World AIDS Day, and the Civil Rights movement

Most years I would go visit the AIDS quilt, 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.


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 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 transgender 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”?