On Saturday, Sharon Stone, U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters, George Takei and more gathered in plastic hard hats, ready to dig shovels into the ground. A bystander yelled, “You look like you know what you’re doing, Sharon,” to which Stone replied: “I grew up in the country. I know how to use shovels.”
June 5th marked the 40th anniversary of the first cases of AIDS being reported in the United States by the Centers for Disease Control. To commemorate the date, a groundbreaking ceremony was held in the West Hollywood Park, the future site of STORIES: The AIDS Monument. The memorial is a joint effort between the Foundation for The AIDS Monument and the City of West Hollywood, a town striving to be the first HIV Zero city. To date, AIDS has killed an estimated 725,000 people in the United States and over 32.7 million globally. The forthcoming monument, which will open in late 2022, will be a 7,000 foot installation that includes an audio tour and stories that honor those lost to AIDS, as well as the many activists who have pushed for new research, treatments and cures.
The afternoon kicked off with speakers reading the words of those that have passed from AIDS. West Hollywood Mayor Lindsey P. Horvath invited audience members to speak the names of loved ones lost and explained that the new monument will symbolize hope, and “since researchers are on the cusp of a cure, today I have hope.”
— Marc Malkin (@marcmalkin) June 5, 2021
Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl took the stage and joked, “I’m a little over-stimulated. I haven’t been with this many people in one place in a year and a half.” She told Variety she was excited to celebrate the launch of an important monument that will continue to grow as more stories are added, and one that will commemorate a time a lot of people lived through and have different memories about. “One of the important things is bringing these memories together, people who we lost, people who we didn’t lose and are still around, and the great variety of experiences that people had through that pandemic – and what might we learn from this in the middle of another pandemic,” she explained.
Black AIDS Institute founder Phill Wilson read a passage from his former partner Chris Brownlie, who passed away from AIDS. “I’m lucky I got to tell my story, but others didn’t,” he proclaimed. Jewel Thais-Williams, Minority AIDS Project co-founder and owner of the former Catch-One Nightclub, shared tales of those in her life she had lost to AIDS. And Dr. Michael Gottlieb, a UCLA immunologist who, along with his colleagues, first identified what is now known as HIV in his Los Angeles patients in 1981, read off the names of his first five HIV-infected patients, whose names will be recognized in the monument. He touched on the inequities in the prevention and treatment of AIDS, and reminded people that “the HIV pandemic is by no means over.”
Stone got emotional while reflecting on her long-standing advocacy work with AIDS activism. “The main thing I learned from being an AIDS worker was that it wasn’t just about AIDS. It’s about looking at the person next to you and accepting them no matter what. Because you know what? We’re in it together,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes.
Also in attendance was Jeanne White-Ginder, the mother of the late Ryan White, the 13-year-old who was diagnosed with AIDS after a blood transfusion in 1984 and made headlines for rallying to return to school following his diagnosis. The monument, says White-Ginder, is also for all the people who have cared for those with HIV/AIDS. “When you go by this, I would love for everybody to blow a kiss into the wind like I do all the time,” she said. “Ryan always told me, ‘Everything is going to be okay.’ Well, everything is going to be okay!”
“Star Trek” legend Takei shared the history of the heroic activism of Kiyoshi Kuromiya, a civil rights, anti-war and AIDS activist who worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. And the crowd fiercely applauded Jake Glaser, a spokesman for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation and a 37-year-old living with HIV, who noted that HIV/AIDS advancements have allowed for him to be able to discuss having his own children one day with his non-HIV positive partner.
The 40th anniversary brought back a lot of memories for Takei, who told Variety: “I’ve lost dear friends who suddenly got sick, started drastically losing weight, and the weight loss continued and continued until they were skin and bones. And then they were gone. I’m gay. I could have gotten it,” he said. “The anxiety, and the grieving, and the loss – all that is what we’re remembering from 40 years ago.” Takei also took a moment to praise the work of Dr. Anthony Fauci, whom he deems a hero of the movement. “He was amazing back then. He was articulate, wise, forceful, consoling, and here he is now 40 years later. He is eternal. He is, as we say on on ‘Star Trek,’ ‘living long and prospering.’”
Waters told Variety, “So many people made so many sacrifices. All of that must be honored, and this is what a monument does.”
A reception following the groundbreaking was held nearby at new Robertson Boulevard restaurant Soulmate, where Waters recalled her early days in government and asking then Pres. Bill Clinton for money to help fight the epidemic.
Marc Malkin contributed to this report.