In the imagination of many, Vashon is the same place today as it always was, but few may remember when long years of the AIDS epidemic claimed countless young lives, including those of islanders.
They are part of a different story about Vashon that is not often told, one which will become the focus of the Vashon World AIDS Day festival beginning next week in association with several island organizations, students and members of the community.
“The overall thrust of the four days is activism,” said Peter Serko, a longtime islander who has coordinated the series of events with Vashon Center for the Arts (VCA), Open Space for Arts & Community and the AP Studio Art class of teacher Kristen Dallum at Vashon High School (VHS). In addition, Serko is collaborating with Voice of Vashon for an ongoing project to record and archive stories of islanders affected by AIDS or lost to the disease through the years.
“The idea that one person could make a difference: That’s what we’re truly trying to instill,” he said.
The festival will begin with a moderated panel and forum concentrating on social justice at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 29, in the VHS Theater, followed by a student art installation that will open at 6 p.m. Friday, Nov. 30, at VCA. A variety show tribute to Freddie Mercury will be held at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1, at the Open Space. Finally, Drama Dock will perform a reading of playwright and activist Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart,” directed by Charlotte Tiencken, at 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 2, at Open Space in the Black Box theater.
The AIDS crisis is remembered, if not for the ferocity of the disease, then for the lack of compassion for those who contracted it. That condition will be discussed on a broad scale as part of the opening forum, “Stonewall to Border Wall: AIDS Activism as a Model for Change in Uncertain Times.” The panelists were first-hand witnesses to the devastation wrought by AIDS in Seattle, in their own communities and internationally. It will be moderated by islander Stephen Silha, a former journalist and past president of the nonprofit AIDS Housing of Washington. Silha became president of AIDS Housing as it finished building the Bailey-Boushay House in 1992, the first hospice in the United States specifically for people with AIDS.
“Being part of the AIDS housing movement was really interesting for me because I realized it was really early intersectionality. We were aligning ourselves with a lot of social justice groups,” he said. “In a way, AIDS brought gay life out of the closet.”
Silha remembers the era well. For him, newly single at the time as an out gay man in his late 20s, there were new and unknown hazards and more friends who died every day. He recalled being part of early sensitivity training for the media, such as how to talk about AIDS and HIV positive people, experiences that others panelists with backgrounds in media and research will be able to relate. They will discuss how activism led to progress on several fronts, beginning with the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City that jump-started the modern gay rights movement. In addition, they will consider the marginalization and vilification of groups today, with attention to how AIDS changed the culture and how AIDS activism changed the world.
“My hope is that people will walk out of the forum with a sense of what they can increase and improve and enact in their own activism,” said Silha. “What can we learn about AIDS that can be used in today’s crazy climate? I hope we can surface from the panelists and from the audience some really useful ideas and actions that can happen.”
More than 38 million people now live with HIV/AIDS globally. Unforgotten by those who loved him, Victor “Randy” Kring, Seattle-based florist and the former owner of Blooms on Vashon in the shop that is now Herban Bloom, died of complications from AIDS in 2005. His sister, Marie Fiebig, still reckons with his loss.
“I miss him at Christmas. It’s bad. Super bad,” she said. After their parents’ divorce when they were teenagers, Fiebig said they supported each other through everything.
“We hated each other as kids,” she said. “Then we got very close. We were super close.”
She remembers Kring’s partner, Rustin Aston, who was a fixture in the family’s life, as well, before he died from AIDS in 2002. “Our Christmases and our birthdays were always pretty good. We were always at my mom’s house for Christmas Eve. We had the presents, and he and Ruston would come with prettily wrapped presents, and we had a really good time always,” she said.
Her brother, she remembers, had a phenomenal sense of humor and loved cars.
“His favorite thing to do was buy and sell cars. That was his thing,” she said. “After he had a car for about six months he would pick up the auto trader and start flipping through it. He had just all kinds of different cars.”
Kring’s beloved yellow Porsche is one inspiration behind the artwork being created by students of the AP Studio Art class at VHS. Their curation will showcase the biographies of Vashon residents who have died of AIDS while encapsulating their spirit and honoring them as part of the island’s history. Their artworks will be joined by the poetry of VHS English teacher John Ree’s students, who are using historical texts to represent themes and ideas of the era. The project is slated to be displayed at VCA throughout the month of December.
Kring and Aston, said Fiebig, frequently entertained guests in the house they shared together on Maury Island; Aston was a voracious reader who Fiebig said “was accustomed to being the smartest dude in the room.” They teased each other often. After Aston died, she said, Kring began to struggle with his treatments. They were both long-term survivors, but the disease had taken its toll. Kring’s final years were the most difficult.
“My mom and I slept in the hospital, we stayed in the hospital for 24 hours a day when he was sick. When we were not there we made sure someone was,” said Fiebig. “It’s an ugly, ugly way to die. It takes everything from you and then it kills you.” Dismayed, she said that generations have seemingly forgotten how horrendous and sinister AIDS is, now that more effective treatment and preventative medicine is available. But Kring and Aston are still gone.
“They had all of the new, cool stuff that everybody is thinking means everything’s OK now, but it didn’t work, did it?” She said.
For Fiebig, one thing has never changed. “He was still my brother.”
Activists gave an identity to a crisis that few chose to willingly recognize. Remembered by millions, it was the 1991 death of legendary Queen frontman Freddie Mercury that first catalyzed the urgency and devastation of the disease.
“Crazy Little Thing Called Love: A Musical Tribute to Freddie Mercury” will feature a number of performers, bands and dancers, as well as an exhibit of photos taken at demonstrations by islander Dana Schuerholz, a former AIDS activist and photojournalist who is now the owner of the Vashon Green School.
“It’s intended to be a fun, uplighting — with a few serious moments — kind of event,” said Serko.
Tickets will be available at the door and are available for purchase online. The proceeds will benefit regional AIDS causes.
“The Normal Heart,” a play written and produced in 1985, will take audiences back to where it all began. It chronicles the early progression of the AIDS epidemic in New York City as advocates attempted to break the deafening silence before more gay men died of the disease. Performers from Drama Dock will channel the fury and determination of activists belonging to groups such as Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP — the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power — founded to initiate a response from the medical community, lawmakers and the general public.
To Serko, that’s what the festival is all about.
“It’s just an example of people making a difference,” he said. “My hope is that it just inspires people to act in whatever issue they may be interested in, if it’s saving orcas in Puget Sound, to climate change, to the homeless, whatever it might be to take that next step if they haven’t already, to get involved and do something.”