AIDS activism sharpened state and local response to coronavirus pandemic, Lightfoot says

Chicago’s first openly gay mayor said there was a “straight line” between the two pandemics during a “virtual conversation” with other mayors to commemorate World AIDS Day 2020.

SHARE AIDS activism sharpened state and local response to coronavirus pandemic, Lightfoot says

AIDS activists are seen marching in Kennebunkport, Maine in this 1991 photo, hoping to get the attention of then President George Bush. Mayor Lori Lightfoot said this week that activism years ago has helped officials respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.


Lessons learned decades ago from the activism spawned by the anemic government response to the AIDS pandemic helped sharpen the state and local response to the coronavirus, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Tuesday.

Lightfoot drew what she called a “straight line” between the two pandemics during a “virtual conversation” with other mayors to commemorate World AIDS Day 2020.

The forum was sponsored by the National AIDS Memorial and included New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Robert Garcia, their counterpart in Long Beach, Ca.

Chicago’s first openly-gay mayor recalled having traveled to New York City for a Pride Parade shortly after coming out to her parents. She said a “huge swell” of parade participants, some from the AIDS activist group, ACT UP, were chanting, “How many more have to die?”

“Just retelling the story now gives me chills. ... Too many government actors were ignoring this horrible pandemic that was sweeping through — not just gay and lesbian communities across the country and across the world. It was affecting lots of other folks,” Lightfoot said.

“Then, come to this moment where we’re facing another pandemic of global proportions. Put aside the federal government. But at least at the state and local level, where we have been all in on the front lines — the difference is profound. The difference really is because of those early AIDS activists who were out in the streets.”

Lightfoot noted that New York City was “Ground Zero” for the AIDS epidemic and AIDS activism that changed everything.

“A lot of the things that we have done in our public health response is ... attributable to the focus and the dedication of those early pioneers who were demanding that the scourge that was robbing people of their lives at such a young age had to be acknowledged. That there had to be a fulsome government response,” she said.

De Blasio noted that ACT UP activists were “shunned, denied and belittled,” even within parts of the gay community. To some extent, the “voices of people of color” and women were “often not heard enough,” de Blasio said.

“Even within the struggle, there was a fight for fairness and equality. But what we can say is that struggle changed everything. And what it led to is government finally owning the situation and doing the things we have to do to invest in reaching people,” de Blasio said.

“Well, finally it started to happen with HIV and AIDS and it’s made a profound difference. ... We can say the words, ‘End the epidemic’ and mean it. We can actually work towards the day when HIV and AIDS doesn’t afflict anyone. That’s a believable concept now, which would not have been at the time Mayor Lightfoot was describing.”

Garcia’s participation was particularly poignant. Earlier this year, Garcia’s mother and step-father died from COVID-19 within a two-week period. Yet, he somehow managed to endure those personal tragedies and continue to lead his city through the pandemic.

“Even though sometimes it is hard and painful, I try to use that experience when I am talking to our community about how serious it is. Even a health care worker like my mom, who wore PPE and took care of herself and has been in the medical profession for 25 years. If it can happen to her, it can happen to anyone,” Garcia said.

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