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Touching lives

Sun 15 May 2011 In: Health and HIV View at Wayback View at NDHA

A few months ago there was a minor controversy over a proposal to bring back something like the Hero Parade to Auckland. An MP resented the use of the word “hero”, suggesting that the word was appropriate to people who fought and died in wars, but not people who marched up Queen Street in leather shorts. Many of us remember the same conversation many times over during the Hero years. I thought back to Rex Halliday's passionate advocacy for using the word when we began the whole project: his rationale was that by continuing to celebrate life and living it to the full in the face of both prejudice and the HIV/AIDS pandemic, gay men were indeed heroes. For quite a number of us, the wartime parallel has a strange resonance. It's hard to imagine any other situation in which young men lived through the deaths of many or most of their friends, and we often evoke the idea of “war” or “battle” to describe our relationship with HIV. Over the years we have looked for and found a number of ways of collectively remembering those people we have lost to this virus: I can think of a memorial tree, the Circle of Friends, and the Quilt Project – my personal favourite, because it's the one that speaks most directly to me. The Candlelight AIDS Memorial is the oldest and most international of these traditions, having been around since 1983 (though a few years later in New Zealand). Let me say that very often it's not for me: sometimes it's right, but on other occasions I find my kneejerk aversion to ritual getting in the way, or what I really need is some private time to remember those I have lost. But for many of us, Candlelight is exactly right. When I first started going to Candlelight, in the 1980s, things seemed dire indeed. Working for the AIDS Foundation, one thing I did each week was monitor the Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco's gay newspaper, for the latest developments in the US. Every issue of the newspaper carried pages of passport-sized photographs of the men who had died from AIDS that week. It was overwhelming. At home I knew many people who had died or who were now gravely ill. Our conversations were all opportunistic infections, T-cell counts, and theories about food, exercise and various therapies. It didn't feel like there was much we could do, and our helplessness seemed amplified by the apparent arbitrariness of who became infected and how quickly they became ill. Against this backdrop, Candlelight was a reassertion of our shared humanity – both amongst those still living and with those who had been lost – and our determination to hold onto that, no matter what. When I think of a candle flame the ideas that are evoked are both hope and also vulnerability. But somehow the fragility of a single candle burning becomes immensely powerful when combined with others. That was the humble strength of the candlelight march following the assassination of Harvey Milk, and it is the fundamental message that underpins the Candlelight Memorial – strength through unity. At Candlelight each year my thoughts are drawn back to those days. Many faces of those who died pass through my mind, but I think especially of Matt Whyte, Alistair Hall, Michael Hay and Tom O'Donoghue. I think also of those lost to suicide – my friends Carl Saunders and Paul Kinder, amongst many others. But I also think, with immense gratitude and relief, of those who made it – my friends we nearly lost, who went to the brink, but somehow came back. Strangely, it's these faces that bring tears to my eyes. In fact they have done now. Heroes. - Kevin Hague is an MP, the Greens health spokesperson and is a past Executive Director of the NZ AIDS Foundation. Kevin Hague - 15th May 2011    

Credit: Kevin Hague

First published: Sunday, 15th May 2011 - 10:38am

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