By Dylan Follmer
Ten years after the rise of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, AIDS activist Larry Kramer managed to silence an entire room with just one word: “plague.” “Until we get our acts together, all of us, we are as good as dead,” Kramer expresses in the 2012 documentary How to Survive a Plague. “40 million infected people is a plague. We are in the worst shape we have ever, ever been in.”
Kramer’s inflection, passion, and sheer amount of determination to propel the movement he had been fighting for for years is what struck a match and lit the candle of activism within 17-year old high school student Gaby Diaz. “It invoked within me a new perspective. I began to realize within my own environment there were a lot of people who have very carelessly made pejorative jokes to make fun of the LGBTQ+ community or anything revolving around AIDS.” With that, the first steps towards 40 Years Since were taken.
40 Years Since is a fundraiser event that took place on February 29th, 2020 to celebrate a part of history that is completely overlooked by Generation Z: the revolutionary period that was the height of the AIDS epidemic. This era of radical nationwide ignorance started out in June 1981, as five previously healthy gay men developed cases of rare lung infection. During this time, AIDS wasn’t AIDS. It was “Gay Man’s Pneumonia” or “Gay Cancer,” or anything that would antagonize the LGBTQ+ community for being the only apparent victims captured by these mysterious ailments. The number grew from reported 5 cases to 337 in a span of 6 months, nearly half of which were dead by New Year’s Eve.
Despite the final numbers for 1981 including heterosexuals and even children, the disease still carried gay-related names well into 1982, and still carries a gay-related stigma today. “A lot of people within the medical field and the most elite powers of society neglected to acknowledge that there was a growing issue, not only within our country but around the world, just because of that mere association with homosexuals,” Diaz expresses, “It seemed as though they were completely fine with letting people suffer in the most brutal ways.”
For the most part, this rang true nationwide. AIDS activists quickly had to become their own researchers, establishing their own means to survive in the face of nationwide ignorance. If President Ronald Reagan was more willing to spend federal funds on less threatening diseases and unwilling to even mention the epidemic until four years after its rise, who else would help these activists but themselves? Facts such as these are a large part of Diaz’s motivation to create 40 Years Since. “So many people were completely fine with watching everyone die, so many people in the medical field watched this all unfold with blank, unresponsive faces. To me, you just realize that the common theme here is that they all lack a certain degree of empathy.”
Diaz began to realize that her environment used AIDS or the LGBTQ+ community as nothing more than a punchline, many of these people failing to realize the gravity behind the situation and taking for granted the rights that many sacrificed in the 80s and 90s just to get to the point that the world is with HIV/AIDS. She figured that the seemingly impossible fact that a vaccine to cure this disease could be a mere ten years away deserved the utmost recognition. Influenced by the activism of Larry Kramer, Freddie Mercury’s music and freedom of identity, and Elton John’s AIDS foundation, Diaz set off on the rocky road that inevitably came with putting together an entire event that started off with nothing more than a spirit for activism.
Diaz is the Vice President of the advocacy group Young Leaders of Today, based in Jacksonville, Florida. Her candle of activism still newly lit, Diaz proposed the idea of a fundraiser to the group’s executive board, assuming that the group would sponsor the event and allow her masterpiece to come to fruition. This is where Diaz encountered her first setback: the group, largely loyal to its mission statement advocating for pre-voter registration, denied her request. At this point, Diaz refused to abandon the project; she had already decided to center the event around art.
The idea of art came to symbolize the ostracism and discrimination that many people in the LGBTQ+ community faced for utilizing their own freedom of expression. She wanted to allow people to utilize their own perspectives and narratives to tell stories on behalf of the people that could not in the 1980s. With that, Diaz curated a list of local artists, bands, and HIV/AIDS activists that would cultivate a truly powerful project. “I wanted to center the event around art to cherish all the people who have lost their lives to AIDS and weren’t able to fully access that freedom of expression but also celebrate everything that we do have today.”
