December 1 was World AIDS Day and it was commemorated in Orlando FL is several ways. While many think of Orlando as just Disney, it is actually a thriving city, with a strong gay community, centered around a downtown Gay Center that serves Central Florida.
The night before World AIDS Day, a worship service was held at St. Luke’s Methodist Church, in the Dr. Phillips area of Orlando, with representatives of five different churches and denominations participating–Msgr. Williams Cavins of Holy Angels Catholic Community, Rev. Jennifer Stiles Williams of St. Luke’s Methodist, Pastor Brie Taylor of Oasis Fellowship Ministries, The Rev. Bryan Fulwider of the First Congregational Church of Winter Park and The Rev. Lisa Heilig of Joy MCC Church–along with Randy Stephens, the Executive Director of the Orlando GLBT Center and Diana La Rue of the Zebra Coalition.
The Orlando Gay Chorus (OGC) sang selections, including “Over the Rainbow” and “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” Then the OGC Quartet Spectrum sang “Tell My Father” and the full OGC Ensemble sang selections from “Rent.” The OGC has 80-plus members from the gay, straight bi and transgendered communities. Founded in 1990, with a mission and vision “to use music to change images and attitudes, build a stronger community and make the world a better place,” its members have performed every World AIDS Day since 1990, as well as at many concert locations. “Their musical artistry speaks directly to their pride in themselves and offers the world a chance to see beyond headlines and contentious social issues to build bridges of love and understanding.”
It was a very moving evening. Quilt panels for departed members of the Orlando Community hung behind the altar, and one commemorated departed members of the Orlando Gay Chorus. Audience members, as well as participants in the performance, were invited to write the names of their own friends and family, lost to AIDS, on strips of white cloth and then tie them to an art piece of purple and white, with the red AIDS ribbon in the middle, all in a panel the size of a quilt piece, which of course is the size of a coffin. There were tears in the eyes of so many, including this reporter, as we tied our memories of friends long gone to the quilt. Then we were asked to write the names of those we knew, living with AIDS, on purple strips of cloth, and again we stood in a silent line and tied those ribbons to the art piece, which would then go to the LGBT Center to be displayed.
The next evening, on World AIDS Day itself, we again gathered at the Central Orlando Gay Center on Mills Avenue in Orlando for the reading of the names. We were joined by the Orlando Sisters, www.orlandosisters.org, an organization that goes in drag as nuns and passes out free condoms. According to their website, they are “The Orlando Sisters, Inc.—an official mission of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. We are an order of Post-modern nuns, dedicated to spreading joy, banishing guilt, and helping our community.”
Since 1979, The Sisters worldwide have been helping their communities in many ways. A member told me, “Sometimes we hold unique, fun events to raise money for important charities. At other times, we are out at nightclubs, handing our condoms to anyone who wants one. Sometimes, we even simply will go out to raise peoples' spirits—and EYEBROWS!”
Whatever they do, you can be sure the Orlando Sisters continue to be one of the most colorful, strange, and fun organizations to hit the City Beautiful!
AIDS: it is a never ending tapestry of tears and hopes, living and dying, with a web between those who are still fighting against it … whether through having the infection or working to eradicate it from the world.