Public art honors HIV caregivers
A public art project celebrating individuals who have worked to ease the suffering of people living with HIV and AIDS is taking shape in the heart of Washington’s gay community.
An excerpt from "The Dresser," a Walt Whitman poem about tending to soldiers wounded in battle, is being carved in the granite wall of the Dupont Circle Metro station. A dedication for the project, which also will include a second poem by Howard University Professor E. Ethelbert Miller around a nearby bench, was held over the weekend.
The project was the initiative of District of Columbia Council member and Metro board member Jim Graham. Graham served as executive director of the city’s Whitman-Walker Clinic, which cares for people with HIV, from 1984 to 1999, and was its volunteer president for four years before that.
Graham said the engraved lines were meant to pay tribute to people who came forward to help cope with the crisis when the AIDS epidemic first hit. There was little understanding then of what was making people sick and little federal support for efforts to cope with it, he said.
The city’s first AIDS forum was held in April 1983, and 1,100 people showed up, Graham recalled.
"The people who showed up became the volunteer buddies, lawyers, social workers, all manner of caregivers," he said. "Many of the people who volunteered themselves became sick and died."
Barbara Chinn, who today directs Whitman-Walker’s Max Robinson Clinic, was among those who helped mobilize an effort to deal with the crisis in the early days.
"You would respond if someone needed someone to sit with them, if there was someone who needed to be fed, to hold their hands in their last days," Chinn said.
Washington has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the nation. It is estimated that one in 20 adult residents have the virus, according to the Whitman-Walker Clinic. The U.S. House last month lifted a ban on using District of Columbia tax funds to provide clean needles to drug addicts, which advocates say is key in helping bring HIV infection rates down.
Despite the sobering statistics, Graham said that today there is not the sense of urgency about AIDS that there was in the 1980s.
Chinn agreed, saying she worries that medical advances have made people inured to the issue, even though AIDS continues to take a serious toll.
"I have heard younger people, when I try to caution people about at-risk behaviors, say, ’Oh, you can take a pill - I’ll be all right,’" she said.
The Dupont Circle project was funded by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and implemented by Metro. It is expected to be completed in August.
On the Net:
Whitman-Walker Clinic: http://www.wwc.org/