INTERVIEW WITH RICHARD BURNS, NYC AIDS MEMORIAL BOARD MEMBER
Tell us about your earliest memories of AIDS in NYC.
I was in law school in the early 1980’s in Boston when AIDS began to devastate our community. A few years later I became the executive director of the LGBT Community Center in New York, a job I started on December 1, 1986, when the city was already living in a nightmare of sickness and dying. The Center was ground zero for community organizing and the development of services. The Community Health Project (CHP), the precursor to Callen-Lorde, was on the second floor. Body Positive followed shortly thereafter. The People With AIDS Coalition (PWAC) held meetings and events there. God’s Love We Deliver used the lobby as a distribution point for meals. Members of our staff, volunteers and board were getting sick and dying. At the time it felt like we were living in a war.
In March of 1987, we invited Larry Kramer to speak at the Center, and he gave the talk and call to action that resulted in the formation of ACT UP, which itself gave birth to Housing Works and Treatment Action Group. I remember the Memorial Day Weekend in 1989 when Keith Haring painted the mural in what’s now called the Keith Haring Bathroom on the second floor of the Center. He called it “Once Upon A Time.” It’s his vision of life before AIDS; he died not long after, in 1990.
In the early 90’s a group of us were arrested at the White House on World AIDS Day to protest the lack of response to the epidemic by the Bush administration. I shared a cell with Kevin Cathcart and the late Tom Stoddard. Urvashi Vaid was locked up across the hall. I remember wondering if this would ever end.
How did you get involved with the Memorial?
In 2011, Bill Hibsher asked me to sit down with Chris and Paul, the two young founders. I connected them to some community leaders, some of whom joined the board that we created, as I did.
What do you think is or could be the role of the Memorial once it’s built?
The mission and the beauty of the NYC AIDS Memorial has many possibilities.
One, the Memorial will provide a much-needed public space to remember and honor all the people we lost; over 100,000 New Yorkers have died in past 30 years. I lost so many friends and colleagues. New York needs a memorial, and personally I need a memorial to acknowledge all this loss, people who died so young.
Two, the Memorial will honor the caregivers, activists and survivors, who created an AIDS activist movement that has had a tremendous impact on health care in this country. There was so much rage and anger at the government and a society that saw gay men’s lives as expendable, that if we died, so what? The Memorial will be a monument to that anger and to the collective action and demand that government do the right thing in scary times, in times of crisis.
Three, the Memorial will have an educational component that will reach current and future generations. This history and experience can be used to address contemporary, evolving human rights issues, like the refugee crisis in Syria, discriminatory policing, and the infringement of reproductive freedom. Without this communal reflection, history will keep repeating itself. The Memorial can be a beacon for this, a call to action that is bigger than the AIDS epidemic. It will be a reminder of all the kinds of activism that we must undertake again and again.
Who will you be remembering at the Memorial?
I’ll be remembering the first president of the Center, Irving Cooperberg, and Stephen Powsner, and Paul Kaplan, Gregory Kolovakos, Frank Guerrero, Norman White, Paul Rapoport and Mark Krasnow, all leaders of the Center’s board. They were good friends, I think about them often, and I miss them still.