The Shoulders I Stand Upon
by Big Mike San Diego
The main reason I came to San Diego was because my best friend Tino Graziano was living and dying of full-blown AIDS and I did not want him to die alone (see LGBTQ San Diego County News Volume 4, Issue 15, or online at bit.ly/3OfEtl7).
Tino died three months after my arrival in San Diego, on Nov. 18, 1989. After his death, I promised myself that I would do everything I could to give back to all the organizations that were there for Tino to live with dignity and love. As I was growing and learning in this new community of Hillcrest, one of the biggest fundraisers was AIDS Walk. This was right up my alley; I could commit to helping others like Tino who were also dealing with this horrible disease.
I know AIDS is a depressing subject to talk about, but it is important to tell the history of all the people who had to die from this disease, rather than just act like it never happened. As September approaches as I write this, so does AIDS Walk.
According to the AIDS Network, “Walk” type campaigns became a primary source of funding and response to HIV/AIDS from the early days of the epidemic. “The world’s first AIDS Walk fundraiser was organized by AIDS Project Los Angeles in 1985, with a goal of raising $100,000. They achieved that goal and then some, raising over $600,000, with thousands of walkers participating. Walk fundraisers have been an important part of our history and continue to be an important part of our ever changing and evolving movement.”
Sadly, so many of us were watching our close friends, along with the hundreds of thousands of others, being murdered everyday by this depressing disease. We could do absolutely nothing to help our brothers who were catching the AIDS virus and then dying. Some died quickly and others lived in great pain; at the same time our society was terrified to even come close to showing compassion, love, or just plain kindness. Especially those first several years, because no one really knew what they could do safely to keep from catching the disease themselves. We all were scared.
In those early years, the University of California San Diego (UCSD) Hospital and many of their doctors were considered some of the best with their research of HIV/AIDS in the U.S., and are still are to this day (now UC San Diego Health).
I was diagnosed with HIV the same day Tino was diagnosed with AIDS; we went together to get tested back in San Antonio, Texas, in early 1984. I had never been so scared in my life to receive that news that day, and when I heard that Tino had full blown AIDS, I cried like a baby, my heart was saddened, not knowing if we both may die.
Tino did die four years after he was diagnosed. I have now lived with HIV for 39 years and I thank God every single day that I am still here.
Being a new face, lost, scared, in a new environment, a new city, and making new friends, I did the little things I could, mostly donating money to AIDS fundraisers. As I mentioned in the beginning of this column, I heard of AIDS Walk. This made me excited that I could participate in making a difference myself to honor my best friend and so many others that we had lost from this disease.
I remember it was the early 1990s and I was bartending at the Brass Rail. I asked my manager Hal Frost if the bar would consider putting together a team to raise money and do the walk; Hal agreed immediately. “In fact,” he said, “why don’t you take charge and lead the efforts?” I gladly and proudly took on this responsibility.
I had never ever asked anyone for money before this experience. I was so nervous to ask, so I decided to make it easy for me and the people I would be asking. I started with my afternoon customers at the Brass Rail, and just asked for a $1 donation. What I found was that people wanted to do something and by only asking for a dollar, even that dollar made them feel that they were also making a difference, and most people gave me much more than $1.
So everywhere I went, I’d explain that I was collecting money for AIDS Walk and ask if they would donate at least a dollar, and people would always respond with generosity. I felt good and was excited to witness so much love and care toward my first real involvement getting others and myself to support a cause I totally believed in.
I do remember I raised over $2,000 that very first time. Boy, did I feel good, and everyone on the bar staff did well raising money, too, and as a group we reached our goal. Then we walked, which was the first time I had ever walked. Every year after that I was proud and excited to take part in raising money for AIDS Walk. Being a bartender, it was easy to be part of a team that would not only raise money but be proud to walk as well.
As I write this column, I started thinking about what AIDS Walk means to me personally; I have always believed it gives us an opportunity to remember those we love and all those who lost their lives because of this horrible disease. It’s a chance to bring people together to learn, tell stories of those that were taken from us, and educate those who have no idea of the pain, struggles, and how our own community had to take up this fight alone in those early days.
It’s also a time to say thank you to our Blood Sisters, women like Wendy Sue Biegeleisen, Nicolette Ibarra, Barbara Vick, and Bridget Wilson, to name a few. They organized the women in our community to donate blood, because very few men could at that time. It’s a time to say thank you to the doctors and nurses who never gave up on those that had to battle this disease. To all the volunteers, especially the lesbian women who would go to the AIDS wards in the hospitals and take patients the trays of food that were laying on the floor outside their rooms in the hallways.
For those of us who lived in those times, and lost loved ones from AIDS, it was a sad time. Going to funerals every week was more than heartbreaking and depressing. Many individuals who did not have AIDS even lost family and friends, because they were related to or knew someone with AIDS; they were also discriminated against and people were afraid to be around them thinking they would get infected, as well. It was a very scary time in our history and something I pray we never ever have to go through again.
The story of AIDS Walk San Diego begins in 1985, with three individuals – Susan Jester, Albert Bell, and Gary Rees – who wanted to help local HIV/AIDS organizations with funding.
