Every summer in New York there is a major parade to celebrate a several communities crucial to NYC cultural life. This is true of several parades, but the one I’m talking about is NYC Pride, one of New York City’s more joyous celebrations.
The programming for Pride month celebrates the struggle for civil rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender men, women, and everyone in between in the United States. It is an annual celebration marking the riot at the Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969. The first Gay Pride march was held on June 28, 1970, on Christopher street (it took up 15 surrounding NYC blocks) to commemorate that riot.
I’ve written about these events before because the LGBT community is so much a fabric of FIT life. I mentioned before that by the time I came back to FIT to work in the library (and attend graduate school here) in 1996, every. single. one. of the male professors from my undergraduate year 1987-1988 were dead. These were not old men. They were gay men in the midst of plague years. AIDS cut a swath of death through the fashion community in the 1980s and ’90s.
First, think about what it would be like if everyone you knew, all your friends and colleagues, the people pouring your coffee in the morning, the people teaching your classes, the people doing your makeup, or stitching your samples, the people you saw daily on your commute… what would it be like if everyone you knew had lost a friend, a lover, a brother or sister, or teacher, or colleague, or boss in a series of years?
In New York City, the AIDS crisis was like the terrorism event September 11, only stretched out over 15 agonizing years and hospital rooms all over the tri-state area. The crisis was like the 1918 flu epidemic, or the Black Death.
But this story is about more than a community of people who died 30 years ago. This is a story about the things that make New York City an important city in the world, i.e. its arts communities. And it’s a story about how fear, ignorance and public policy can kill by ommission.
Sadly, ignorance and fear still drive policies which prevent poorer citizens from contracting and treating this potentially fatal disease. Several decades of decreases in sex and drug use education have increased incidences of AIDS-related illness in local groups. As recently as 2015 a county in Indiana had a major AIDS outbreak, apparently tied to opiate drug use in a financially-depressed area. The local health clinic, a Planned Parenthood, had been defunded, making health care and testing inaccessible for the victims.
This vulnerability in poor communities can be seen writ larger in the infection statistics among African-Americans, where women have a chance of infection 3.5 times greater than white women. Similarly, African Americans account for 45% of annual new HIV diagnoses, but only 12% of the American population overall. Historically black Americans have had less access to health insurance and a greater distrust of the medical community, making diagnoses and subsequent care less likely. The Hispanic-American community continues to suffer in similar ways, in some part because of the cultural stigma against men who have sex with men.
Ignorance affects the LGBT community in other ways as well. By 2014 hate crimes had been directed at a greater number of LGBT individuals than either Jews, Muslims, or African-Americans, the communities which suffer such acts in next order of frequency. The deaths of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Floriday last June 12 were merely the most visible and publicized such acts.
Descent into violence serves none of us, however. When people march for Pride month this coming Sunday, it is a celebration that, despite all the death, violence, ignorance and fear, the community of LGBT, with all it’s different colors, sizes, genders, shapes, and personalities, within the larger community of New York City, has survived. And will continue to thrive.