed in the 1980s in response to the failure of institutions to address the epidemic. In those days, the very mention of the virus was considered taboo due to the populations that were affected most heavily: gay men and intravenous drug users. Ronald Reagan famously declined to address AIDS in any official setting until 1985, long after it was clear that the US had a major public health crisis on its hands. Religious and conservative leaders characterized AIDS as a moral scourge, thinking that they had identified a modern-day tzaraat that afflicted people who, after all, had it coming to them. Activism and civil disobedience were the recourse of the people.
World AIDS Day at Housing Works was as much of a call to action as it was a day of remembrance. We stayed up all night at a vigil to read the names of people who had died from AIDS. In the morning, we advocated for policy change. If we were doing it right, we would make people sad over lives lost; angered by policies rooted in discrimination; and giddy about the changes that we could affect in the world. Our demonstrations were theatrical in nature and intended to call hypocrisy by its name. Yes, we said, it is absurd to dress up like a bagel and lie down in the street; but it is more absurd to deny people basic health resources.
Years removed from my time at Housing Works, I think often about the agency. I was no radical activist then, and I am not one now. Though given the opportunity many times, I never once lay down in the street. And yet, standing at the lectern and reciting names, I felt that I belonged there, specifically, as a Jew. I was reminded of the many times that I had participated in similar ceremonies for Yom HaShoah. I was familiar with the solemnity of the occasion; I was well-practiced in rituals of remembrance. But more than that, I felt obligated by the Jewish value of justice to reckon with this very different tragedy.
The AIDS activists teach us that we can honor the memory of our lost through both vigils and demonstrations. They remind us that the commandment to remember – that you were slaves in Egypt, that your lives, too, were once threatened by malice and indifference – is not a passive one. They remind us that past tragedies are the basis for the justice that we are taught to pursue and a reason to fight like hell for a better future.
Yizkor Elohim – the queer folk and allies who linked arms in the street; the brothers and sisters who found community when others rejected them; the millions who died because policy makers did not prioritize their survival. May their memories inspire us to act.
Daniel Fleischman is Vice President of Housing at Jewish Family Services, a not-for-profit that is dedicated to providing affordable housing and social services to diverse populations in Milwaukee. He lives in Glendale with his wife, Jodie Honigman, and their three children.
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What is world AIDS day?
World AIDS Day is on Dec. 1 each year. It is when people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV, to show support for people living with HIV, and to commemorate those who have died from an AIDS-related illness. Founded in 1988, World AIDS Day was the first ever global health day.
Source: UK National AIDS Trust