Faces of HIV – Twenty Nine

By Shayne Woodsmith, Faces of Edmonton

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“I was involved in organizing the first prayer vigil for people with AIDS. We held that in the chapel of the Edmonton General Hospital and we did prayers all night long. We scheduled people to be there and invited people to come pray for those who had AIDS and those who were affected by AIDS. This was in the initial years in the mid-eighties. I went away from this city in the year of 80/81 on a sabbatical from the university, and I had heard something about this rare condition that was being detected in Los Angeles and San Francisco. So when I came back to Edmonton from Texas, people were talking about people coming down with this condition called AIDS, where you don’t die of AIDS, you die from some condition that is acquired because of an immune system deficiency.”

“I used to play volleyball with the first person in Edmonton diagnosed with AIDS—Ross Armstrong. When he came down with it, he was put in the U of A hospital, where I worked. So I would go up to visit him everyday. And everyone was gloved and gowned and masked, and they really didn’t want to go into his room because they were afraid. They had no idea how this was transmitted so they would sort of put his tray of food into the room and then I would go in and visit him and bring his food tray to him. I would say, ‘Ross, I’m sorry I have to look like an alien, but it’s really to protect you from me giving you anything.’ So I would sit on the bed and hug him. Nobody was doing that. And, of course, he died. He was the first person in Edmonton to be publicly known to have AIDS.”

“Even my husband at the time, he came down with AIDS, and when he died in 1989, at his funeral, nobody would say that he had AIDS. We were just enraged. We fought to make it public so it would start being addressed. We had been together for seven years, and he was playing around, and for some reason I didn’t get it.”

“I was the minister of the Metropolitan Community Church and when the folks like Michael Phair got together and applied for a grant to do something about AIDS, they couldn’t receive the grant because they weren’t established as a not-for-profit organization, and they didn’t have charitable status and all the rest of this. I was a friend of Michael’s, so he asked if the church could take our cheque, and I said, ‘Yes.’ And then we paid whatever bills he submitted to us. So we enabled them to work for a year until they got their own not-for-profit. So yes, I was sort of in on the ground floor.”

“The one good thing that came from AIDS is that the community solidified and worked together to face this threat … There are some of us old farts still kicking around from back them, but we probably lost about a generation. As a minister, I did funerals, memorial services, and certainly talked to the people who had HIV. I didn’t get to talk to many parents because so many parents, when they found out their kid had AIDS, they were also finding out that their kid was gay, so they were so in shock that most of them didn’t want to talk to a minister.”

Photography Credit: Shayne Woodsmith
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