December 1 is World AIDS Day, with the current theme “Getting to zero: zero new HIV infections. Zero discrimination. Zero AIDS related deaths”.

It’s also the date, in 1955, that the Montgomery Bus Boycott began in Alabama, which, for me, signified the beginning of the modern civil rights era. Yes, Truman integrated the armed forces before that, and the Supreme Court had integrated the schools. The bus boycott, though, was a mass mobilization of many “ordinary” people to not sit in the back of the bus.

I resisted telling this story before because… well, let me tell it, then get into that.

In Albany, the state has had the AIDS quilt displayed at the Empire State Convention Center just about every year since it started traveling. Most years I would go visit, in part to see if the quilt for my friend Vito Mastrogiovanni, who died in May 1991, was there; it was, at least twice in my viewing.

There were guides, who would make sure people weren’t touching the quilts, but were also directed to comfort the people who might become upset by the event; there were plenty of boxes of tissues on hand. Most of the guides were state Department of Health guides, but a few years back, they were looking for additional volunteers and I opted in.

One year, about a decade ago, I was in my particular section, and I could see a someone who seemed to be overcome by emotion in another section. Yet no one seemed to be responding, which I found to be odd. As I got closer, though, I figured out why.

The crier was almost certainly a transgendered person, born male, transitioning to female. I’d like to say that I was unfazed by this, but that just wouldn’t be true. Still, here is a soul in pain. So we talked, and I handed out tissues, which were appreciated. And then it hit me: what the heck was that all about, Roger?

My reluctance to telling this was because I didn’t want to be critical of those who shied away from this person. Nor did I want to sound like I was all wonderful or something, but in fact was embarrassed by my own narrowness.

I haven’t been a guide in the last half dozen years; they’ve cut back on the hours of the display, for budgetary reasons, and I surmise that they’re using DOH employees exclusively. I trust that they are now more sensitive, or at least ACT with more sensitivity than they did 10 years ago to this person.

It is a truism that the more you know people who are “different” from you, the more understanding and compassionate you’re likely to be. At my church this past June, we had a transgendered person, now a she, who explained some of the physiological, psychological and societal issues involved with the transgendered in this society.

Who was it who said, “None of us are free unless all of us are free”?

5 Responses to “World AIDS Day, and the Civil Rights movement”

  • Danielle says:

    Thanks for sharing this encounter. My mom made a piece for the AIDS quilt for my cousin…this quilt has a purpose and a story to tell. Thank you for comforting that individual I pray it started a kind and compassionate ripple effect.

  • Thomas McKinnon says:

    All of us have thoughts in our minds that surprise us. No one thinks he or she is narrow-minded, yet we are products of our lives. I like to think I have never been a bigot, but some of my past actions or words have been sexist, racist or Xenophobic. we learn as we grow, only those who do not want to grow, stay the same their whole lives.

  • I think the important thing isn’t that you had thoughts that held you back for a moment, but that you moved past that moment to offer human compassion. None of us are immune to thoughts or feelings similar to what you had, though I’d like to think we can all move past them. You saw how that doesn’t always happen; I dont’t think the fact they couldn’t makes them bad people, just human. However, don’t sell yourself short: Transcending our inner thoughts/fears is rare enough that when we manage it, we ought to feel good that we did. So, well done, you! And, by telling your story, you might help someone else to move past their own roadblock next time they hit one.

  • Reader Wil says:

    Well said, Roger! We cannot judge people unless we have walked in his/her shoes.( Jewish quote)

  • Cheri says:

    I’m glad you shared this story. As others have said, sometimes our thoughts can surprise and betray us, but it’s the actions that define us. Being willing to step outside a comfort zone is a huge deal that many would be unwilling to undertake.

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