Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Forty-Two Years Later: Let's Not Forget the Stonewall Riots

Happy Pride! Pride Parade has come and gone, but I can still say "Happy Pride!" It's still June, after all, it's still Pride Month.

"Best in Show at NYC's Pride" Photo by Alina Oswald
For those too young to remember, it all started with the Stonewall Riots of June 28th, 1969, 42 years ago today. The Riots have sparkled the "gay revolution," the fight for equal rights.

We've come a long way, but we have a longer way, still, to go. Over the years, the mission of the Pride has changed with time, molding the community's fight (or reason tot fight) of that particular time. I can think of a few of these moments: the early years following the Riots, the beginning of the AIDS epidemic (or the Dark Years of the AIDS epidemic), the silver lining brought by the HAART medications during the mid-nineties, etc. And then the focus has turned back to the equal rights. Maybe it has never left.

"Rainbow, American & Equal Rights Flags at NYC's Pride" Photo by Alina Oswald
This year, 2011, in the wake of Albany's decision to allow same-sex marriages in the state of New York, the NYC Pride parade had a common theme--marriage equality. It attracted tens of thousands of people, officials like NY's Governor Cuomo, Mayor Bloomberg, NYPD Chief of Police, Senator Chuck Schumer; well-known and admired members of the community like Dan Savage, Gilbert Baker (the creator of the rainbow flag). While some are fixtures in the parade (like Gilbert Baker and Sen. Schumer), others, like former NY's governor, Paterson and, this year's star, Gov. Cuomo, were newcomers. The streets were peppered with blue "Thank You Governor Cuomo" signs, and for good reason.

"Pride's Thank-You Note" by Alina Oswald
I've been photographing the Pride parade for many years now. Doing so, I've become addicted, in a way, to its overwhelming feeling of unity, enthusiasm, acceptance, and hope. This year wasn't different. Yet, there was a slight sense of bitterness in the air. Not because of the parade or the feeling of accomplishment and hope surrounding it, but because some of NY's finest who decided to show their alpha-male powers and, I guess, impress their superiors by deciding to show members of the press and other bystanders who was in power.

We got it. And we respected that, as we always do. But wearing a press pass should allow one to walk in the parade and take pictures for publications, blogs, etc. Well, not this time. Not for the start of the parade anyway. We were barricaded and, when somebody had the guts to asked what was going on, we were assured that we would not pass the blockade.  That kind of in-your-face attitude, that kind of answer, has always reminded me of the attitude bullies assume when getting ready to... bully their victims.
"Walking in the Parade" Photo by Alina Oswald

And that was just a taste of what was to come... After we were finally allowed to walk, farther down in the parade, there was another alpha-male police officer set to impress his superior standing by his side. This "dedicated" office proceeded to shoo away some photographers (who were wearing their press passes and were not in anybody's way) and to start a fiery discussion with a lady in a wheelchair for blocking the street (then he started being friendly with her). Not being a tall guy, he acted on people who were shorter than him, and female, not on the six-feet-something guy a step away from the woman photographer he was threatening to kick out of the parade.  (there would be much more to say about that, but I choose to stop here).

"Blue Against Blue" Photo by Alina Oswald
Although these individuals were few and in between, thank goodness, although the vast majority of the police officers were extremely helpful and polite, these two specific incidents left a bitter taste. Fortunately, they did not succeed, did not make a dent in the overwhelming feeling of joy, gratitude and hope that spread far beyond the parade, deep into the streets of Manhattan.

We've come a long way. Let's not forget that. And let's not forget that we have a longer way yet to go.

Remember the Stonewall Riots. Without the heroes of June 28, 1969 we would not be where we are today, June 28, 2011.

Happy Pride!

As always, thanks for visiting,
Alina Oswald
Author of Backbone

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The "D & C" Argument: How to Survive Depression, Lessons from an AIDS Warrior

The "D & C" Argument: How to Survive Depression, Lessons from an AIDS Warrior

Cover jpeg of Journeys Through Darkness, a biography of AIDS written by Alina Oswald, featuring photographs by Kurt Weston
Journeys Through Darkness
There are certain words we avoid just because that, over the years, the "society" has taught us that they are not nice words:

The A-word: during the eighties, especially during the beginning of eighties, the A-word (AIDS) was such a word. It took Reagan years to utter it. In some strange way, sometimes I still feel the resonances of the eighties' A-word...

The D-word: Depression (sometimes followed by the S-word, for Suicide) is also (or, should I say, are both) still taboo; people don't really talk about them until they touch a loved one...

