Loving the Sacred through Word and Image. Parliament Hill Ottawa. A Wordpress Production

PRIDE: We’ve Been Forgotten

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This is my life. This is my Pride. This is who I am.

Attending Pride last Summer in our nation’s Capitol, Ottawa, when all was said and done, I wondered why I even bothered to go in the first place.

I mean, Really !!! Black Lives Matter, Militant Black Lesbians, Feminist Preachers, sharing how white men have invaded their lives and made them worse, Trucks carrying Port-o-Potties, because Trans people cannot use their correct bathrooms … Every other marcher handing out condoms to the waiting crowds standing in the rain as they walked by.

NOT ONE MENTION of AIDS. NOT ONE MEMORIAL FLOAT. NOT ONE WORD.

It was like, we did not even register on the map. I did not register on the map either.

I stood there, dumbfounded at the stupidity and shallowness of the presentation rolling by me in the rain.

THIS, AIDS, IS my PRIDE.

A part of me that lives on today, when men like David Kirby and Peta went to their deaths, having no drugs, or even the possibility of survival.

These men are dead.

Hundreds of thousands of men, (and some children) are dead, because of how we were relegated to the edge of society. Ignored by governments, turned away by families and churches, turned away by friends, lovers and family.

If you want to know what I think of PRIDE, this is where we start. Before there were militant black lesbians, or Trans men and women, or bathroom issues to contend with, there was US. You are here, because WE were here, before you.

This is where PRIDE began. To get the world to notice US, dying all around you, because the world did not act in time, with what we really needed. And sent so many people to their deaths because of ignorance, stupidity, arrogance and hatred.

I will not march in a Pride parade or even attend again, because, WE have been Forgotten. Times have changed, yes, I concede. It is written that

“Those who forget the past are destined to repeat it.”

July – The Month that I revere with solemnity and honor. The month that I learned I was going to die, like all of my friends.

I survived.

And as long as I live, the memory of my brothers will never go unforgotten.

**** **** ****

The Story Behind the Photo that Changed the World’s Perception and AIDS

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David Kirby, near death, lies in bed with his family by his side in Ohio, 1990.

In November 1990, a gaunt, dying man appeared in the pages of LIFE magazine.

That man, David Kirby, had already made a name for himself as an HIV/AIDS activist in the 1980s, and was in the final stages of the disease in March 1990, when journalism student Therese Frare began photographing Kirby’s own battle with the virus.

The following month, Frare captured Kirby on his deathbed surrounded by his family. He died soon after it was taken, and his family’s grief came through the haunting black-and-white still frame.

The photo took on a life of its own after being published, and the story surrounding it is as moving as the image itself.

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David Kirby’s mother holds a picture of him from about ten years before his death, when he was a healthy young man.

David Kirby was born in 1957 and raised in a small town in Ohio. As a gay teenager in the 1970s, he found life in the Midwest difficult.

After finding out about his orientation, Kirby’s family reacted the way most did then: negatively. With his personal relationships strained and no obvious way forward for him, Kirby set off for the West Coast and settled into life in the (still partly underground) gay scene in Los Angeles. He fit in well there and soon became a gay activist.

In the 1970s and ’80s, homosexual behavior was still illegal in most states. Normal adult relationships for gays carried the risk of arrest and prosecution as sex offenders.

In California, in 1978, the so-called Briggs Initiative, for example, had sought to ban openly gay residents from working near children in a public school. Activists had been crucial in the initiative’s narrow defeat, and Kirby began attending rallies and protests to widen gay rights in the state and nationwide.

As activists tend to do, Kirby built up a network of contacts who would later help him raise awareness of the disease that was stalking his community.

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The 1970s were a time of increasing social and political consciousness for the gay community.

Unfortunately for David Kirby, and for millions of others, the Los Angeles gay scene was an epicenter of the burgeoning HIV/AIDS epidemic. The first scientific description of what we now call AIDS was published as a series of case studies of Los Angeles residents who were treated at the UCLA Medical Center.

Kirby got to town just as the infection was taking off, but before anybody knew what was going on.

It was typical of gay men in “the scene” to have multiple partners in quick succession, and protection was almost never used. Combined with its long incubation period and slow, enigmatic onset, the disease was well-positioned to spread from person to person with impunity.

Nobody knows when Kirby was infected, but by the early 1980s, clusters of unusual cancers and respiratory illnesses were cropping up among gay men in every major city in America.

Kirby was diagnosed with AIDS in 1987, at the age of 29. Without effective treatments, or even a clear idea of how the virus was killing its victims, the diagnosis was a death sentence. It was known by then that the infected had from a few months to a couple of years after the onset of symptoms to live.

