The end of America's HIV immigration ban has allowed the XIX International AIDS Conference to be held in Washington. This welcome change reminds me of the years when the ban caused problems for Europeans participating in U.S.-based gay choral festivals.
Crossed memories summon TWA Flight 800, the New York to Paris flight that exploded shortly after takeoff on July 17, 1996. Two of its passengers were returning from a GALA Choruses Festival in Tampa, Fla. I had heard them perform just days earlier. They lurk in my memory beside a Gay Men's Chorus of Washington (GMCW) member holding an insulated blue medicine case in an airport lounge. All these years later, a friend sorts through the shapes and colors in a pile of pills to assemble his antiretroviral cocktail, a little ritual that surrounds me with vanished comrades.
A Google search brings up an old Queer Resources Directory post about the Flight 800 victims: David Hogan, music director of Le Choeur International Gai de Paris, and baritone Jean-Paul Galland. I am surprised to see my name as the sender. Because I happened to post that old message, an airline explosion and a gay choral festival are connected online. History is not an objective thing, pure and abstract, but built from countless choices on what to record and what to let go.
The GALA festival earlier this month in Denver had over 6,000 delegates. I did not attend, having retired from the chorus years ago. But doubtless many of the singers were not yet born when America was first hit by a mysterious disease that attacked the immune system. That was the summer of 1981 – the same summer when the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus inspired GMCW's birth by performing at the Kennedy Center on its 10-city national tour.
The "In Memoriam" rosters of departed members in Gay Pride concert programs across the country could populate large ghost choruses. Thirty-one years is a long time, long enough for the survivors increasingly to die of natural causes, like old war veterans.
The International AIDS Conference is accompanied by related events including a display of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, a revival of Larry Kramer's play The Normal Heart, and the five-branch We Can End AIDS march set for July 24. But the conference's main purpose, its website says, is "to assess where we are, evaluate recent scientific developments and lessons learnt, and collectively chart a course forward" to end the pandemic.
When an enterprise lasts more than a generation, its success requires a professional element. This is true whether fighting a disease or managing a chorus. Yet a blogger friend springs to mind who still refers pejoratively to "AIDS Inc.," and I recall a GMCW co-founder who was angered years ago to learn that the chorus governance had been changed to bring in more professionalism, even though he had long since moved away.
Sometimes we stubbornly cling to old ways, as I long clung to Microsoft-based PCs despite frequently cursing at them. Now I receive my magazines and newspapers on my iPad. Change doesn't happen all at once, as I was reminded last week while helping stuff 1,000 bags with printed materials for distribution at the "From Stigma to Strength" pre-conference and the AIDS 2012 Global Village. Everyone hasn't switched to electronic downloading.
One thing I am confident will never change is that people with shared interests will travel long distances to interact in person. Technology gives us wonderful tools, but we are still flesh and blood creatures who feel compelled to risk getting together. There are things teleconferencing cannot do. Here's to the arriving delegates, and the bits of history they inadvertently gather as they follow their hearts.
Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.