More than 350 people attended the annual HIV/AIDS vigil held Thursday night.
The light in the sky was slowly fading as more than 350 people gathered in Cawthra Square Park, behind the 519 Community Centre, for the annual AIDS Memorial Vigil. The theme for this year was the importance of family in supporting those dealing with HIV/AIDS; “however defined—whether biological or by choice,” said Rick Lees, who co-hosted the event with Doe O’Brien Teengs.
Each year, the names of those added to the AIDS Memorial in the park are read aloud from the stage; in total, the memorial bears the names of over 2,600 people, including this year’s addition of 28 names.
“It is important to remember people who aren’t here, because they are still family, and we are giving them a voice,” said Lees. As such, there was also an opportunity for attendees to remember loved ones at the vigil; by that time it was dark, so there was almost a ghostly effect as voices broke through the night with names.
Hosts Doe O’Brien Teengs and Rick Lees stand by the memorial before the vigil.
The night was, for many, cathartic, said O’Brien Teengs, executive director of Ontario Aboriginal HIV/AIDS Strategy. “There have been a lot of people in the community who have passed away from HIV/AIDS. I carry a grief and this is shared healing.”
Rick Lees, director of organizational development at the Sherbourne Health Centre, spoke about the fear of being abandoned and forgotten. As an HIV-positive gay man himself, he pointed out that people affected by HIV/AIDS often wonder if after disclosure they will still have family that will stand by their side. “Your biological family sometimes doesn’t,” he noted, “so you need a family of choice.”
During the vigil, Lees reflected on the importance of family while recalling visiting his father in palliative care. Although their relationship had become strained after Lees came out, the experience of being at the hospital was important to both father and son. “Family,” said Lees, “means we will be cared for.” (He then noted that his own children have cheekily warned him to be nice to them, because they would be the ones caring for him when he gets older.)
A young girl was one of the candlelighters during last night’s AIDS Memorial Vigil.
The night was shadowed by worries that the City might begin cutting funding to HIV/AIDS and harm reduction programs; attendees were encouraged to support Proud of Toronto‘s campaign to help protect these services. It was a rare political moment in a ceremony so often focused on the personal, and served as a reminder of how often the two are intertwined.
After the candles of remembrance were lit, flames getting passed from one person to the next, the vigil—as it so often does—concluded on an uplifting note, ending with a performance of “We Are Family.” Some years, confessed a few attendees, the tears and sadness were too overwhelming for the song. Last night, however, more than a few of the flames danced side-to-side in the warm summer night.
Photos by Jaime Woo/Torontoist.