Even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a small group of islanders is planning a commemoration of another global health crisis that started almost 40 years ago and still has not stopped.
The third annual Vashon World AIDS Day, organized by Peter Serko, Chris Boscia, Cate O’Kane and others in partnership with VashonLive, will take place at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12, on facebook.com/vashonlive.
Due to restrictions resulting from the recent spike in COVID-19 cases on Vashon and beyond, some of Saturday night’s program will be pre-recorded, but it will also contain a few small, carefully constructed and socially-distant live elements presented from VashonLive’s new winter home at Open Space for Arts & Community.
Performers and speakers will include Serko, Boscia, O’Kane and other surprise guests. The evening will include music, scenes from plays, a short documentary film made by Serko, “Footnote,” and a panel discussion led by VashonLive’s Bonny Moss.
Billed as a “tribute to those on the frontlines both past and present,” the night is focused on inspirational stories of activism and courage that have defined the trajectory of the AIDS crisis, and even now serve to inform the public about the present plague of COVD-19.
“Even before we fully understood HIV, people stepped up to help those in dire need,” said Serko. “That is still happening all over the world in 2020. And of course, with COVID, we have people on the frontlines in our own community — at Thriftway, post office, restaurants, the Medical Reserve Corps, and others.”
Serko, a transmedia artist who works in photography, playwriting and film, is the guiding force behind Vashon’s World AIDS Day programs that have taken place since 2018.
Past observances, detailed at vashonworldaidsday.org, have included concerts, exhibits, performances of plays and community forums. In previous years, Vashon World AIDs Day also had a strong educational component, with programs aimed at high school and middle-school students.
Among these was a photography exhibit in Vashon High School’s library, “This is What Activism Looks Like,” by islander Dana Schuerholz, who documented protests against government inaction on AIDS led by gay activists in the 1980s.
Another art education effort, the “Lost to AIDS” project, was led by Vashon High School teacher Kristen Dallum and resulted in a tile “quilt” created by Dallum’s students that memorializes Vashon residents who died of AIDS.
The tiles now hang at Vashon Heritage Museum, in an outdoor area — still accessible in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Serko knows the tremendous loss of AIDS in a deeply personal way.
His brother, David, died of complications of the disease in 1992, and since 2012, Serko has told the story of David’s life and death through The David Serko Project (davidserko.com). The project has resulted in plays, a film, and an interactive website that not only memorializes David’s life but those of an entire generation lost to AIDS.
But in continuing to mark Vashon World AIDS Day, Serko and his collaborators emphasize that the toll of AIDS is far from over.
A cure for the disease has still not been found. In 2019, more than 38 million people worldwide were living with HIV, and almost 700,000 died from AIDS-related illnesses, according to the United Nations.
Islander Cate O’Kane’s participation in Vashon’s AIDS Day program is motivated by her firsthand knowledge of the ravages of AIDS in Africa, as well as the progress that has been made in treating the disease there.
O’Kane, who before moving to Vashon worked in Botswana with a global nonprofit health organization, has devised partnerships with McMurray Middle School to raise awareness among students there about gender equality and HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. Young women in that region are twice as likely to be infected with HIV than young men.
“In places like southern Africa it is impossible not to see the impact of this disease on individuals and communities — orphans being raised by grandmothers, generations missing from the streets, hard decisions being made every day,” O’Kane said. “As each World AIDS Day commemoration comes round, I am encouraged by the innovations that are changing the lives of those who live with HIV.”
Among these innovations, O’Kane said, are new self-testing protocols to ensure greater access and knowledge to an individual’s status, and work to eliminate mother to child transmission, ensuring that mothers can have security during their pregnancy and not pass HIV onto their child. Other innovations are microbicides that allow women more agency to protect themselves from transmission through sexual assault, and recently, a fruit-tasting HIV medicine to help treatment adherence for young kids.
Another member of the Vashon World AIDS Day team, Chris Boscia, brings a different perspective and distinctly theatrical flair to his work with Serko and O’Kane.
For Vashon World AIDS Day 2018, Boscia performed in a staged reading of the play, “The Normal Heart,” a largely autobiographical play by AIDS activist Larry Kramer. In 2019, he directed a production of Peter Serko’s play, “Out!” that also delved into the darkest early days of the AIDS epidemic.
Boscia, who came of age in New York City as AIDS decimated that city’s theater community, said his own activism has been continually inspired by the leading lights of the HIV/AIDS protest movement in the 1980s and 9os.
It was a time when activists were provoked to rise up to confront both bigotry and government inaction, as president Ronald Reagan failed to even utter the word “AIDS” until five long years into the epidemic.
Boscia went to college with Spencer Cox, who became involved in ACT UP New York and the Treatment Action Group. Cox, who did not have a background in science, is credited with helping to facilitate the production of protease inhibitor drugs, which helped turn AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable chronic health condition for millions.
Cox died in 2012. It is in his memory, and those of others like him, that Boscia still acts up to advocate for a cure for HIV/AIDS.
“The numbers are just outrageous and it’s very hard to find anybody who hasn’t been touched by this disease in one way or another,” Boscia said. “Yes, we had to live through it back in the 80s, but people are still living through it.”
Tune into the Vashon World AIDS Day program at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12, on facebook.com/vashonlive. The event is free, though donations can be made to VashonLive to support the organization’s work to bring art, activism and community to the island through virtual events.
For more information on Vashon World AIDS Day, visit vashonworldaidsday.org. The website also contains numerous resources for students, teachers and parents, an interactive timeline of the AIDS crisis, and a section detailing facts about HIV/AIDS and current case numbers.