30 years of AIDS awareness

William Way AIDS Library’s 30th anniversary and Still Fighting for Our Lives’

3 minute read
AIDS Library co-founder John Cunningham takes in the art and messages at 'Still Fighting for Our Lives.' (Photo by Holly Clark)
AIDS Library co-founder John Cunningham takes in the art and messages at 'Still Fighting for Our Lives.' (Photo by Holly Clark)

On November 10, William Way LGBT Community Center celebrated 30 years of Philadelphia FIGHT's AIDS Library with a gallery exhibition and reception. The walls were filled with historical artwork, including posters from awareness campaigns over the years and a fabric banner that read “Dead people don’t vote! Guaranteed healthcare for all.”

The idea for an AIDS Library was born on September 25, 1986, when thousands filled the streets of Philadelphia for a silent candlelight vigil mourning those who died from the autoimmune disease, standing in solidarity with those living with it, and raising awareness of the epidemic. To fundraise for the library, organizers sold t-shirts with the phrase “Fighting for Our Lives.”

The AIDS Library’s doors opened a year later at 1216 Walnut Street, and it has since been relocated to the second floor of Philadelphia FIGHT at 1233 Walnut Street. Additionally, earlier this year, the City of Philadelphia awarded the library a historic marker to honor its role in combating the HIV epidemic for the past three decades.

Friday night’s program featured a list of speakers from Philadelphia FIGHT and William Way, among others. Jacqueline Bryant, Anthony Johnson, Samantha Spott, Gregory Grant, and Dominick D’Ortenzio were honored as recipients of the AIDS Library Award for Extraordinary Service. The event closed with a heartwarming performance of “Seasons of Love” from the musical Rent, sung by Anna Crusis Women’s Choir.

Sadness and pride

One of the most touching pieces was a memorial remembering black Philadelphia Gay Pride organizer Jaci Adams and Transgender Health Conference founder Charlene Arcilla for this year’s 2017 National Transgender HIV Awareness Day. Notes written in black marker from community members, such as “I’ll always love you” and “I miss you so much,” covered the poster. The gallery also showcased a vibrant painting by Keith Haring (a Reading, Pennsylvania, native) that declared “Ignorance = Fear, Silence = Death.”

Dressing up the truth at William Way's exhibition. (Photo by Holly Clark
Dressing up the truth at William Way's exhibition. (Photo by Holly Clark

As a queer millennial, I was moved by the many years of activism dedicated to fighting an epidemic that predated me and that disproportionately affected the queer and trans community. In the 1980s, there was no Internet. The library provided a solution when other institutions failed, offering free, crucial information to the public without judgment.

The library now hopes to expand its collection on chronic health conditions such as hypertension and diabetes and its adult-services programs, including job coaching and workforce placement. It also aims to provide basic amenities and laundry services.

However, I was also saddened by how much progress hasn’t been made since the late ‘80s. The night was supposed to be full of pride and community, and it was, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the inequalities that still exist within Philadelphia’s LGBTQ community.

Earlier this year, Abdul-Aliy Muhammad, a former Mazzoni Center employee and patient, publicly refused their HIV medication until the center’s CEO and executive director, Nurit Shein, resigned. Milan Nicole Sherry, coordinator/outreach specialist at the Trans Equity Project, helped organize this year’s Philly Trans March, but also called out trans erasure within Philly Trans Health March organizing and the city’s overall queer community. A year after a viral video exposed iCandy Nightclub owner Darryl DePiano for racial discrimination, former iCandy employee Ricky Peterson spoke out against DePiano’s insincere apology. Philadelphia magazine’s G Philly editor Ernest Owens deserves recognition for highlighting these leaders in his reporting. The list goes on.

Of course, it’s important to reflect on how far we’ve come, but it’s equally important to think forward and address inequalities that exist today. We owe it to those who came before us, and to those who will come after.

What, When, Where

Still Fighting for Our Lives. Through December 29, 2017, at the William Way LGBT Community Center, 1315 Spruce Street, Philadelphia. (215) 732-2220 or

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