Gary Bailey estimates that he has buried at least 50 friends from AIDS-related deaths since the mid-’80s.
“My youth was lost to grief,” said Bailey, a professor at Simmons College.
On June 1, 1986, Bailey walked for those who had been lost. Sunday marks the 30th annual AIDS walk in Boston, an event organizers that say is one of the oldest walks of its kind in the country. About 10,000 people from across New England are expected to attend.
In the early days of the AIDS epidemic, Bailey said that “we were losing very young, vibrant people.” It wasn’t unusual for him to attend two or three funerals in a week.
An estimated 4,000 people marched in that first walk, according to the AIDS Action Committee, a non-profit that runs AIDS Walk Boston & 5K Run. Bailey said that for him, it was a somber event, but also kind of a protest. Bailey, who is gay, said he thought not enough action was being taken because AIDS disproportionately affected homosexual men — a population many saw as “expendable.”
“It was something being done out of pure loss,” said Bailey, 59, who has participated in all but one of the walks.
Carl Sciortino, executive director of the AIDS Action Committee, said the earlier walks had a very different feel. Back then, people were “walking in the face of death sentences,” he said.
“The stigma around HIV and AIDS was severe,” he said. “The fact that people were gathering in large numbers and showing their faces was really a dramatic and courageous act — it still is today.”
Over the past three decades, the walk has raised more than $40 million, which the AIDS Action Committee uses to provide services for people diagnosed with HIV infection and AIDS, Sciortino said. At Sunday’s event, the non-profit will also launch a year-long campaign to raise awareness about Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, a prescription medication that helps prevent infection by the HIV virus.
A volunteer for the first walk, 69-year-old Richard Kinny-Giglio, said that hot day in June 1986 was exhilarating.
“This was the first time that gay men and other people affected like IV drug users, were taking their power and doing something positive with it,” he said.
The thousands of walkers, which he said included such officials as Governor Michael Dukakis, Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, and US Representative Gerry Studds, started at the Boston Common, and proceeded to the Back Bay, Brookline, Commonwealth Avenue, and the Hatch Shell. The walkers chanted, sang, and drummed, he said.
Kinny-Giglio said that since the immunodeficiency syndrome can cause exhaustion, a van was available to drive those who had trouble completing the walk.
People noticed them, he said. They were making a statement.
“It was one of the best days of my life,” he said. “I remember every detail.”
The walk raised $325,000 that first year. But it generated more than just money, he said.
“It was us as a community standing up and taking care of each other...because everyone was afraid,” he said.
Bailey said that although there have been significant advances in treating HIV and AIDS, the profile of this disease “must be front and center,” he said. HIV and AIDS patients are living longer lives but that they must continue to find a cure.
“We have to stay vigilant; not frightened, but vigilant,” he said, “and we have to keep sharing this information with every new generation.”
Kinny-Giglio echoed a similar sentiment, and said that although tremendous strides have been made, the fight is not over.
“We’re walking because it’s just as important now as it was in 1986,” he said.
Katherine Landergan can be reached at email@example.com.