Soon after my first coming out early in 1987 I attended a workshop on AIDS. Soon I was volunteering at a new organization called AIDS Project Worcester. I attended the October 11, 1987 March on Washington that included the first display of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.
In January of 1988 I was hired as an Advocate and Gay Outreach Coordinator at AIDS Project Worcester. Those events set in motion a drastic change in my life. Soon Iwas visiting patients in hospitals and trying to secure benefits they were entitled to like Social Security. Before too long one of my clients who had become a friend, lay dying in a room at Ul Mass. Medical Center. I was there as he took his last, breaths of life. It was a sound I will never forget and still haunts me when I recall that day. My friend died that day, the first of way too many friends to die.
I channeled my frustration, sadness and anger into action. I started an outreach effort to reach young gay/bi youth, hustlers (male prostitutes), gay men and injection drug users. Later we expanded to also reach out to female sex workers. I spent many a eerie night on the streets and parks of Worcester carrying my bag of condoms, lubricant, safer sex cards I designed and, before the days of needle exchange, bleach and instructions to disinfect syringes and other implements.
As illnesses and deaths continued I joined with ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) for a number of actions. I also organized my own rabble rousing to combat fear and ignorance.
It is hard to explain to those who weren’t there just how your life changed. I changed agencies to focus more on prevention but, because I involved people with HIV as outreach workers and part of our school HIV/AIDS prevention efforts, I was still very involved in the struggles of friends and colleagues living with HIV and in far too many cases dying of complications related to AIDS.
A couple years ago I chronicled the lives of these amazing people. You can read my tribute to those lost here: https://jeriraeinsantafe.wordpress.com/shalom-and-lchaim/
As we observe yet another World AIDS Day I urge you to pause and remember those lost and the continuing challenges we still face in countries around the world. That period of my life changed who I was as a person. I no longer can sit back and be a passive observer when I see injustice. I also became more appreciative of life’s daily wonders. Sunrises and sunsets, natural wonders and wonderful people are all more precious to me.
I am now into my third year since coming out as Trans/Agender/Non-binary. I see some of the same attitudes and prejudices faced by communities affected by HIV/AIDS in the eighties and nineties, once again used to target the trans community. As we face the prospect of an administration that is shaping up to be very anti-LGBTQIA+, sexist, and insensitive to racial and ethnic minorities, we must remember the lessons learned and fight like hell for individuals and communities we care about.