Who Are Our Angels in the Epidemic?

On Saturday, Dec. 8, we bore witness to our "angels in America" -- our continuum of GMHC families. First stop: the Harlem Children's Zone, the location of the annual holiday party for families that GMHC works with who are living with or affected by HIV/AIDS. In recent years, this beautiful and awesomely generous party has been newly hosted by Shacazia Brown, founder of Survivors of Mothers With AIDS (SOMWA). Shacazia was 23 years old when her mother died of AIDS. She started to raise three younger brothers on a salary of $10 per hour. Soon after her mother's death, she launched SOMWA (pronounced "someway"), an organization dedicated to supporting and serving children and families whose parents are living with HIV and/or have died of AIDS. Through a few toy drives and great persistence in securing sponsors, Shacazia gathers hundreds of gifts for infants to teenagers and provides lunch and activities during the party. Very few photographs were taken of the families, in order to ensure their privacy, with an understanding of how deep the stigma connected to people living with HIV and AIDS remains. We learned that some of these parents have not been able to tell their adult siblings about being HIV-positive. One mother instructed her children not to tell their friends about her diagnosis, for fear that they might experience severe bullying.

Over 60 SOMWA volunteers helped at this year's party. They played with children, rocked them to sleep while standing in the middle of a gym and through high-pitched squeals, painted faces and nails, played basketball, served food, danced the Electric Slide and distributed toys and gifts. One volunteer, a licensed RN, drove from Philadelphia to be on duty in case any child had an accident.

The acronyms "HIV" and "AIDS" were not mentioned at the party -- not even during the brief speaking program, when Shacazia shared how important all the families are to her. Janet shared about the definition of a family: "Families can be biological or chosen. You are all part of our family. We are here to cheer you on in the good times. And we are here when you need us in the difficult times." Then she called up the GMHC staff with Shacazia and declared, "These folks are part of my chosen family, too." Before the speaking ended, Shacazia was given a bouquet of flowers from an HIV-positive mother, who, while crying, thanked Shacazia for being so wonderful to the families.

After we left the party, our next stop was the Time Warner Center in Columbus Circle. Both of us had some time to visit the shops before heading to our next events. In the Brookstone store with the funny gadgets and toys, we ran into Tony Kushner, the acclaimed playwright and screenwriter. You remember Tony: He received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1993 for his extraordinary play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. Recently he wrote the screenplay for the 2012 film Lincoln. Krishna instantly went into "media-maven work mode" and asked Tony to take a photo with Janet for GMHC's Twitter page. At first he seemed hesitant and shy about the request. Krishna leaned toward him and gently repeated, "The photo is for GMHC."

As he left the store with his gifts, we both agreed that Tony Kushner is part of the GMHC family, a family shaped by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Angels in America speaks mightily to the ravages of HIV and AIDS, the closeted, bureaucratic politics of the epidemic and, ultimately, the hope for better days in the future. In the epidemic's 31st year, we are still battling the stigma, homophobia, shame and discrimination that marked people in the 1980s, as described in his play.

And who are the angels for GMHC? These angels are our clients, the adults, parents, youth and children who teach us daily lessons of bravery and resilience even through overwhelming challenges. They are our volunteers, board members and staff, whose compassion and dedication to our mission are unwavering. They are Shacazia, who appeared out of nowhere in 2009, offering to host our annual holiday for families when program funding had been cut and we weren't sure how the party would have occurred. They are our donors, who stand by us with their committed support. They are Tony Kushner and all the activists, writers and filmmakers who have and continue to document the epidemic. As Tony wrote in his play:

This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all. And the dead will be commemorated, and will struggle on with the living and we are not going away. We won't die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward, we will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now, you are fabulous each and every one and I bless you. More life, the great work begins.

As the work continues, we'll see our angels in the days ahead and coming years.