Alumni project commemorates lives of AIDS victims

On Wednesday, Yale alumni officially launched the website of the Yale AIDS Memorial Project (YAMP) — a project dedicated to commemorating the lives of members of the Yale community who passed away from AIDS.

To celebrate the launch, YAMP organizers hosted a celebration at the Rockefeller Center in New York City, an event that featured a keynote address by University President Peter Salovey, as well as a non denominational prayer led by University Chaplain Sharon Kugler and a performance by Low Strung, Yale’s undergraduate all-cello rock ensemble. The project itself was founded in 2011 by Christopher Glazek ’07, who began the initiative after learning that hundreds of members of the Yale community had died from the AIDS crisis.

“I hope it will give surviving friends and family an opportunity to collectively mourn and to make the epidemic palpable for a younger generation,” Glazek said, adding that he envisioned the project as a way to “participate in the burgeoning AIDS memory boom [in a way] that wasn’t simply an essay or a book.”

YAMP’s website currently features 14 individual profiles of AIDS victims, complete with photographs, biographies and poignant personal stories from friends and families.

Richard Espinosa ’10 ART ’15, YAMP’s director, said he was immediately inspired by the project when Glazek first pitched it to him.

“I wanted to be part of a community that honored its dead in a way that disavows stigma or shame, to extend Yale’s all-encompassing memorializing impulse,” he said. “I wanted to make something beautiful, and I feel we did.”

The stories on the website were compiled by volunteers, most of whom are recent graduates. Ilana Seager ’12 said she was intrigued by the history of AIDS since her time at Yale. As an active YAMP staff volunteer, she said she enjoys listening to the intimate stories friends and family members of the deceased share — especially as many were successful in their careers but died in their 20s before they had a chance to make more of a mark.

William Schwalbe ’84 recalled losing several friends to AIDS. Schwalbe wrote a piece for the project in remembrance of John Wallace ’82, who passed away at the age of 29.

“In one sense, it’s history, and history is important — in another sense, I think that they were extraordinary people. It’s important that their lives and achievements are celebrated,” Schwalbe said.

James Perlotto ’78 said he was motivated to join the project because of his role as a doctor who cared for all of Yale’s HIV- and AIDS-affected students from 1988 to 2013. Perlotto added that in the ’80s, many doctors were unsure about or afraid of caring for AIDS patients.

“I hope YAMP has the power to remind [people] that we must not forget the lives that were lost to this terrible disease and how important it is to continue to work for equal rights for GLBTQ persons and persons with HIV,” he said.

Many young alumni attended the launch event, and Espinosa said he was especially excited by the “intergenerational conversation” that took place.

On campus, Yale community members said they are supportive and appreciative of the project’s goals. Yale professor George Chauncey ’77 GRD ’89, an advisor to the project since its early beginnings, said he was impressed by the commitment of the project’s organizers and volunteers as they embarked to memorialize a generation of people they never knew.

“It’s terrific that so many alumni and other supporters will come together to show their support towards [the project],” he said. He expressed hope that the project will heighten people’s awareness of the losses that the Yale community experienced from AIDS.

Hannah Krystal ’17 said she finds it important to spread awareness of the disease, as the AIDS victims suffered not just from the disease but also from the stigmatization around the disease, which caused many efforts to raise research money or general social awareness for AIDS to be suppressed.

YAMP will continue to add profiles and content to its website for the foreseeable future. Espinosa said he will work with his team to effectively use money raised from the event — tickets for which cost anywhere between $125 and $5,000 — toward the project’s mission.

Looking ahead, YAMP organizers said their goal is to build a network of volunteers to ensure the project’s continuity and to provide a model for other universities and institutions to establish their own memorial projects.

Organizers and volunteers also noted that AIDS is still very much an existing issue.

“I hope that people will realize that this is happening now,” Schwalbe said. “There’s still a lot that needs to be done to remember the people who need to be memorialized.”

Espinosa added that he is excited about the launch of the site not because it marks a finish line or accomplishment but because it signifies a new beginning.

The event was co-sponsored by Yale alumni associations, including the Yale LGBT Alumni Association and Yale Alumni Association of New York.

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