As told by Susan Jester on the AIDS Walk website, “The Los Angeles AIDS Walk had started, and I saw a need, I saw our people going up there to the L.A. Walk when we so desperately needed funds here. That angered me, too, and I just got it in my head that we could do a walk here. I met with Nicole Murray Ramirez and then David Coppini, and Rob Merrill and I found one of the consultants that had worked on AIDS Walk L.A. and asked if they would help us; show us how it worked. Ken Martin helped, Chris Shaw, all these guys really stepped up, and we did this out of my garage.”
Everyone was a volunteer who committed their time to make this a labor of love. So, with the help of their volunteers, these three amazing individuals produced the first Walk for Life.
Nicole Murray Ramirez, along with the San Diego Imperial Court, were the first sponsors, donating seed money to make sure this event would be a reality. You must remember in those dark early days, no one would write checks that would have the word AIDS on them. That’s why it was called “Walk for Life.” It was not easy, even with the first walk, with people screaming negative homophobic slurs out of their cars and booing the people who were brave enough to walk. But that did not stop those who did walk.
After “Walk for Life,” a group of San Diegans formed a new board in 1989, which was a totally separate identity from the first three walks, and established AIDS Walk as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, starting the long journey to what is now AIDS Walk and Run San Diego.
Individuals who formed the founding board were Scott Fulkerson, who was the executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Center at that time; Joe Mayer; Christine Kehoe (before she got into politics); Jeri Dilno; Doug Moore; Phyllis Jackson; Carole Norman; and Vertez Burke.
The board quickly realized they needed to hire a professional event coordinator to run AIDS Walk, so they hired a gentleman by the name of Tim Williams, who was paid almost nothing, like $2,000 a year. Tim took this responsibility on for two years, and right away asked his two closest friends – Maryanne Travaglione and Barbra Blake – to volunteer and help him with outreach. Together they concentrated on talking with churches of color, college fraternities, businesses, and anyone else who would listen. Then sadly, Tim found out that he had AIDS. He knew they needed to find a new executive director, so they put out the word, but when no one applied, Tim asked Barbra Blake to take on the E.D. position.
At the time, Barbra was working in biotech researching the AIDS virus and was also the executive director of Pride at the same time. However, Barbra agreed to take the position and did so with Tim’s help for the next couple of years. For the first few years, they would register those who walked in front of the County Administration Building, and then they would walk down Pacific Highway to Harbor Island and back, where they were greeted by the Girl Scouts at the finish line.
Thanks to Carol LeBeau, a news anchor with Channel 10 News, the station became AIDS Walk’s first major media sponsor. Because of their outreach, funds raised were also able to help smaller AIDS organizations and even those in Tijuana.
I remember in those early years, it was probably the mid- or late-1990s when Bob Mozzi was the executive director, he stepped down shortly after I got to know him. Thanks to Terry Cunningham who has committed his life to AIDS, took over as interim executive director until they could find a replacement. I am still learning about and remembering those years.
In 2003, the San Diego LGBT Community Center took over AIDS Walk, and it became one of their biggest fundraisers. It has been led and coordinated ever since through the hard work of The Center staff and hundreds of volunteers.
In 2007, Ian Johnson joined The Center as their coordinator and has taken the lead on AIDS Walk for as long as I can remember.
This year will be the last year The Center will produce AIDS Walk.
As was told to me: “AIDS Walk San Diego is being reimagined and will include specific outreach events throughout the year, [such as] events targeted to younger community members, and storytelling events that folks living with HIV will be able to share to help reduce stigma. The funding recipients will continue to be a priority for The Center.”
To everyone involved since the very beginning of “Walk for Life,” until today, thank you for giving us hope and a way to remember by raising millions of dollars that have benefited so many. Thank you to all who carried the thousands of banners with the names of those who died from AIDS during all these years.
I know that I am blessed to still be here on earth and I am grateful every single day of my life to have such a blessing. But it is the millions of people from all over the world who had to die from the AIDS virus: They are the “why.” We’ve walked to remember them. It was their sacrifice that brought society together so we could now be at a place in time where people can live longer and healthier lives. I believe a lot of that stems from all the individuals who started these walks, the volunteers that helped raise not only money, but helped with research that provided medicine, education, and compassion, which so many loving and caring individuals are still showing every day.
HIV/AIDS is not over and we still haven’t found a cure, and I pray that one day there will be one, but until that day comes, I encourage everyone to continue to do their part.
With the leadership of Nicole Murray Ramirez, and after 30 years of hard work, soon we will finally have an AIDS Memorial Park to remember and honor all those who died, helped, and showed compassion during those dark days. Earlier this year, along with Mayor Todd Gloria, Nicole Murray Ramirez, elected officials, community leaders, community supporters, and the San Diego AIDS Memorial Park’s committee, I witnessed its groundbreaking. It was a great day. This will be a permanent place where the names of all the San Diegans who died of AIDS will rest and be remembered. Now, after all these years, to finally be able to give them a safe home that we all can visit, remember, and learn who they were. May they always Rest in Peace.
These are the shoulders I stand upon.
–Big Mike Phillips is a local photographer, bartender, and longtime LGBT activist and fundraiser. You can reach him at [email protected].
SidebarAfter nearly 40 years, this year’s final AIDS Walk takes place Sept. 30, starting at 8 a.m., at the San Diego LGBT Community Center in Hillcrest. To register, visit aidswalksd.org/about.
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