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Candles in the Wind

Mon 22 Mar 2004 In: HIV

Two years ago, at a Candlelight Memorial service in Christchurch, Ray Taylor spoke to those people who had gathered to remember family and friends lost to AIDS. In this slightly edited version of his speech, he touches on the losses and trauma our community has suffered over the years because of HIV. Last Thursday evening two young men and myself met here to read over the names and reading for this evening. I am very grateful to them for giving me feedback about the reading, which was planned. Their feedback has led me to tell parts of my own story and some reflections. Please bear with me, as I need to read this out rather than speak from notes. I find the topic too emotionally charged and I have this block that happens where there just aren't any words… On 17 March 1983, I arrived in San Francisco. A 28-year old kid in a candy store. My first OE as an out gay man. What a place to go to. It was such an exciting city. Much more exciting than Christchurch. Before I left New Zealand I had read an article in Time magazine and a leaflet that had been put together by a small group of gay men here in Christchurch talking about this disease called Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, the cause of which had not been found and for which treatments were nonexistent. (By the way, that leaflet was the first written info to appear anywhere in NZ. Well done, guys, for putting it together.) In my first week in San Francisco I had signed up for a training course on how to buddy a person with AIDS. There was certainly no shortage of clients. Two months later, I attended the 1st Candlelight Memorial, walking in silence from San Francisco's gay Castro district to the Civic Centre carrying candles buffeted by the spring winds, listening to four speakers in the freezing cold - not knowing that those four speakers would be dead within the year. A sizable number of men in the crowd would also be dead, very sick, or at the very least knowing one or more who were. It is now quite common to meet men in the USA of my age who have seen 500 to 1,500 friends, lovers, work mates, peers die. And so a new phase in my life began, one full of immense grief but also inspiration. Nothing could prepare me for it. And will it ever end? I spent 2 years in San Francisco volunteering my time as a buddy for people with AIDS. After the AIDS-related death of HIv awareness pioneer Bruce Burnett here in New Zealand in June 1985, I returned to Auckland and took up a position in the National Office of the AIDS Support Networks, later to become the NZ AIDS Foundation. I was one of 4 staff - a far cry from what is available today. I continued in the AIDS field until 1998. During the 17 years I have been back in NZ I have known and worked with at least two thirds of the 570 men and women who have died with HIV. And continue off and on to be in contact with about the same number of people still living with the virus. I am immensely proud of my community's response to the epidemic over the years. It has been a long and painful journey for many. What I have begun to notice is that now there are drug treatments which have resulted in fewer deaths and there is less media attention; society and the gay community are wanting to move on from the deep trauma of those earlier years. Now services are focused on living skills rather than death and dying, work rather than invalids' benefits, drug combinations (the side affects of which make the mind boggle) and re-presenting the old prevention messages in new packages. The gay community is focusing on dance parties, Hero parades, computer chat rooms and the old draw-cards of friendship and relationship. And move on we must. The epidemic is not over - rather it is a new phase of the epidemic. But for some of us moving on can just bring more difficulties. For some of us the trauma has been too great. It is being likened to the trauma experienced by survivors of the concentration camps, Vietnam War and massacre and suicide survivors. This might sound somewhat dramatic. Well it was, and still is. The grief can be a black hole. The memories can be overwhelming. The isolation, at times, is unbearable. Survivors are often seen as freaks or lepers, or as one friend put it ‘as damaged goods,' with emotions so well controlled that we are like fortresses. The walls crumble occasionally due to the constant pressure from within, the emotions so out of control... the scenarios are endless. And the usual response is: ‘you'll get over it,' or more the more emphatic: ‘Get over it!' Well, don't you think we have been trying to get over it these last 20 yrs ? This evening we are here to remember our shared history and to remember those who died before the advantages we have today became available. Some of you were very young when this epidemic began and for some of us it's like yesterday. But for all of us it is our history. And we ignore it at our peril. So lets remember these men and women, young and old, homosexual, bisexual and heterosexual. They were just people like you and I, with hopes and aspirations, who lived their lives fully until the end. The challenge is that we do the same. Ray Taylor - 22nd March 2004    

Credit: Ray Taylor

First published: Monday, 22nd March 2004 - 12:00pm

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