Every spring, tens of thousands of people from all walks of life, from across the country and around the world, gather together in Central Park, New York City, and participate in the AIDS Walk New York event, to help end the pandemic. The event might resonate with the music and lyrics of the song “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” performed each year at the opening ceremony, usually by a Broadway actor; or perhaps it brings back the memory of AIDS Walks from bygone years, or faces printed on the AIDS Quilt panels or on walkers’ t-shirts, in memory of loved ones lost to the pandemic.
Founded by Craig Miller and organized by the Gay Men Health Crisis, AIDS Walk New York is nowadays the largest walkathon and fundraising event in the world. While primarily benefiting GMHC, it also shares its proceeds with other HIV and AIDS service organizations.
The first AIDS Walk New York took place in 1986, in response to the “anguish” that many gay men living in the city felt, as they were “besieged,” confined to their homes by then a new and deadly virus. The first event brought together six thousand participants. They completed the route, which, at the time, started and ended at Lincoln Center, and raised more than $700,000 in the process. Entertainers and (then) New York City Mayor, Ed Koch, were present at the event. Singer-songwriter and AIDS activist Michael Callen introduced the song, “Love Don’t Need a Reason,” which he continued to perform at AIDS Walk events until 1994, when he died from complications of AIDS.
Over the years, AIDS Walk New York has attracted more and more people—ordinary people, activists, artists, politicians, and celebrities, alike. Some of the VIPs who have been spotted at the opening ceremony include Harvey Feinstein, Whoopi Goldberg, Alan Cumming [A&U, May 2018], Cindy Lauper, Naomi Watts, T.R. Knight, B.D. Wang, Ted Allen [A&U, July 2020], and also Tyne Daly and the late Terrence McNally, [A&U, May 2014]; as well as politicians like the former New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio; also AWNY founder Craig Miller; and many others.
In 1987, the number of participants and the money that they raised doubled, and then have continued to increase, year after year. For example, in 1992, despite the rain, the event brought in some twenty thousand participants. In 1998, thirty-eight thousand walkers helped raise four million dollars. By 2000, AIDS Walk New York began to gather an average of thirty thousand participants and raise around four million dollars, each year.
In 2020, when the recent, coronavirus, pandemic brought the city and the world to a halt, GMHC “showed that responding to a new ‘Health Crisis’ was not only a matter of past heroism, but also of current capability and urgency.” Hence, the organization helped deliver meals and helped those who were isolated, quarantining in their homes. At the same time, the AIDS Walk New York went virtual and became a bi-coastal, star-studded online event. Last year, the second year of the coronavirus pandemic, AIDS Walk New York 2021 took place online, and “Live at Home.”
This year, on May 15, walkers have the chance to again meet in person, in Central Park, rain or shine. They have a chance to “walk on” together to “End AIDS. Live Life. Make AIDS History.”
To learn more, connect online at ny.aidswalk.net.
Alina Oswald is Managing Editor of A&U. She is a writer, photographer, and educator based in the New York City area. She’s also the new Arts Editor of Out IN Jersey Magazine. Contact her online at alinaoswald.com.