Did you see the signs? They were everywhere. Most people ignored them. Some people said it only applied to the “fags and homos.” Others said “not here.” Welcome to Williamsport … in 2012.
During the week of January 9, AIDS Resource Alliance’s Executive Director, Kirsten Burkhart, placed signs throughout the community that read “HIV Lives Here.” While she was working to bring continued awareness to the fact that this disease is in our community, people drove by shouting profanities out of their open car and truck windows. One person threw oranges at Burkhart’s head. And it was all captured by a documentary film crew, led by Academy Award-winning director Cynthia Wade. Wade is in Williamsport chronicling the struggles faced by people battling the HIV pandemic in cities throughout the United States. But this article is not about Wade, or even Burkhart. It is about our community.
On January 12 a small group of men and women (myself and my husband included) stood somberly outside of the towering gray beauty of City Hall on a rainy, cold afternoon. We wore signs that again told the truth that “HIV Lives Here.” We watched people come to the windows of the buildings that surrounded our gathering. Even the publisher of the Sun-Gazette came out to see what we were doing.
We were expecting people to shout profanities or make outdated claims, and some did. Most drivers ambivalently averted their gaze. But some people smiled. They waved, they honked, they gave us the thumbs-up sign. People put down their windows as they waited at the red light on the corner of West Fourth and Hepburn Streets to ask about our mission. People walking by would stop and ask questions. Quite a few said “Thank you.”
To me, though, the most moving experience was seeing the person who came quietly to the demonstration and stayed only for a short time. I did not know this person but will remember their face for the rest of my life. They simply said “Thank you.” They explained that AIDS Resource “helped me when no one else would. I would not be here if it was not for them.” I watched the faces of the women around me who work with HIV+ people every day. It was clear how moved they all were by this person’s bravery. To come to this rally as an HIV+ person and talk on camera about their status … it was astounding.
We could focus on the bad reactions, on the bigotry and prejudice. But instead we choose to think about the people who voiced their support for the cause. We choose to focus on the men and women who stood in the rain. They work every day to prevent the further spread of the virus. They provide compassion and support to those living with HIV. We will continue to focus on supporting them, as well as our community. We will work so that those affected by this virus know they are not alone. We are here. We can introduce you to other people, like Burkhart and Wade, who can support you as well. Our love and care will eventually silence the hate. And eventually, we will find a cure.
Breon is the Client Care Coordinator at Comfort Keepers. She has worked with the senior population for the past decade, first as a caregiver while in college, and then as the volunteer coordinator at a performing arts center. She is also active in several local senior organizations.