AIDS candlelight vigil
AIDS candlelight vigil in Melbourne

Candles flickered away putting a mesmerizing trance on the participants from all walks of life at the very sombre AIDS candlelight vigil held at Melbourne’s Federation Square

It’s an annual tradition before every International AIDS Conference. This year the ceremony not only honoured the 35 million who passed from this disease –but also for all the victims of both Malaysia flights –including the world’s top AIDS crusaders.

People were invited to name loved ones or friends they had lost before a moment of silence.

Mr Richard Taki, of the support group “Living Positive Victoria,” who lead the ceremony spoke these words after recognizing the lost AIDS researchers:

“At this incredibly sad and sensitive time, we stand with our international family and send condolences to the loved ones of those who have been lost in this tragedy,” he said.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott put into his own words a personal message he entered into an Official Condolence Book:

“Australians mourn the loss of Flight MH17. There were 298 people on this aircraft — and their deaths offend our sense of justice,” the PM wrote, describing the loss as “unimaginable.”  “We grieve for all, but particularly for the 37 men, women and children who called Australia home.”

The Prime Minister continued–“Our hearts go out to all their families. We will support them through the difficult times ahead. In the coming weeks, Australians will stand with the families, friends, neighbours and colleagues who have lost people they cherish. Twenty-three million Australians share the sadness of those who mourn.”

The public “Condolence Book” will be placed in the public space of the Marble Foyer of Parliament House. A memorial service coincided with a national day of mourning.

Australia also declared a “National Day of Mourning” for Malaysia flight MH17 on August 7 as a multi-faith ceremony that was being held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne.

Diplomats offered condolences from all over the world, and many flew in to offer support like US former president Bill Clinton who said– “The loss of our colleagues and more than 290 others in what appears to have been a deliberate act is a stark reflection on the negative forces of our interdependence.”

I will say, God, will definitely have some explaining to do when I pass on. Especially when I ask WHY do we have terrible diseases or endless wars where we brutally harm and kill one another? And why–oh why– do innocent people have to die in such senseless deaths like in both of the Malaysia plane tragedies?

There have been no conclusions as to how, why or exactly where in the Indian Ocean the first Malaysia plane flight MH370, killing 239 people, had crashed at this time. But we do know the second Malaysia flight MH17 that lost 298 innocent civilians (travelling from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur en route to Melbourne, Australia) was callously blasted out of the sky over the Eastern Ukraine from what is believed to be a missile shot by pro-Russian rebels. It appears, as of now, that none of the passengers on board had anything to do with this conflict.

It was first speculated that over 100 of the top AIDS researchers had perished –but it was later corrected to be around 6 at this time until further investigation. Currently, the investigation is being halted because of the continued fighting in that area. Our hearts go out to the family and friends of ALL the victims of both Malaysian planes for their tremendous loss.

Dr. Joep Lange
Dr Joep Lange

With many of the victims being from all different countries– the Netherlands was hit particularly hard with losing close to 200 of their innocent citizens on the downed MH17 flight. One of those victims was a highly respected, Dutch AIDS researcher Dr Joep Lange, 59, who was en route to the world’s largest AIDS conference, held this year in Melbourne, Australia.

Dr Lange was the head of global health at the Academic Medical Center of the University of Amsterdam. He was heralded as one of the most influential AIDS activists who fought tirelessly against the disease for over 30 years.

‘‘He was a kind man and a true humanitarian…how do we measure how much a person has done for humanity? People like Joep change the course of epidemics’’ says dear friend and colleague US medical professor Seema Yasmin.

Dr Lange’s hard work in the early nineties helped to convince sceptical Pharmaceutical companies to do many trials using the combination drugs: nevirapine, didanosine and zidovudine –which proved to be more effective than taking just one, single drug. The results proved overwhelmingly successful.

“If it wasn’t for Joep, that study wouldn’t have been done,” Cooper said. “It wasn’t that he was the only voice, but he was the most persuasive, and that persuasion probably saved millions of lives.”

Another good friend and colleague Craig McClure (appointed Executive Director of the International Aids Society in 2004 by Lange) said this of his dear friend Dr Lange:

“His contribution there in the early years was phenomenal…he was really a giant in HIV research… and was also very involved in the early years of work on prevention of mother-to-child transmission, and the role antiretrovirals play there, and pediatric treatment. With the same passion, caring, and love that we have always drawn upon to adjust to this epidemic, we will adjust to the challenges of managing the loss of the people on that flight. But he didn’t stop there and added–“Lange would have continued to play a major role in going ‘that final mile’ to end the epidemic in the next decade or so.”

