Margie M. Palmer | Contributor
Fundraising for proposed San Diego AIDS Memorial to kick off with benefit concert
AIDS memorials have been established in cities throughout the world since the start of the epidemic; San Diego will soon have one of its own.
The kick-off fundraiser will take place on March 26 at the MG Multi-use Space, located at 3090 Polk Avenue in North Park. The concert will feature well-known lesbian comedian Suzanne Westenhoefer, the famed Cher impersonator and winner of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” Chad Michaels, the San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus (SDGMC) and there will be a special performance by the Heartbeat Music Academy’s Thunder Drumline. The event will run from 7 — 10 p.m.
It’s been four years since Westenhoefer last set foot on a San Diego stage and she’s looking forward to doing it for this cause.
“I love San Diego,” Westenhoefer said. “I actually am trying to do shows everywhere that have a ‘purpose,’ and the AIDS memorial is a natural fit for me. I started standup in 1990 in NYC and it was all we talked about. Now I’m concerned people think it’s ‘cured’ and that’s scary.”
SDGMC is sending a contingent of about 30 singers to support the event and Artistic Director RC Haus said the memorial project is near and dear to their hearts.
“Every single one of us has been touched by AIDS,” Haus said. “It wasn’t that long ago that our chorus was not only singing at multiple memorials, but we were saying goodbye to our very own members. It was a difficult and tragic time.
“Our chorus is extremely honored to be a part of this benefit and hope it helps bring our entire community together for healing, remembrance and hope,” he said.
The Memorial will be a place of remembrance and reflection, according to members of the AIDS Memorial Task Force, and it will be funded entirely through private contributions.
Task force co-chair and local LGBT activist Nicole Murray-Ramirez said he has long wondered why our city is without one.
“I do a lot of traveling and whenever I visit a new city I like to visit the places and landmarks they are famous for,” he said. “I’ll look to see if they have an LGBT Community Center or an [LGBT] archives — in many of these cities I’m asked if I’d like to see their AIDS memorial. They are often simple and beautiful and I started to ask myself why San Diego doesn’t have one.
“Approximately 8,000 people have died in San Diego County since the epidemic began and one new person gets diagnosed every day, which is why I thought this project was long overdue.”
Mayor Kevin Faulconer was very receptive and supportive of the idea, Murray-Ramirez said, and his wife, Katherine Stewart, agreed to co-chair the task force alongside him.
Stewart said she was surprised to learn America’s Finest City didn’t already have a memorial in place.
“I was on board with this immediately,” she said. “Nicole is such a driver of the community and I was honored to be asked to help create a place where all San Diegans who have been impacted by AIDS can reflect and spend time. We want this to be a space where people can relax and go to for birthdays or other special occasions to remember a loved one; somewhere that is outdoors and peaceful.”
The exact location has not yet been finalized, she said, but the goal is to raise $250,000 and to have an official unveiling in 2016.
San Diego AIDS Walk founder Susan Jester said she too, was quick to get involved. In addition to joining the task force she has agreed to co-produce the event with local HIV/AIDS nonprofit Being Alive San Diego.
“Nicole and I felt that some of the unfinished business surrounding HIV/AIDS was not just in finding a cure, but going back and remembering the history of what the experience of having HIV was like 30 years ago,” she said. “There was so much discrimination and bigotry; there was so much hate and fear surrounding the disease that many people were rejected by their families after they were diagnosed.”
Jester said that even when funeral homes would agree to cremate or prepare those who had died from the disease for burial, many families refused to pick up the remains.
“For me personally, going into the sunset part of my career I want to see a memorial happen,” she said, noting the first steps involved are finding a way to raise public awareness and to raise money. “We were looking for the right event to make something like this happen and we wanted to do something that reached out to the larger community, and music is a universal language.”
Jester and other members of the task force are hopeful the concert will raise $30,000.
“This is the perfect time to do such a great thing for our community,” she said. “Not only will this memorial allow us to honor the lives of the 8,000 [local] people who have died from this disease, it will remind us going forward to not let disease or people with a disease be stigmatized.”
The fact that Westenhoefer’s performance may be tied to the San Diego memorial forever is not lost on her.
“We will make your life count, that’s our commitment to you,” she said, speaking to those whose lives will be remembered by the memorial.
The AIDS Memorial Concert is a black tie event and includes a hosted bar, tray passed hors d’oeuvres and a silent auction. General admission tickets are $55, prime general admission (first four rows) $65 and VIP tickets $125 are available. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the SDAIDSMemorial page on Facebook.
Editor’s Note: As of March 7, the “black tie” requirement has been dropped by the organizers. Attendees may now attend in casual attire. Prices have also been adjusted: VIP still $125, floor seats will be $42 and standing room only (on sides and at exterior bar areas) will be $20.
—Margie Palmer is a San Diego-based freelance writer who has been racking up bylines in a myriad of news publications for the past 10 years. You can write to her at email@example.com.
—Editor Morgan M. Hurley contributed to this report.