The C-word: Creation, like in creative minds that is, is associated with yet another A-word (Arts) which, lately, has been threatened to become extinct because of budget cuts. Yet, art has the power of healing, of marking our presence in history for future generations... Art can help survive the blues and also document happenings some wish to leave forgotten (like the AIDS pandemic).

How does one survive depression? I asked Kurt Weston this question. The long-term AIDS survivor's answer offered me a lesson not only in how to survive "the blues," but life's obstacles, in general. I'd like to share it with my readers, through a short excerpt from my book on the AIDS warrior and award-winning photographer, a book I called Journeys Through Darkness.

Hope you enjoy the read. As always, thanks for visiting,
Alina Oswald
Author of Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS

Excerpt from Chapter Nine: Arrival of the Angel, from Journeys Through Darkness

Kurt Weston considers himself lucky that he has so much to live for. His life may not always be inspiring and joyful, but he is happy to still be able to pursue his goal--to create his art and, thus, achieve his dreams. This doesn’t mean that he doesn’t get depressed at times. He does. Though many years of living with AIDS and related eye-sight have helped him to figure out a way to maintain a positive attitude towards life. Weston considers thinking too much about oneself a reason for depression. Therefore, he encourages people to think, instead, of those less fortunate, of the poor kids whose parents died from AIDS, of those living with famine and starvation, dying from lack of water and lack of nutrition. Looking at the surrounding world from this perspective makes it difficult to even think of being depressed.

The photographer continues by explaining that although people can always find somebody in the world whose situation is far worse than theirs, stopping at this realization should not be an option. The next step is for individuals to become proactive in using their creative energy to do something efficient and useful to help those who have less. Thus, the experience keeps them away from getting down and depressed. This is important because, in turn, depression leads to destruction (“the D word”), which is just the opposite of creation (“the C word”).

When he feels down, Weston starts thinking of being creative, about what he can do to add something to the world. For him it really comes down to a “D and C” argument. For him, creation is the whole purpose of being an artist. And being an artist has kept him from thinking in destructive terms. Art has helped him survive his disease and related visual loss.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

30 Years of AIDS: Kurt Weston's Story on CNN iReport

30 Years of AIDS: Kurt Weston's Story on CNN iReport

June 5, 1981: first cases of AIDS were reported in the United States. Five young men died in a matter of days from PCP. And that's how it started, the epidemic, the pandemic. Since than, many, many, too many more people have died of AIDS. Not only members of the gay community, but women and children, and, yes, straight men, too. Celebrities (Freddie Mercury, Arthur Ashe), those who have become known because of having AIDS (Ryan White--Ryan White CARE Act, the only federal fund for those affected by and infected with HIV/AIDS was named after him), and non-celebrities, those whose names we don't recognize.

During the eighties and early nineties, AIDS used to be on our minds all the time because AIDS used to be a certain death sentence. With the advent of the life-saving medications in the mid-nineties--the HAART (or ART) medications introduced by Doctor Ho--in time, AIDS has become what some call nowadays "a manageable disease." Meaning one can live with it... the question is only how? What's the quality of life and what's the lifespan of an individual living with AIDS nowadays?

In 2007, studies have shown that the lifespan of HIV positive individuals is pretty much the same as those who are negative. Thanks to more than twenty kinds of HAART (or ART) medications--that have had what experts call "a Lazarus effect" on those infected--people live longer and better lives, while living with HIV/AIDS.

But, together with the HAART medications, complacency started to settle in, too. As a result, we have become less aware of the virus and its power of destruction. Maybe we should take a second look, especially when today we commemorate thirty years, three decades of AIDS.

My mother introduced me to the AIDS epidemic back in 1986, by pure coincidence, or fate how some may call it. I call myself lucky because of this turn of events. I've been covering the epidemic for almost a decade now. During this time I've met phenomenal, fantastic and fascinating individuals, inspiring members of the AIDS community. They have opened my eyes and mind to the reality of the world in which we live, as well as to the richness of this reality. They have taught me about life and its many layers, from physical to metaphysical, and inspired by professional and personal existence. In other words, these individuals have changed my life for the better. One of these "AIDS warriors" (how he calls himself) is award-winning photographer Kurt Weston. I interviewed him for A&U-America's AIDS Magazine, back in 2005, and in 2006 I started writing a book, Journeys Through Darkness, on his life and art. Lately, I've been blogging about the book, Weston and AIDS on my blog and on other blogs, like CNN iReport. The post was vetted by CNN and, yesterday, CNN iReport published an article on Weston (and, yes, they contacted me, too, for quotes). The article is a feature article on CNN.com/health.

Thanks for visiting!
Alina Oswald
Author of Journeys Through Darkness