Key West, FL
United States
White Street/Atlantic Boulevard, foot of pier Key West AIDS Memorial since 1 December 1997
1000 names
KEY WEST, FL — My friend’s friend, who I’ll call Barbara, was tall, pretty, with the kind of straight dark hair that even Key West couldn’t screw up, a little shy or reserved — it was hard to tell which — and had a reputation as something of a perfectionist. You didn’t want to borrow anything from her, because you couldn’t return it as good as you got it. I didn’t know much more about Barbara than that, and that she had a perfect boyfriend — good looking, amiable, and was not a dirtbag, which is something that boyfriends might turn out to be in Key West.
All the same, he was too good to be true, at least true to Barbara, it turned out; he was gay. I remember feeling sad and startled that a person would feel the need to keep a secret like that, in Key West. If you couldn’t be yourself there, there were no safe places. There were no safe places anyway. The boyfriend’s name is on the AIDS memorial now, the monument to the more than 1000 Conch Republic citizens and loved ones who are known to have been killed by the epidemic. Barbara’s name is not on it. She got off lucky.
I only lived in Key West for two years, while the epidemic that has put the names on it is 30 years old. Still it’s funny the one other story I know behind a name there is that the husband of a lesbian I know is on there too. He too kept a secret, but not from her; they married to appease their families, apparently.
Still their story too reminds me that the memorial commemorates not just personal losses but the toll of secrecy and silence.
The memorial, like the AIDS quilt, breaks the silence though, in its quiet way.
I talked to a physician in Key West the other day and asked him how many people memorialized there he knew. Almost all of them he said. Things are better now, he said. The first 15 years were terrible, the last 15 good, by comparison. About 80 percent of his patients are responding so well to treatment that the virus in their system is undetectable, and they are living normal lives he said. For the first five years of the epidemic President Reagan didn’t even mention its existence, let alone the hope of that relatively modest goal.
The memorial is one of those that you are in — part of, almost — before you realize that you’ve set foot in it. The Viet Nam War Memorial is like that. The walls listing the dead rise up slowly and surround you. The Salem Witch Memorial is like that. I almost sat on a bench there before I realized it said: “Giles Corey, Pressed to Death.” This one is flanked by swaying palm trees and leads to the pier going out into the cool breezes of the Atlantic. People ride bicycles over it before they notice the names.
This one though has another unnerving thing about it. It’s a work in progress, with new names added each year.
It is this that makes it astonishing when US efforts to fight AIDS overseas have ignored laws that mandate keeping ones sexuality secret. It makes it horrifying that recognition of each person’s right to harmlessly live according to his or her own inclinations is considered debatable in the current presidential election. It makes it incredible that our public discourse, 30 years since people started becoming memorial fodder, focuses on sex rather than health. It can’t only be Barbara who knows that the ability to live honestly is a matter of life and death.
Photo © Helen Highwater

5 March 2012
Helen, Palm Beach County, FL