‘Voices of hope’ events held to mark AIDS Day

San Francisco Chronicle (Sunday) - - BAY AREA - By Lau­ren Her­nan­dez Lau­ren Her­nan­dez is a San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle staff writer. Email: lau­ren.her­nan­[email protected]­i­cle.com Twit­ter: @Lau­renPorFa­vor

Hun­dreds of peo­ple af­fected by AIDS — both sur­vivors and their loved ones — sat un­der a sprawl­ing white canopy adorned with twin­kling lights and snowflake-like or­na­ments on the 25th An­nual World AIDS Day Satur­day at the Na­tional AIDS Memo­rial Grove in Golden Gate Park.

Sunshine peeked through the translu­cent canopy when John Cun­ning­ham, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Na­tional AIDS Memo­rial, stood on the stage and pro­claimed, “I am a man liv­ing with AIDS,” and in­vited dozens of men to rise to their feet and stand in sol­i­dar­ity with him.

The ges­ture was part of the broader goal of re­duc­ing the stigma for those af­fected by HIV and AIDS.

The ob­ser­vance “is an op­por­tu­nity for us to stop, re­flect, re­mem­ber and re­dou­ble our ef­forts and bring an end to the epi­demic, which has taken al­most three-quar­ters of a mil­lion lives in Amer­ica,” Cun­ning­ham said. “It is my re­spon­si­bil­ity ... that th­ese lessons of the epi­demic will never be for­got­ten and we will never re­turn to a time of ne­glect, stigma, dis­crim­i­na­tion and for­get.”

This year’s cer­e­mony was fo­cused on the theme of “voices of hope,” and, more specif­i­cally, how HIV and AIDS dis­pro­por­tion­ally af­fects com­mu­ni­ties of color.

San Fran­cisco state Sen. Scott Wiener sat among the crowd of hun­dreds and said in a state­ment that of­fi­cials must work to elim­i­nate HIV-re­lated deaths.

“We must also en­sure that all com­mu­ni­ties — in­clud­ing low­in­come peo­ple, peo­ple of color, and trans­gen­der peo­ple — re­ceive the ben­e­fits of our ad­vances around HIV, in­clud­ing ac­cess to med­i­ca­tion,” Wiener said.

Cun­ning­ham said San Fran­cisco of­fi­cials have made “great progress” in the past few decades, but that of­fi­cials need to ac­knowl­edge how the epi­demic ad­versely af­fects low-in­come com­mu­ni­ties and com­mu­ni­ties of color.

“African Amer­i­can mem­bers of our com­mu­nity are three times more likely to be in­fected by HIV and AIDS than the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion,” he said. “We re­fer to this as ‘dis­par­i­ties,’ but they are a way of tech­ni­cally writ­ing it off. What it re­ally is is in­jus­tice.”

As part of the Na­tional AIDS Memo­rial Sur­viv­ing Voices ini­tia­tive, which worked in con­junc­tion with the HIV Story Project, of­fi­cials showed a short video fo­cus­ing on how the epi­demic has touched the Asian and Pa­cific Is­lan­der com­mu­nity.

In the film, Jane and Al Nakatani share their sto­ries of ac­knowl­edg­ing and over­com­ing their deep-rooted ho­mo­pho­bia af­ter two of their three sons died af­ter be­ing di­ag­nosed with HIV/AIDS. The cou­ple went on to cre­ate a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion called Honor Thy Chil­dren, where they have ad­dressed schools, faith and gov­ern­ment or­ga­ni­za­tions, dis­cussing the im­por­tance of show­ing com­pas­sion for those af­fected by HIV and AIDS.

The cou­ple re­ceived the Hu­man­i­tar­ian Lead­er­ship Award for their work on Satur­day.

The Recol­lec­tors Project, a com­mu­nity and sto­ry­telling web­site for chil­dren whose par­ents died of AIDS, re­ceived the Thom Weyand Un­sung Hero Award.

Seth Ham­mac, one of the 2018 World AIDS Day co-chair­men, pre­sented the Un­sung Hero Award and shared his own ex­pe­ri­ence be­ing the child of a par­ent who died from AIDS, and talked about this year’s theme, “voices of hope.”

“‘Voices of hope’ means to me that I am the hope for the voices of my daugh­ters. I rep­re­sent them un­til they can find their voices,” he said. “That’s some­thing that I learned from my fa­ther in the way that he lived — as he lived with AIDS for 17 years.”

Ham­mac’s fa­ther died in 2004.

“This (Recol­lecters) com­mu­nity was built from peo­ple who didn’t nec­es­sar­ily be­lieve that there were oth­ers like them,” he said. “What the Grove means for me is that I have a space where I can bring my daugh­ters to meet their grand­fa­ther who they will never meet ... and also to share my own ex­pe­ri­ence.”

About $50,000 in schol­ar­ship money was awarded to three stu­dents as part of the Pe­dro Zamora Young Lead­ers Schol­ar­ship, named af­ter a for­mer cast mem­ber of MTV’s “The Real World 3: San Fran­cisco.” He re­ceived na­tion­wide at­ten­tion af­ter shar­ing his ex­pe­ri­ence liv­ing with HIV on Oprah Win­frey’s show 23 years ago.

At the close of the cer­e­mony, hun­dreds of peo­ple walked to the Cir­cle of Friends in the grove’s Dog­wood Cres­cent and lis­tened to the read­ing of names that have been newly en­graved on the memo­rial.

Pho­tos by Jes­sica Chris­tian / The Chron­i­cle

Russ Smith (right) and Jake Tapia em­brace dur­ing events held at the AIDS Memo­rial Grove at Golden Gate Park in San Fran­cisco to mark World AIDS Day.

A trail of flower petals leads to the grove, where an ob­ser­vance hon­ored those whose lives have been touched by AIDS.

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