Councilwoman reflects on AIDS fight in 1980s Sunset Park
The nation and the international community have come a long way in the fight against AIDS, according to Councilwoman Sara Gonzalez (D-Sunset Park), who spent World AIDS Day on Dec. 1 with medical professionals from Lutheran Medical Center recalling the early years of the epidemic.
Sunset Park has also come a long way in 30 years, Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez spoke at the annual meeting held at the Lutheran Family Health Centers Achieve Clinic, a facility that provides services to AIDS patients and their families. Representatives of community organizations also attended the meeting.
Gonzalez, who was a Sunset Park civic activist in the early 1980s, when AIDS was first becoming known, said she tried to combat rumors about how AIDS was contracted by working to improve education about how AIDS is transmitted.
In those early days of the AIDS epidemic, panic overtook many communities across the U.S. and people often mistakenly believed that they could get AIDS simply by touching a person with the deadly illness, Gonzalez said.
The story of Ryan White, a young hemophiliac Indiana boy who had contracted AIDS during a blood transfusion, has become part of the tragic tale of AIDS in America. White was banned from attending his local middle school and his family filed suit to protect his right to go to school. Even after the family won its suit in court, and White was permitted to go to school, hundreds of parents kept their children home out of fear that the kids would contract AIDS from him. As education programs about AIDS grew, communities calmed down. White died in 1990.
There was also a great deal of fear n Sunset Park during the early days of the AIDS crisis, according to Gonzalez. “Doug Heilman, who now works on my staff, and I were pioneers in this community at a time when little was known and fear and the devastating effects of the virus were rampant in our community. We believed then that we bringing about the beginning of the end of the myths surrounding the AIDS virus paving the way for all the good work Lutheran now accomplishes. We’ve come a long way since then but realize we still have a long journey ahead of us,” she said.
Gonzalez co-founded the Discipleship HIV Program in Sunset Park in 1988 to foster education about HIV-AIDS.
At the end of her speech, Gonzalez requested a moment of silence in memory of those who have died of AIDS. “I ask you to reflect on the memory of the people we’ve lost and in celebration of the many more people we have helped to survive this epidemic,” the councilwoman said. “While it is no longer the terminal condition it once was, I also look forward to the day when we can speak of the memory of AIDS itself after we’ve found a cure,” she said.
World AIDS Day is held on 1 December each year, according to the foundation website. A statement on the website describes the annual event as “an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV, show their support for people living with HIV and to commemorate people who have died.”
The first World AIDS Day took place in 1988.