Sunday, June 28, 2015

From the Archives: Article originally published in Out IN Jersey Magazine

Christopher Street: A Universal Symbol of Pride

Some of us may associate Christopher Street with New York City, the Village or Pride Parade, but over the years Christopher Street has become more of a universal symbol of Pride. The Stonewall riots of June 1969 have inspired people beyond New York City and the U.S. and resonated with individuals all around the world.
Balloons of rainbow colors form the Rainbow Flag at NYC Pride. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Balloons of rainbow colors form the Rainbow Flag at NYC Pride. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.

The name of the event may vary from country to country-Gay Pride, pride parade and even Worldpride.  Europeans, for example, celebrate their Pride through Europride, an annual parade inaugurated in London, in 1992. In Germany it's known as Christopher Street Day or simply CSD.

Berlin, Germany. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved. In 2010 I visited Berlin, for the first time after the fall of the Wall, for the first time, for me, as one unified city. Beautiful city, I might add.
Bremen and Berlin hosted the first German CSDs in 1979, while the first documented German LGBT parade took place in M¸nster, in 1972. CSD-related events start as early as May and continue until October in cities like Dresden, Frankfurt, Cologne, Berlin, and Hamburg.
And a hint of Germany....Sylt Market Center. Sylt is a German Island, at the border between Germany and Denmark. Photo by Alina Oswald

Each year, CSD organizers strive to schedule the events at the end of June, but that is not always possible. Other happenings-like 2006 World Cup-can sometimes change their plans. Major cities like Cologne (with one of the largest CSD parades in Germany) and Berlin (which also hosts the larger Love Parade) schedule their CSDs in the July-August timeframe, while Hamburg plans its events at the beginning of August. CSD's name comes, indeed, from the actual Christopher Street in New York City.

For those interested in experiencing the German Pride this coming summer: CSD Munich is scheduled for July 27th, Berlin for June 23rd, Frankfurt Pride week is June 16th to June 24th and Hamburg's is planned for August 3rd to August 5th. Most Germans speak fluent English, so communication is no problem. Though knowing even a few words of German is much appreciated.  

The Rainbow Flag. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
The Rainbow Flag at Jersey City Pride Fest. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
A few months after its 2006 CSD, I put my own German language skills to test during my visit to Hamburg. A diverse city and second largest in Germany, Hamburg is located at the North Sea, at the junction of rivers Elbe and Alster, the latter forming two artificial lakes within the city: Binnenalster (Inner Alster) and Aussenalster (Outer Alster). My guide, Sina (pronounced like the Warrior Princess), took me everywhere from the Warehouse District and Reeperbahn (the "Bourbon Street" of Hamburg) to Saint Georg District ("The Village" of Hamburg). 

Last August, Saint Georg marked the starting point of Hamburg's CSD parade. Sina was one of the four thousand participants who walked in the parade, all the way to Binnenalster. But the Inner Alster-with its famous dragon statue-didn't mark the end but rather the starting point to another CSD event in yet another city.  

Alina Oswald

Friday, June 26, 2015

From the Archives: The AIDS Museum
Article originally published in Out IN Jersey Magazine

NJ Hosts the Opening of the First Ever National AIDS Museum

Thailand has one and so does South Africa. Now the United States also has a National AIDS Museum. It opened with Eyes of Mercy art show on November 11th at Seton Hall University in South Orange.

Eyes of Mercy. AIDS Museum Opening Night, 2006. Photo by Alina Oswald.
Eyes of Mercy. AIDS Museum Opening Night, 2006. Photo by Alina Oswald.
"It's important to me [to start here] because that's where I work-I'm an alumnus," Ashley Grosso, AIDS Museum Executive Director, explained at the opening event.
A Seton Hall graduate (with a major in diplomacy and international relations), Grosso is also a founding member of the Red Cross Club at the campus through which she became interested in HIV/AIDS. When members of the Club brought to school a panel of the AIDS memorial quilt, she became interested in using artwork as a tool to raise AIDS awareness and educate people about the pandemic-hence the idea of a National AIDS Museum. 

Eyes of Mercy showcases AIDS-inspired works of artists from across the country:
     Watercolor artist Bob Armstrong of New Jersey was present at the opening. He talked about AIDS prevention and shared his own survival stories. 
The AIDS Museum: Opening Night, 2006. Photo by Alina Oswald.
The AIDS Museum: Opening Night, 2006. Photo by Alina Oswald.
Photographer Kurt Weston of California has lost most of his sight to CMV retinitis. His displayed artwork deals with the physical and emotional impact that visual loss can have on an individual. His Journey Through the Darkness is the exhibit's feature photograph. 
The National AIDS Museum will find a permanent home in Newark. But for now, the exhibit will travel across the country. Next stop-the New School, New York City.

