In-person gathering at The Grove in San Francisco for World AIDS Day

On Wednesday's World Aids Day observers were able to gather in-person for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Around the globe they joined together to remember those who have died of AIDS and to show support for those living with HIV.

"We're all in it together, and we need to each do our part to help others and protect others as well as ourselves," said Bradley Heinz, at the National Aids Memorial in San Francisco

Taking anti-viral medication, Heinz has been living with HIV for 20 years.

He is disappointed that the coronavirus pandemic has become so political, as the AIDS epidemic was in the 1980s and 90s.

"We really need to learn the lessons of the past," said Heinz, as he stood in the Grove's Circle of Friends, where the names of those lost are engraved.

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The natural setting was artfully decorated with light globes and candles.

People mingled among the memorial benches and stones, and stepped to a microphone to read the names of those lost recently to AIDS.

"People are still dying, I had a friend die a few months ago, it's not as many, and it's not as fast, but it's happening," said Gert McMullin, co-founder of the iconic AIDS quilt, that has become part of the National Memorial.

The massive quilt still adds a panel each week honoring a new victim, said McMullin.

"Look how quick they found a vaccine for COVID, but in 35 years, none for AIDS and here we are," said McMullin. "When I got my COVID shot, I cried thinking if they had done that for my friends they wouldn't all be dead."

Since the first AIDS cases emerged in the U.S. in 1981, some 700,000 people have died.

COVID deaths surpassed that toll in less than two years.

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"With COVID and AIDS, hundreds of thousands of lives were lost needlessly because a government chose not to respond," said John Cunningham, CEO of the National Aids Memorial. "And both times, people had prejudice and stigma against certain segments of the population."

Cunningham likens hostility directed at the AAPI community over COVID, to the blaming of the LGBTQ community for AIDS.

"But this Grove is a space that will always tell the whole story and the honest story," he noted.

The Memorial is now 30 years old, spearheaded by San Francisco Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi.

Wednesday evening her daughter Christine and granddaughter Bella walked the paths and studied the names.

"The grove is really a place to say 'let's get it right," said Christine, who was a young volunteer who later became a Grove Board member. 

She thinks of it as a place of healing and reckoning, for people to find solace their own towns might not offer. 

"For people never acknowledged as gay, never treated like their death mattered, those families could come here, sometimes years later, and give their loved one the proper send-off and respect they deserved, and that was really powerful," said Pelosi.  

In welcoming people back to an in-person event, organizers enlarged the walking space and dispensed with a tent, to keep everything open-air.

And on an exceptionally mild winter night, people were able to stroll comfortably and enjoy nature, beautifully illuminated.

"It's a metaphor for our lives, we go through light times, we go through dark times," said Cunningham. "But we persevere, and we're resilient, and we're stronger when we're together."