The heartbreaking beauty of San Francisco’s National AIDS Memorial Grove

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House Speaker Pelosi, SF Mayor London Breed, Congresswoman Barbara Lee and Chief Executive John Cunningham lay wreath at National AIDS Memorial on 40th Anniversary of AIDS
House Speaker Pelosi, SF Mayor London Breed, Congresswoman Barbara Lee and Chief Executive John Cunningham lay wreath at National AIDS Memorial on 40th Anniversary of AIDS (Photo: National AIDS Memorial)

If you ever find yourself in San Francisco, seek out the National AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park.

It was conceived in 1989 when the city was in the grip of the AIDS epidemic. Its aim is to provide a healing sanctuary for those impacted by HIV and the loss of loved ones. It remains a beautifully tended woodland grotto to explore and a place of quiet contemplation.

As you find yourself walking beneath the fronds of giant ferns, you’ll spot the many rocks engraved with the names of those lost to AIDS. A ‘Circle of Friends’, formed from Minnesota flagstone, is engraved with no less than 2,500 names. It’s impossible not to be moved by what the Grove, and its individual memorials, represent.

An engraved rock at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco
An engraved rock at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco

This past Saturday (June 5), the Grove played host to a special commemorative event. It was to mark the 40th anniversary of the first CDC report concerning gay men dying from a mysterious new illness. This disease turned out to be AIDS.

Related: This is how the world first learned about AIDS 40 years ago today

Since that time, more than 700,000 people have died of HIV-related illnesses in the US, while around 1.2million are believed to have the virus today (and 38million worldwide).

At Saturday’s event, leaders in the AIDS movement joined lawmakers in remembering those lives lost. Among them was speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said, “On this solemn day, 40 years since the discovery of HIV/AIDS, Americans pay tribute to the hundreds of thousands of Americans we have lost to this vicious disease and draw strength from the more than one million courageous survivors living with HIV today.

“Moved by the beauty of the Grove and power of the Quilt, this morning we again renewed our vow to finally defeat the scourge of AIDS and bring hope and healing to all those affected.”

Related: Something amazing is happening in Utah this Pride Month

The National AIDS Memorial Grove happens to lie on Nancy Pelosi Drive. The Golden Gate Park road was renamed after the Congresswoman back in 2012, to mark her then 25 years in Congress.

Pelosi joined Congresswoman Barbara Lee, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, and former U.S. Ambassador James Hormel, in laying a wreath.


Also delivering a video message during a live stream of the event online was California Governor Gavin Newsom.

“Forty years later we stand on the shoulders of trailblazers who understood that every person deserves empathy and care regardless of their health conditions or sexuality,” said Newsom.


Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also appeared via video, introducing a tribute to long-term survivors.

Fauci, who has been involved with HIV research since the start of the epidemic, said, “the accomplishments (over the past 40 years) are a direct result of the unique, long-standing partnerships that were forged and continue today between scientists, healthcare providers, industry and the HIV-affected community. The HIV/AIDS pandemic is not over. Ending the HIV pandemic is an achievable goal, one that will require that we collectively work together.”

A visitor strolls through the National AIDS Memorial where 40 Quilt blocks were on display symbolic of four decades of the AIDS pandemic
A visitor strolls through the National AIDS Memorial where 40 Quilt blocks were on display symbolic of four decades of the AIDS pandemic (Photo: The National AIDS Memorial)

To mark the 40th anniversary, 40 blocks from the AIDS Quilt were displayed in the park. Members of the public read out the names of people lost to AIDS, while musical tributes were paid by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus and Messengers of Hope Gospel Choir.

 

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Related: Harvey Milk Day and San Francisco’s monuments to an LGBTQ icon

Saturday’s 40th anniversary of the CDC report was marked by many health experts and politicians. President Joe Biden tweeted, “On the 40th year of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, we remember the lives cut short by this terrible disease and celebrate the resilience and dignity of those living with HIV. Let’s continue to eradicate the stigma faced by too many – and work to end this epidemic once and for all.”

If you can’t get to the National AIDS Memorial Grove, you can check out the National AIDS Memorial’s online virtual exhibition of the AIDS Quilt.

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