For more about HIV, AIDS and other related works, please contact Alina Oswald and/or visit her online at Art, AIDS, & Others.

Friday, June 19, 2015

From the Archives: The Invisible People, a Book Review originally published in A&U Magazine

The Invisible People-How the U.S. Has Slept Through the Global AIDS Pandemic, the Greatest Humanitarian Catastrophe of Our Time

By Greg Behrman
Reviewed by Alina Oswald

Written in an accessible, And the Band Played On way, the story of The Invisible People reaches out to its audience offering a unique lesson in AIDS-its politics and history.  The book is the result of almost three years of Greg Behrman's detailed research gathered from more than two hundred interviews with approximately one hundred policy makers and thinkers.  Armed with two decades of studying AIDS, especially AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa, the author explains the social, economical and political toll the disease takes on people and uses his book as a tool to raise AIDS awareness. 

The Invisible People explores the key reasons behind U.S. slow response-in comparison to other countries-to the global AIDS pandemic.  For example, President Bill Clinton dedicates most of his time and energy now to his AIDS foundation, yet, while he was president and had the incredible opportunity to take advantage of the global AIDS issue, he didn't.   The book reflects the author's passion to find out the reason behind this "a catastrophe in a catastrophe," as he calls the U.S. failure to try to understand and react to the global pandemic.  The book brings to life events surrounding pioneers like Doctor Joe McCormic, "the old virus hunter," and people with enough power to influence global and national AIDS awareness and to generate the political pressure needed to increase U.S. interest in the global pandemic.

The Disappearing Act. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
The Disappearing Act. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.

The book engages its readers in tracking down global AIDS through real life stories of medical doctors, politicians, activists, artists and journalists like Colin Powell, Bill Clinton and Bono, who make a difference in fighting the pandemic on the global and national front.  In the process, we learn that we can also leave our own imprints in the fight against global AIDS. 

The Invisible People allows its audience to better understand HIV/AIDS-related issues here at home and in the world, and to draw a broader, global and real image of its magnitude.  As readers, we learn that there's a lot we can do.  Possibilities are at our reach, resources are available and affordable.  We can choose to remain silent or we can use the book as a tool to raise AIDS awareness at home, in the States, and around the world.  At a time when humanity faces "no crisis more lethal than the global AIDS pandemic" The Invisible People gives us a choice and an opportunity to meet face to face with AIDS and its invisible people... and make them visible.  

Friday, June 12, 2015

From the Archives: Book review originally published in A&U Magazine
The Secret Epidemic - The Story of AIDS and Black America
By Jacob Levenson

Considered by some reviewers "the sequel of Randy Shilts' 'And the Band Played On,'" Jacob Levenson's "The Secret Epidemic" embarks readers on an expedition to the roots of the AIDS epidemic in "Black America." 

Frozen Hearts. Lensbaby Photography by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Frozen Hearts. Lensbaby Photography by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.

From the rural Alabama to San Francisco, New York City and the White House, the author interweaves personal stories, the role of black church, civil rights and AIDS activism to create a realistic portrait of the AIDS epidemic in the United States.   

Throughout the read, we evolve together with the characters and take active part in their stories.  As readers, we interact with the tragic, bittersweet, also hopeful events in protagonists' lives.  We follow the social worker to a rural Alabama trailer park and struggle together with him to save the lives of two HIV positive teenage girls.  The enthusiasm of some of the first black researchers investigating the connection between cocaine addiction and AIDS epidemic is a true example of the power of perseverance.  We cheer for the young AIDS activist, son of an "elite" black family, who demonstrates in front of the White House.  The young HIV positive woman finding spiritual healing and strength to survive through faith challenges readers' own beliefs.   

Maybe the most inspiring story is that of a young man, Ato.  Sometimes, AIDS brings out the best in people.  Ato's is such an example, a story about his struggle with the disease and his legacy.  Throughout his ordeal, the teenager matures and starts to understand the importance of "fight[ing] AIDS, not the people with AIDS."  Despite his suffering, he touches other people's lives with his new beliefs about AIDS and its impact on life in general.  He finds the strength to open the doors to his closet and talk about his disease.  Determined to live long enough to make sure others "will not have to suffer in the silence that [he]'s suffered in," Ato prepares his own passing as an AIDS awareness event and leaves his mother in charge of his legacy... and Laura makes sure her son's wish comes true.     

"The Secret Epidemic" examines the importance of understanding the AIDS epidemic in relation with civil rights and race, in America.  It unravels not isolated incidents, but stories that make up our everyday existence.  Throughout the entire read, the author never presents AIDS as an isolated issue, but always a topic integrated and linked to many aspects of daily life. 

