San Francisco (Saturday, June 5, 2021) — Leaders of the AIDS movement came together in the National AIDS Memorial — the nation's federally-designated memorial to AIDS — to mark forty years since the first cases of AIDS were reported in the United States.
Surrounded by the power of 40 blocks of the AIDS Memorial Quilt and the beauty of the 10-acre Memorial Grove where thousands of names lost to AIDS are engraved, the leaders paid tribute to the more than 700,000 lives lost, the survivors, and the heroes during the past four decades. They also called for renewed action to provide care for long-term survivors, young people living with HIV today, and finding a cure that will finally end the epidemic.
"On this solemn day, 40 years since the discovery of HIV/AIDS, Americans pay tribute to the hundreds of thousands of Americans we have lost to this vicious disease and draw strength from the more than one million courageous survivors living with HIV today," said Speaker Nancy Pelosi. "Moved by the beauty of the Grove and power of the Quilt, this morning we again renewed our vow to finally defeat the scourge of AIDS and bring hope and healing to all those affected. Thanks to the tireless leadership of activists, survivors, scientists and the LGBTQ community, we will not relent until we banish HIV to the dustbin of history and achieve an AIDS-free generation."
Speaker Pelosi and Congresswoman Barbara Lee laid a wreath at the Memorial, joined by San Francisco Mayor London Breed, former U.S. Ambassador James Hormel, and other AIDS leaders to honor loved ones lost with prayer and a moment of silence. During a formal program that followed, two generations of advocates spoke of the activism, resilience, hope and remembrance that has defined the AIDS movement and helped shape other health and social justice movements during the past four decades.
The commemoration, which was streamed to a national audience, raised greater awareness about the plight of HIV/AIDS today, the progress made, and the continued fight against stigma and discrimination. The observance also honored long-term survivors and served as a call to action to finally find a cure, four decades later. HIV rates continue to rise in the U.S., with 1.2 million people living with HIV today, particularly impacting young people and communities of color.
"Forty years later we stand on the shoulders of trailblazers who understood that every person deserves empathy and care regardless of their health conditions or sexuality," said California Governor Gavin Newsom in a video message. "This current pandemic has shown us that health inequities still exist and it's up to each and every one of us to continue the fight and to never, ever accept the status quo."
Dr. Anthony Fauci, who introduced a tribute video to long-term survivors, said, "the accomplishments (over the past 40 years) are a direct result of the unique, long-standing partnerships that were forged and continue today between scientists, healthcare providers, industry and the HIV-affected community. The HIV/AIDS pandemic is not over. Ending the HIV pandemic is an achievable goal, one that will require that we collectively work together. As we honor the long-term HIV/AIDS survivors today and remember all that we've lost, we must rededicate our commitment and continue to advance our efforts to ending the HIV pandemic."
The day of public tributes and remembrance included a powerful 40 block outdoor public display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt that included more than 300 hand-sewn Quilt panels with nearly 1,200 names stitched into them. A group of young children whose parents serve on the Board of the National AIDS Memorial presented and helped unveil block 6,000 of the Quilt to Quilt Co-Founders Cleve Jones and Gert McMullin, a reminder that four decades later, Quilt panels are still being sewn, to honor those lost to HIV/AIDS, then and now.
"The Quilt is a poignant and important reminder of why we must work with a sense of urgency to help end the epidemic," said Daniel O'Day, Chairman and CEO of Gilead Sciences. "It will take the ongoing collaborative efforts of many groups working together, including activists, advocates, scientists and the LGBTQ+ community, to ensure that in another 40 years from now, the HIV epidemic is part of history. Gilead partners with allies like the National AIDS Memorial to remember those we've lost and raise greater awareness about the root causes driving the HIV epidemic, such as stigma, racism, homophobia and transphobia."
Gilead Sciences is the presenting partner for the commemoration, joining together with Quest Diagnostics, Chevron, Vivent Health, Equality California and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation in supporting the day-long public observance.
Along with being invited to experience the 40 Quilt block display, the public was able to participate in the reading aloud the names of loved ones lost to AIDS, softly amplified in the Memorial. Throughout the day, visitors laid hundreds of roses in the Memorial Grove and left personal tributes. Touching musical performances from the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus and the Messengers of Hope Gospel Choir, led by Earnest Larkins and featuring artists Ja Ronn and Flow, provided special inspirational moments.
A powerful spoken word performance, written and produced by Mary Bowman Arts in Activism awardee Ima Diawara and Pedro Zamora Young Leaders Scholar Antwan Matthews, highlighted the role of young people today in the fight against HIV/AIDS. They expressed, "the time has come for us to elevate. The time has come for us to watch out for everybody on the block, even the people that do not own the real estate. it's time to connect the wisdom of our elders with the wisdom of our youth and make life livable again, for all of us. It's time for us to slow down and most importantly - it's time to breathe."
The 40th anniversary commemoration observance can be viewed in its entirety at www.aidsmemorial.org . The National AIDS Memorial has also created a storytelling series, sharing a collection of heroes, survivors and lost loved ones to AIDS during the last four decades.
"These stories and this important observance highlight the issues our nation faced in the past year — a raging pandemic with hundreds of thousands of lives lost, social injustice, health inequity, stigma, bigotry and fear," said National AIDS Memorial Chief Executive John Cunningham. "However, these are also the same issues faced throughout four decades of the AIDS pandemic. They are reasons why today, we have a National AIDS Memorial, and why, as a nation, we have much more work to do in the fight for a just future, where HIV/AIDS no longer exists."
Learn more about the National AIDS Memorial, its mission, programs and how to provide support for its work at www.aidsmemorial.org .