Courtesy of Patrick Dunn

Dec. 1 marked the 32nd Annual World AIDS Day. The New Haven Pride Center, in collaboration with the New Haven Mayor’s Task Force on AIDS and the Guardian Health Association, observed the occasion over four days of programming. 

The organizations assembled to present virtual events between Nov. 30 and Dec. 3. The events were streamed live from the New Haven Pride Center’s social media accounts and made more permanently available on the center’s YouTube channel. The programming included a series of panels and discussions with local HIV/AIDS activists and educators, a virtual art installation and documentary screening and the fifth annual presentation of the Elsie Cofield HIV/AIDS Awareness Awards.

“Art, culture and humanities programming are in the DNA of the center and how we do our work,” said Patrick Dunn, executive director of the New Haven Pride Center. “The principle on which we operate is that we work to serve the mind, body and soul and the soul is arts, culture and humanities. It’s about looking at service and, as a service organization, how to create a holistic experience for people.” 

Established in 1986, the Mayor’s Task Force on AIDS is an advisory body to Mayor Justin Elicker focused on advocacy for HIV awareness, education and care in New Haven.

Task force co-chair Alexander Garbera is a long-term survivor of AIDS himself. He told the News that his involvement in the task force allowed him to give back to the New Haven community and cultivate a sense of purpose in his life.

“The task force tirelessly advocates for HIV prevention efforts throughout the region by promoting HIV/AIDS public policy on all levels of government and providing educational opportunities to our Community Management Teams,” Garbera told the News in an interview.

The New Haven Pride Center began discussing their observation of World AIDS Day in November 2019. Dunn said they were originally planning a large-scale arts program, culminating in a live concert that would feature music commissioned from different composers. Dunn and other organizers started rethinking the concept between March and April, when it became clear that the COVID-19 pandemic would prevent the programming from including live events.

Organizers decided to center the programming around the virtual premiere of “Night Sweats,” a multimedia performance commissioned in honor of World AIDS Day. Based on a poem of the same name written by Garbera in 1991, “Night Sweats” featured music composed by Noah Michael Smith, who acted as the program’s artistic director. The piece also incorporated video projection and included a dance performance from Arien Wilkerson.

“This was a very intense piece, from a very intense time to wake people up to the critical juncture we are at right now,” Garbera said. “We also helped to inspire other HIV artists to express themselves and fight the stigma that still exists. It was important to have a day about HIV be represented by people living with HIV.”

Named for Elsie Cofield, who founded the AIDS Interfaith Network in New Haven in 1987, the Elsie Cofield awards are given by the task force to local individuals who have done meaningful work in HIV care or advocacy. Organizers gave out these awards during the last event of the World AIDS Day programming.

This year, the award was given to Sharon Joslin, Kelly Moore and Nadine Ruff.

“As a nurse practitioner, I can see the difference with people when you care for them,” said Joslin, who received the award for her work as the clinical director of the Yale School of Medicine’s Community Health Care Van and as part of the Mayor’s Task Force on AIDS. “The award is representing Elsie Cofield, who was the visionary and caring force to give us the direction to make sure that patients with HIV feel like humans who deserve to be cared for.”

The deputy director of AIDS Connecticut, Shawn Lang, said that the population with the most new HIV infections in Connecticut had shifted during the 1980s, from “men who have sex with men” to “people who inject drugs.”

However, since the introduction of syringe services programs in Connecticut over the past few decades — initiatives that distribute free clean syringes — Lang said that men who have sex with men are now once again the most vulnerable population to HIV infection.

“If you talk to folks on the frontlines who are doing HIV testing, and if you look at the national data as well as our data, [the primary source of new infections are] younger men who have sex with men, primarily Black and Latino kids.”

These developments, as well as increased funding from city government, have prompted local HIV/AIDS activists to change aspects of their approach to conducting outreach.

According to Karina Danvers, who has been an advocate for AIDS awareness in New Haven since 1989, the early days of the movement were characterized by “tons of heart and hardly any money.”

“I’m an old-timer, so of course we think that when we did it it was better. I’m not saying it was, but it felt like we were more available to the really vulnerable people,” Danvers said. “Now, we’re asking really vulnerable people to walk into doors, into clinics, into buildings.”

The majority of the World AIDS Day events, as well as the premiere of “Night Sweats,” will be made available on the New Haven Pride Center’s YouTube account.

Lucy Hodgman | lucy.hodgman@yale.edu