Note: many years ago I reviewed The Secret Epidemic for A&U Magazine. For more about my covering HIV/AIDS, please visit Art, AIDS & Others

Friday, June 5, 2015

From the Archives: Article originally published in A&U Magazine
Measuring Life

How do we measure a year in our life? In minutes-all five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred of them? In moments, relationships, accomplishments...?

The cast of the original RENT, reunited (bar one) after nine years for the film version of the musical, measures it in love-or "lo-ooove": Wilson Jermaine Heredia, who played the original Angel in the still-running Broadway production, offers a hint of the theme melody when we talk on the phone. "[Love] is a very fine way of measuring time," he affirms. 

Red Lensbaby Hearts. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Lensbaby Hearts. Photo by Alina Oswald. All Rights Reserved.
Inspired by Puccini's classic opera La BohËme, Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize-winning, revolutionizing rock opera RENT tells the story of a group of bohemian friends-including Roger and Angel-living in Alphabet City (a neighborhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan) of the mid-eighties and struggling to express themselves through their art, while enduring drug addiction, poverty, illness, loss, and the AIDS pandemic. 

Roger (Adam Pascal, reprising his role on-screen) is an aspiring songwriter who gets involved with heroin. He and his girlfriend contract HIV through using dirty needles. When his girlfriend commits suicide, Roger withdraws from the world. It's through the character Mimi (Rosario Dawson), an exotic dancer, and his friend, Collins [Jesse L. Martin (A&U, January 2000)], a now-homeless professor of philosophy, that Roger comes out of his shell. In another plot thread, Collins is rescued by Angel after he is mugged; the two discover they are each other's soul mates.

"RENT [the movie] humanizes its characters. It makes them more tactile, more real," Heredia comments. "It's like you know the people that are on the screen. You get to feel what the Village felt like. What it was like to live in Alphabet City." Angel has taught Heredia a lot about one of the themes of the movie-no day but today, for one-and the importance of living in the moment.

But is the movie version powerful enough to connect with today's audience?
"I think even more," Heredia responds, explaining that the medium allows the audience to know the characters at a much deeper level and get more emotionally attached to them. "AIDS is still a prominent disease [and] people need to realize this [AIDS] awareness," Heredia concludes. He believes that RENT has the power to help us do just that.

Music, especially, has the power to send a message like this in both a highly memorable and emotionally affecting way. Heredia's favorite from RENT is "Without You" (sung by Angel and Collins). "It's one of the songs that hits you right in the stomach," he explains when talking about the significance of the song. "Yes, I know that the world keeps spinning, but it doesn't really matter if I'm dying without you."

Adam Pascal's favorite song is "I'll Cover You" (sung by Roger and Mimi at Angel's funeral). "I'm somebody who's very much moved by music and every time I hear this song it moves me to tears," the actor confesses. "It's connecting on an emotional level that most songs in life don't." 

Pascal, coming to the character that he originated "ten years older and hopefully wiser," believes that today's audience-especially its younger members-"need to understand what the characters are going through because, back then, [AIDS] was an immediate death sentence," Pascal explains. "It wasn't that long ago that this was the case."

He hopes that the movie will bring AIDS back into the public consciousness and "show people that [AIDS] kills the white kids just like it kills the Africans. It's the same disease-it doesn't discriminate. In Africa, thousands and thousands of people are dying from AIDS, but it's in somebody else's backyard. We're not gonna deal with it unless it's directly affecting us," Pascal comments. And, by "us," he doesn't mean just Americans. "I'm amazed at how everyone looks at [the U.S. and asks,] 'How come you haven't cured it?'" Pascal is intrigued. "There are lots of other countries in this world that have a lot of responsibility and I don't see them stepping up to the plate either. Where is the U.K.? Where's Germany?"

AIDS is at the bottom of the list for many developed nations because the majority of the people who are dying from AIDS are African and poor and, as Pascal mentions, "the only time you hear about it or see it, is when a news crew goes and shoots some pictures of it." Other than that, AIDS is not in the public consciousness, especially with all that's going on-in Iraq and the rest of the world-that distracts people's attention. 

From a Judeo-Christian perspective, we have to do something, he believes. "It's interesting how people selectively look through the Bible and decide what's important and what things they choose to ignore," Pascal says. "And those things will change, given any particular situation." The pandemic is a threat to our humanity: "If tomorrow aliens landed on this planet, that would completely change the perspective of everybody and all of our various religions and all of our various races and cultures would cease to have the meaning that they have now because we would realize that what we all are is human." He hopes that RENT will spark enough interest in the disease, enough for people to see what AIDS is doing to people in Africa.

"The reason why we shouldn't ignore [AIDS] is the same reason why we couldn't ignore Nazi Germany," Pascal reiterates. "We have a moral obligation to stop millions of people from dying. We can't stand by and allow this to happen in this world that we share, that we all live on."   

Alina Oswald