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Queens, NY 1984
Nothing in P.S. 19 was ever heated enough. The auditorium, the cafeteria, the large windows with their pull-down plastic vinyl drapes rattled in another winter storm.
Ms. Cooperman, our teacher, frowned as she saw us shiver. “Bring your coats,” she said. “We’re having an assembly.”
It had snowed heavily the day before, and not many students or teachers had come to school. It would be another day spent smelling each other’s winter coats and feeling trapped, watching The Red Balloon, a silent film which seemed to be the only film the school owned.
But we did as Ms. Cooperman said because we adored her. It was clear she cared for all of us, even those who spilled over, out of our seats and into the hallways. We used to ask Ms. Cooperman why she had never gotten married. She always laughed and said, “I’m not married because I don’t want to be.”
On this snowy day, the entire fifth grade piled into the auditorium. I was lucky to get a wooden seat without gum glued to the bottom. Mr. Nichols, the vice principal stood in front of the stage. He was skinny, pale, fidgety and always dressed in a tie and jacket.
“All right boys and girls. Today we’re going to show a movie about a very important topic. I want everyone to pay attention.” We didn’t listen to him, of course. The teachers tried to shush us as he continued, “This is a movie about AIDS.”
Everyone got quiet. We’d been hearing about this new illness in whispers. We were children living in the middle of an epidemic, but no one ever told us anything. We were only taught to be afraid. Someone turned off the lights, and I had an apprehension this would be nothing like the Red Balloon.
In the opening scene, there were three men in hospital beds, thin as skeletons. They were all White with blue eyes, some with blonde or brown moustaches. Their skeletal faces reached up and out towards us.
The movie followed their lives as they became sicker and thinner, as they struggled to do everyday tasks, to drink a glass of water, their Adam’s apples bumping up against the skin. Their cheeks grew more sunken and their eyes shone out with light, the light of death.
In-between the time in the hospital, there were pictures and home movies of them from when they were healthy. They were some of the most handsome men we’d ever seen. Their hair was perfectly groomed. Their skin was soft, their smiles open. These men were dying.
By the end of the movie, we were glued to our seats, paralyzed. In what we thought was the last scene, there was a movie still of one of the men. Underneath his name was written: Died, December 13, 1983. He was frozen in his hospital bed, the man who had been laughing with his friends just a few minutes before. We were stunned, and then there were girls crying in the audience.
We thought the movie was over, so we started clapping. Something we had stopped doing for The Red Balloon. But no, another picture came of a man from the movie. This man had died too, only a few months later. And then the other, and the others. After each picture, after each man died, we clapped, wanting the movie to be over, wanting to do something with our fidgety hands.
After the lights came on, Ms. Cooperman was furious. She took us back to the room and held us during lunch. We tried to explain to her that we thought the movie was over.
“Again and again? You’re smarter than that.” She looked like she was going to scream or cry. Two things we never imagined her doing.
How could we explain to her we were clapping because we were terrified? We had never seen people dying this way. We were only ten years old and still didn’t understand what this illness was and what we knew was happening all around us. We were never told that by clapping we had accidentally participated in the gay backlash that darkened and still darkens the HIV/AIDS epidemic. We were only told the entire fifth grade would have detention.
I didn’t know then how inappropriate it was to show us such a film without explanation or education. I didn’t know how poor our neighborhood was, that there was an assumption that “people like us” even when we were ten years old were thought to be sexually active. I didn’t know how many queer educators there were in our school and what our applause had meant to them during this dark time.
I didn’t know the face of HIV would change and come to resemble our faces, the faces in our fifth grade audience. I didn’t know I would become an educator myself in the NYC public school system and would understand first hand the difficult choices educators make every day. I didn’t know the trajectory of my life would bring me into a queer, South Asian community where we would struggle decades later as if it was 1984 all over again to raise awareness about queer culture, the importance of sex education and sponsored healthcare for those who were HIV positive.
In my late twenties, I joined SLAAAP!! (Sexually Liberated Asian Artist Activist People!!), a collective of queer artists and activists who were interested in creating sexy and humorous educational materials and media projects which discussed homophobia and HIV/AIDS awareness in Asian American communities. SLAAAP!! was sponsored by APICHA (Asian and Pacific Islander Coalition on HIV/AIDS) and collaborated with various community organizations, including The Audre Lorde Project.
In SLAAAP!! posters, we wanted to take a different stance from the fear-based HIV/AIDS imagery we had seen and experienced. Our posters presented life-affirming images and themes such as “Beyond Ignorance There Is Pleasure. . .” and “Someone You Love Is Queer. Recognize The Diversity Within Your Family.” These posters were displayed on bus shelters and on subways in Asian American neighborhoods in Queens, including areas close to PS 19. An excellent archive of these posters can be found on artist Chitra Ganesh’s website. Feel free to share them with others.
As another winter comes to New York City, the chill in the air reminds me of the silence, fear and ignorance which fueled those early days of the AIDS epidemic. It reminds me of the work necessary to achieve the World AIDS Campaign’s goal “Getting to Zero.” No more new HIV infections, no more discrimination for those who are HIV+ and no more AIDS related deaths. With persistence, with accurate information and with life-affirming actions, this is possible.