Photos by Keeley Smith.
Black frames sat in order at a table inside of The LGBTQ Center of Long Beach Tuesday night. In front of each frame sat a tiny tealight candle. Inside of the each frame was listed two things: a gender an an age.
Of the 19 frames that sat on the table on World AIDS Day, representing the lives lost this year to AIDS at the St. Mary C.A.R.E. Center in Long Beach, the youngest was for a male, 25 years old.
“That’s the thing that kind of scares me a little bit,” said Ismael Morales, The Center’s director of Health and Wellness. “I have 25-year-olds—youth—who come here, [of whom those listed] could potentially be, because they [St. Mary Hospital] can’t share information because of HIPAA [the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] issues, so all there is is just ‘male, 25.’ So it kind of scares me a little bit, but it’s the reality.”
The ceremony featured art by patients of the St. Mary Hospital's C.A.R.E. program, which provides services to patients with HIV and AIDS.
The table setting was just part of a ceremony hosted by The Center in commemoration of World AIDS Day. What began with a chance to mingle over appetizers and drinks transitioned to a solemn ceremony in which the names of each person who succumbed to the virus this year was read, to the final moments of the night, when participants walked as part of a candlelight procession to breezy Bluff Park in the memory of those who lost their lives to the disease.
This year, 19 people died from AIDS in Long Beach—up from 14 last year.
Although people can now still live long lives with HIV today, AIDS and HIV still carry serious impacts to those who have contracted the disease and their friends and family.
“Like I said, a lot of people aren’t afraid of it [HIV and AIDS] anymore, and I don’t want them to be afraid of it, but I kind of want them to realize that this is a possibility for some people,” said Morales. “And we take a day out of our year and remember the people who have passed.”
In fact, according to a city report, since 2013, the cumulative cases of AIDS in the City of Long Beach is 6,256 people.
One of the participants at the event, Oriel Briguela, a volunteer at The Center, said he personally has known 10 people who died of AIDS. However, Briguela, who is HIV-positive himself, said most of those deaths occurred in the Philippines, his home country, from which he immigrated from in 2013.
He described the contentious AIDS situation in the Philippines, which he said is “where the U.S. was 20 years ago” in regard to attitudes toward and methods for combating the virus.
“For me, it’s very important to have events to remember the brave souls who have paved the way for what we have right now [in the US],” Briguela said.
Candles flickered as the city’s leaders, including the Mayor’s staff, walked along the sidewalk from Fourth Street to Junipero, sometimes smiling while remembering their friends, sometimes gazing out somberly at the street before them.
According to a city report, Long Beach has an approximately 50 percent mortality rate for people who have contracted AIDS, with about 3,126 people living with AIDS since 2013.
Morales was quick to point out the difference between HIV and AIDS, and said most people who are infected with HIV rarely develop into an AIDS diagnosis.
“It’s important to note, however, that AIDS is disproportionately impacting the Black and Latino communities in Long Beach. It’s equally important to note that there have been [since March 31, 2014] 1,593 cumulative cases of HIV in the city also mostly white, men who have sex with men.”
In the last 10 to 15 years, conversations about HIV and AIDS have helped reduce stigma, according to Morales. Also, the advent of PrEP ((Pre Exposure Prophylaxis) and other biomedical advancements have provided new ways to curb the spread of the virus.
However, while the numbers in Long Beach are not going up with regard to AIDS cases, Morales said the number of people getting tested for the disease could be higher.
“Long Beach, in my opinion, is doing its part to curb the HIV rates by providing comprehensive and community-based services,” said Morales. “It’s rare to find services that walk you over to the provider (we call that a warm hand-off) or have access to medical care within a couple days if it’s needed. We all work well together and know each other’s commitment to the city and the cause of stopping HIV infections.”
In the meantime, for one brief evening, Long Beach joined the rest of the world in remembering those whose lives have been affected by the disease that ravaged and continues to tear apart the world, expressing emotions that wavered like the flames in the candles carried by participants of The Center's ceremony: anger, loss, pain and hope.