Dr. Lange’s love and partner against the AIDS global fight, Ms Jacqueline van Tongerenr, also perished on that flight–and was another dedicated humanitarian who worked so hard for the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development to get cheap antivirals to poor countries.

The precious lives of four other dedicated AIDS activists were lost as well– Pim de Kuijer, an AIDS campaigner, and Martine de Schutter, a program manager who both worked for Stop Aids Now!, Lucie van Mens, who was the director of support for the Female Health Company; and Glenn Thomas, a former BBC journalist and was a spokesman working for the World Health Organization.

They were part of the most intelligent, gifted–and generous pioneers who both researched and advocated for the AIDS crisis at all corners of the globe. Their dedication and tireless research did indeed result in saving millions and millions of lives. Their contributions to the AIDS crisis could never be truly measured and will forever be etched into the incredibly admirable, brilliant and selfless legacies they left behind.

I think it’s also important that these advocates be recognized for how hard they fought against such negative opinions and prejudices, hardened conservative politics –and the numerous bigots that deemed AIDS to be the “gay disease” back in the very beginning.

These tough crusaders pushed past the ignorance and fought purely for HUMANITY– paying no mind to the useless, cruel labels and inhumane comments. Yes, they were not only AIDS activists–but true LGBT crusaders who fought for our communities rights, health, welfare, well being–but most importantly for our DIGNITY!

They stayed, fought and simply cared A LOT about us–when so many people and politicians were running far, far away.

On a more personal note, I lost my dear God Father to AIDS back in the mid-eighties before the anti-viral drugs were even imagined. Flash forward thirty years to this past weekend when I was at Fire Island, NY celebrating my wife’s birthday, and at the bar, we were chatting with a sweet, tall, dark and handsome man who looked the epitome of health with big, broad muscles and a wide incredible smile.

After speaking with him for a while and laughing it up he had mentioned in passing that he was HIV positive–and I thought at that moment about all those dedicated AIDS crusaders who had perished and realized that if it weren’t for all their hard work, this beautiful soul would not be standing in front of us smiling right now.

Unfortunately, so many of Fire island’s past occupants hadn’t been so lucky when AIDS struck like a tornado without warning during the eighties–swiftly taking away so many precious lives and leaving only a string of broken hearts in its wake.

My wife, who is only a few years older than I, remembers and speaks so fondly about her dear friends that passed from the disease. It’s always a little bittersweet visiting there since she really misses her old friends and tells me of all the good times they shared together right before AIDS hit. But we choose to celebrate their lives by remembering the good times.

AIDS was fierce–but we were finally beating this beast because of these amazing individuals–and many of these researchers and activists weren’t even a part of the LGBT community. They fought AIDS because they knew that we were ALL PART OF HUMANITY– regardless of who we were or who we LOVED! And they felt that NO ONE should have to die or suffer from this dreadful disease.

I truly believe that even though these AIDS activists precious lives were tragically cut short–the time they shared here was filled with such enormous pride, joy and satisfaction knowing of all the millions of lives they saved –and all the remarkable contributions they provided to the field of science and to eradicating AIDS. They were sincerely loved and respected both personally and professionally. I can only hope I would leave a fraction of the legacies these amazing individuals left behind.

The irony is that they may have died in such a senseless war between us humans–but they were the true soldiers who WON the many battles in the war against AIDS. We will always remember their dedication–but most of all, their beautiful and giving hearts. For they were the true Aids Guardian Angels on earth–and now up above. The world and especially the LGBT community will be FOREVER grateful.

My son just happened to ask me before he went to bed last night if Superheroes really existed–and I first said no–and then I quickly corrected myself and said “Yes, they do! They just can’t fly around on their own– but they can fly around in planes to help people from all around the world who really need them.”

I’m certain EVERY, a single person who perished on both Malaysian planes was a Superhero to someone they loved–just as those AIDS pioneers were Superheroes to their loved ones, the LGBT community and those who are living happy, healthy lives with AIDS today. All those innocent people and AIDS crusaders who passed just traded in their Superhero capes for Angel’s wings. May their beautiful spirits continue to soar!