Back to square one, Diaz set up a Go Fund Me page dedicated to reserving the venue. Her efforts did not stop there, however; she began to sell her clothes, her records, her artwork, and anything that could enable this event to pull through.“It was really frustrating because you have all this passion and ambition and you want to see it follow through but you just don’t have the money. It’s such a frustrating feeling to know you can do it but feel limited at the same time,” Diaz notes.
The support from her community was something that Diaz could have never foreseen. Social media spamming may have played a part in Diaz’s eventual support for the event, but Instagram posts can only go so far; this unrelenting support was indicative of the community’s faith that Diaz could follow through. Months of hard work and planning led to the pièce de résistance of the event: its 300 person turnout. On February 29th, Diaz’s spark for activism doubled in height as artists came and sold their work, bands performed, and speakers delivered empowering messages. There Diaz witnessed a crowd of people, whether their lives had been affected by the epidemic or not, gather together to support the idea of honoring the past while celebrating the future.
It seems almost impossible that an event of this scale could have no media recognition, but that happened to be the unfortunate result of 40 Years Since. Diaz notes that the event was held on one of the last dates before the stay at home order, due to Covid-19, had swept the nation, and understands why media coverage of the virus would overshadow the potential media coverage of her event. Diaz draws a parallel between the world’s current situation to that of the 1980s.
“It seems that now, more than ever, the message of our organization is extremely prevalent. There’s still a lot of racist slurs being thrown out to a lot of Asian communities, but that’s something that, because of the progression that we’ve achieved as a society, we are able to combat. It parallels the main message from my organization right now that we need to eradicate this ignorance and become more in touch and grounded with our own empathy. If we can’t empathize with one another we can’t understand one another.”Gaby Diaz, 2020
Despite the lack of media attention, Diaz’s enthusiasm for activism has not faltered. Before the rise of the worldwide pandemic, she had signed up to do various pop-up events with art she had purchased from artists who attended 40 Years Since. The money from the pop-ups was to be donated in contribution to the Foundation for AIDS Research and the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Now, Diaz plans to use most of the assets she had set aside for future events to donate to a local magazine’s organization; this would provide aid for the financial struggle that many of the artists that attended 40 Years Since have begun to face in the wake of COVID-19. Diaz believes that she never sees her determination for organizing events and putting together passion projects to honor the past stopping.
Providing it is safe to attend public gatherings by December 2020, Diaz plans to host a sibling event to 40 Years Since to honor AIDS Awareness Month. This vision for activism seems to have been propelled by the overwhelming scene that was the original event, in which Diaz describes, “There was this moment at the fundraiser, towards the end, when this band was playing, and I was up on the balcony with photographers and videographers and saw a sea of people who were all supporting the activists, raising their hands in support, and they’re all smiling. It was so surreal to see that community come alive and support this one root cause of eradicating not only AIDS but also that ignorance. Seeing that motivated me to think this is something that we can make happen, this is something that has potential.”
Understanding and using one’s privilege for good is a pivotal part of today’s generation. Diaz understands that as a straight, cis woman, she had to open her eyes to the adversity and tribulations that people all over the world face because of the ones they love. She is constantly trying her best to be an ally, understand others, and ground herself in a way that allows her to see that there are boundaries and barriers in life that completely restrain those that should have the privilege of living equally carefree lives.
Being a part of Generation Z means being a part of a generation that does not have to witness the suffering that the first years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic brought, a generation that does not understand how the immune systems of these victims “crippled apart for so many years while no one looked into it just because they noticed the pattern that it was happening primarily to homosexuals.” Using privilege to bridge the gaps created by generational ignorance is one of the best things one can do in the spirit of activism.
Diaz is the poster-woman for not limiting yourself, an example to those who want to mend the disconnection between the past and present. “If you have the passion, the will, the determination, you’re going to find ways to do things that you thought were completely unconventional. If it works, why not do it?” 40 Years Since is indicative of Diaz’s fighting spirit, and the crowning achievement of a girl who’s candle for activism was lit and not once extinguished.
For more information on the history of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, please visit: https://www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics/overview/history/hiv-and-aids-timeline, or visit the 40 Years Since website down below.