LOS ANGELES – America passed a gruesome milestone on Feb. 21: 500,000 people dead from the novel coronavirus in the year since it hit U.S. shores. Official counts fail to include LGBTQ victims of COVID-19, though reports consistently report the terrible impact on people of color.
Ironically, it was the mysterious deaths of five gay men in Los Angeles that marked the beginning of the global AIDS pandemic in a CDC report 40 years ago, on June 5, 1981. That report did not mention race.
“The first five patients were white,” Dr. Michael Gottlieb, who co-authored that first CDC report with gay Dr. Joel Weisman, told PBS’s Frontline in 2012. “The next two were black. The sixth patient was a Haitian man. The 7th patient was a gay African-American man, here in Los Angeles. Most of those first patients died within months. We had no information and no treatment.” Not mentioning the race of the first patient was “an omission on our part.”
By July 1982, Blacks accounted for more than 86 cases of AIDS – 20 percent of all CDC cases reported that year. By Oct. 1995, more than 500,000 people had died and while the rate of cases among whites decreased from 60% to 43%, and the proportion among Blacks had increased from 25% to 38%. By 1996, as new medications made HIV/AIDS a chronic manageable disease, the CDC reported: “HIV no longer leading cause of death for all Americans ages 25-44; remains leading cause of death of African Americans in this age group.”
To ensure that Blacks lost to AIDS are not ignored — including those who chose to remain anonymous — longtime HIV/AIDS advocates Jeffrey King, Founder and Executive Director of In The Meantime Men’s Group, Inc., The Black LGBTQ+ Mecca in South Los Angeles, and Cynthia Davis, MPH, the renowned Professor at the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine — recently convened a community meeting to create a Black AIDS Monument on the grounds of the Carl Bean House in South LA.
“All Black Lives Matter. Every Black life lost to the HIV/AIDS epidemic still matters today. It is my responsibility to educate those who are here today about the long and painful journey to now,” King tells the LA Blade. “I am honored to work alongside Cynthia Davis and key community stakeholders as we collectively create both physical and virtual spaces that will commemorate those lost along the way and those who have dedicated their lives to ending the epidemic. We have entered the 40th anniversary of the HIV/ AIDS global pandemic and Black people continue to be disproportionality impacted. I have dedicated a great portion of my adult life to educating and preventing the spread of HIV in the Black community. In The Meantime has been on the forefront and in the trenches — outreaching, testing, and linking our people to lifesaving treatment and medical care. The Los Angeles Black AIDS Monument (LABAM) will serve as a focal point for healing.”
The convening came up with numerous agreed-upon recommendations for the project, including that LABAM will be a fixed water fountain at the Carl Bean House built with the theme ‘Pouring Into Each Other.’ A Virtual/ Digital Monument will feature names of those lost, as well as Black people who have served in the field of HIVAIDS. The LABAM team will also ask several writers to conduct interviews with key community stake holders to document the Black history of the AIDS epidemic and its impact.
In The Meantime’s Jeffrey King and Prof. Cynthia Davis co-chair the project
A question remains about displaying names. Should the physical monument feature names of the dead, inspirational quotes or remain untouched to spiritually honor and remember the anonymous dead, a monument akin to the revered Tomb of the Unknown Soldier?
The first phase of the project will rollout in June for National HIV Testing Day, June 27, 2021. The LABAM team intends to complete the project by World AIDS Day, December 1, 2021.
“I am honored to be co-chairing an initiative to erect the Black AIDS Monument in South Los Angeles,” Davis tells the LA Blade. “Having been proactively involved in working to slow the spread of HIV/AIDS in the Black community and other communities of color over the past 37 years, when Jeffrey King came to me about the project, I was ecstatic. I felt this initiative was long overdue. As we approach the 40-year anniversary when the HIV/AIDS pandemic was officially recognized, we all should be counting our blessings that in 2021, there are lifesaving ARVs [Antiretroviral medications] available domestically and globally, as well as, other primary prevention initiatives such as PrEP [ pre-exposure prophylaxis] and PEP [post-exposure prophylaxis] to help slow the spread of this dreaded disease. However, after 40 years, we still have our work cut out for us. I look forward to the day when we can say emphatically, ‘we have defeated the global HIV/AIDS pandemic.’”
The LABAM team is asking those interested in this Black community endeavor to collect the correctly spelled names of both the dead and community leaders in the HIV field, including their positions. King requests that those lists be submitted to him by March 15, 2021 at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The next LABAM meeting on Zoom is scheduled for Monday, March 22, 2021.
Karen Ocamb is a veteran journalist, the former news editor of the Los Angeles Blade & a longtime chronicler of LGBTQ+ lives in Southern California.