Andrew. Kelly. Ronnie Two-Shoes.
Those names rang out in the United Church on the Green Friday as friends and family remembered loved ones lost to AIDS.
The Mayor’s Task Force on AIDS convened the gathering there in honor of World AIDS Day, which is celebrated on Dec. 1. A powerful ceremony served to honor those who have died—and send a message to young people that the epidemic is far from gone.
Shawn Lang, director of public policy for the Connecticut AIDS Resource Coalition, gave a quick primer tracing the arc of the disease since the first 121 people died of “the gay cancer” in 1981. Over the next decade, the “gay cancer” became better understood as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, an epidemic spread through more avenues than just homosexual sex. By 1990, AIDS had claimed 100,000 lives in America. That death toll included Ryan White, an Indiana boy who became a poster child for HIV/AIDS advocacy when he was expelled from school for being HIV positive.
Lang (pictured) said in the early days of the epidemic, she could count her friends who had died from AIDS in the order she had lost them. As the years past, there became too many and too painful to count, she said.
The “accumulation of grief” became too much to bear.
Medicine and society have come a long way in removing the stigma of the epidemic, and enabling HIV-positive people to live long lives, Lang said. But she urged the crowd not to forget history. When she speaks to college students, Lang said, she is dismayed to discover how few of them have heard of Ryan White.
Young people need to get the message, she said—especially because HIV is on the rise among their age group, according to federal data released this week.
People aged 13 to 24 comprised a quarter of all new HIV infections in the U.S. during 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than half of those young people were unaware of their infection, data showed.
As of December 2010, there were 1,504 people living with HIV/AIDS in New Haven, according to the city. Two of them shared their perspectives with the crowd.
Lang urged the audience to talk to a young person about HIV and AIDS, including how to use contraception and get tested.
Mario Garcia, the city health director, offered an official proclamation declaring Dec. 1 World AIDS Day.
“Together we’re greater than AIDS,” the proclamation reads.