Kirby decided to spend the time he had left in AIDS activism. He also reached out to his family and asked to come home.

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David Kirby’s mother, Kay, administers medication through her son’s shunt.

AIDS activism was desperately needed at the time.

Around the time that David Kirby was diagnosed, an elementary school student named Ryan White was expelled from his classes and barred from school property after a blood transfusion left him HIV-positive. The general lack of knowledge about AIDS had induced something close to panic in the public, and parents were afraid Ryan might have spread the disease to his fellow students.

There was also a prevailing idea that AIDS was a “bad-person” disease, given that its principal victims by that point had been gay men, drug users, and prostitutes.

Perhaps as a result of this stigma, research funding had been shamefully deficient in the early stages of the epidemic, and activists of the time worked to both dispel the myths and fears around HIV and to encourage more funding for research, as well as to fight absurd “public health” measures such as expelling children from school and, in at least one case (presented in all seriousness in a New York Times editorial by William F. Buckley), tattooing a warning onto the buttocks of known AIDS patients.

At the first hospital where Kirby stayed, one of the nurses wouldn’t even let him hold a menu for fear of contagion. Instead, she called out meal selections from the doorway.

In this atmosphere of fear and borderline superstition, Kirby and other AIDS activists talked, lectured, wrote, and appeared on television to reach as many people as they could to demystify the illness and encourage empathy for the people suffering from it.

By 1989, Kirby’s condition had worsened to the point that his family could no longer care for him at home. He checked into the Pater Noster AIDS Hospice in Columbus, Ohio.

One of the caregivers there was an HIV-positive transsexual man who went by the name Peta. The two became close friends, with Peta often visiting Kirby even on off days.

Kirby’s condition worsened through the winter and spring of 1990. That April, Peta started bringing a friend, a graduate journalism student Therese Frare, to visit. With the permission of Kirby and his family, Frare began documenting Kirby’s ordeal with her camera.

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Peta leans over David Kirby, who wears a diaper in this photo.

From the beginning, David Kirby gave his enthusiastic consent to the photos. As an activist, he correctly believed that an accurate photographic record of his death would humanize the burgeoning AIDS crisis and help people who’d never seen the disease to empathize with patients. His only condition was that Frare not personally profit from the photos.

Over the month or so that she visited the hospice, Frare shot several rolls of film, covering David’s rapid decline, his family’s grief, and the tender care he got from Peta.

On the evening of the photo that would soon become iconic, Frare and Peta were visiting other patients when word reached them that Kirby’s condition was heading downhill fast. His family had gathered to keep watch over him, and the end was expected within hours if not minutes.

Peta rushed into the room, briefly greeted the family, and began speaking to Kirby and holding his hand. According to her own later account, Frare respectfully stayed outside of the room until she was called in, then she took up a discreet spot in the corner and didn’t speak. She snapped a few photos, staying out of everybody’s way, until Kirby stopped breathing.

The last photo captured Kirby staring off into space as his father groans in anguish and his mother and sister cling to each other nearby.

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Frare submitted the photos to LIFE, which ran the story in its November 1990 issue. It also won second place in that year’s World Press Photo competition for General News.

The image spread from national fame to international recognition in every country where AIDS had already taken a toll. In its 20th anniversary retrospective on the photo, TIME estimated that more than 1 billion people have seen David Kirby’s last photo.

The exposure was not all positive, however. Right away, Catholic groups, in a rare foray into functional aesthetics, complained about the composition of the photograph. The way Kirby’s father cradles his head, they argued, is blasphemously close to a very common motif in European Christian art called the Pieta, in which the grieving Virgin Mary cradles her dead son Jesus after his descent from the cross.

Other criticism came from gay and HIV/AIDS activist circles when a colorized version of the picture was used in Benetton’s 1992 “United Colors of Benetton” campaign. As it happened, the family had given the company permission to use the photo as a way of spreading the image to more people than would otherwise have seen it.

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Peta lies in bed in the Pater Noster Hospice, where he had spent countless hours as a volunteer caregiver.

After David Kirby’s death, many of the people involved with the photo stayed in touch. Frare eventually moved to Seattle and found work as a freelance journalist. Peta, the half-Sioux, half-white, transgendered caretaker who had brought Frare into the hospice, continued working with dying AIDS patients until his own condition worsened in 1991.

Frare took several photos of Peta during his decline, and when he could no longer look after himself, the Kirby family took care of Peta — out of gratitude and love for how he had cared for their son. Peta died of AIDS-related illness in 1992.

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