By Shayne Woodsmith, Faces of Edmonton
“I first started work on HIV in the eighties in Calgary. We did workshops on mosquito bites and kissing, it was kind of crazy what people thought you could get AIDS from … I lost a lot of friends. You can’t not be connected when you bury forty or fifty people you know. It’s been a big part of my life. I’m almost sixty so I’ve lived through the AIDS crisis and it just becomes part of who you are. It’s part of your bones and flesh and your own mind and memory and the collective memory of the community. It changes how you look at the world and how you think about things and how you see AIDS and HIV today. I live, work, and breathe in the queer community.”
“A high point has been the way the HIV and AIDS crisis brought the community together. There was a divide—it was gay men on one side and lesbians on the other side. Then women stepped in and looked at the men and said, ‘We’re here for you.’ So the community came together in ways it hadn’t before and that was significant. And also lobbying the government and making change and watching the community be creative in ways that it hadn’t before and being empowered, you know just saying, “We are who we are, and you can’t tell us who we can’t be.’ That’s really important.”
“The lows have been discrimination and stigma. I worked a lot in the churches around HIV and AIDS, so watching families disown their children and watching communities hurt their own because they couldn’t accept the fact they could die … that was sad. I watched that happen in a lot of communities in Alberta. And then there were the successes—there have been people who’ve lived with this disease for twenty-five or thirty years. And it’s created change. HIV and AIDS has changed our world and some of it’s been really awful, but there’s been some silver lining.”
“What brings me hope is that we’re not afraid to speak anymore. I worry that our history has been lost. There are young people out there who don’t even know that HIV and AIDS ever happened—they have no idea that fifty percent of my generation is gone and can’t mentor them because that happened. So that’s a bit astonishing to me, but it created a community that speaks. It doesn’t sit back anymore. We act. We react. We can’t wait for government and community support. We can’t wait for people to say it’s okay. We just do it. So that’s really important and a tremendous thing that we’ve learnt.”
“I still hear slurs. I still have to decide every single day if I’m going to tell people who I am … If we think about it in terms of where we need to go, we realize that we’re only a few steps into the journey … We have layers of oppression that exist in our community that no one wants to talk about.”
Photography Credit: Shayne Woodsmith
Ross Armstrong was an activist and he wanted life to be better for those living with HIV. After his diagnosis in 1984, he became a part of HIV Edmonton’s (previously the AIDS Network of Edmonton) team and emerged as the public face of AIDS in Edmonton. Ross died on July 1, 1986, two short years after his diagnosis.
The challenges and suffering Ross endured and the courage he displayed during those first years of the local epidemic led HIV Edmonton to name the hub of our agency – the drop-in centre – the Ross Armstrong Centre, which is a safe, caring place for HIV positive individuals to meet, have a cup of coffee, or share a nutritious community meal.
The Ross Armstrong Centre is a constant reminder that HIV is not always the biggest issue that our clients face. The biggest hurdle for most of our clients is accessing what they need to survive – their basic human needs. Our client programs allow us to support and assist our clients during the most chaotic times in their lives and to alleviate some of the struggles that they face on a daily basis – such as securing the 500 calories that are required to take their HIV medications. In order to continue to support our clients in this way, we rely heavily on the generosity of donors.
All money raised during this campaign will go towards supporting our clients who, in addition to living with HIV, struggle to meet their basic needs such as food, shelter and access to health and social services. It would be amazing if we could reach $5,000 by the end of the series. Even if it’s a small amount, please consider donating: http://tilt.tc/U2VI