From All Walks of Life

Twenty-six years ago this month, as a junior in high school in northeast Philadelphia, I saw a sign — not otherworldly or from God, but a billboard, advertising the Philadelphia AIDS Walk. At that point in my sheltered life I did not know what acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) was, I did not know anyone living with AIDS, I did not know any lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) folx, and I did not understand that my affinity for women meant that I was gay. All I knew was that sign, which I saw almost everyday walking to work, was like a beacon that was drawing me to a community I didn’t even know existed, with no explanation as to why.

So on an early, chilly, fall morning in October in 1994, my sister and I — along with a number of our family and friends — participated in our first AIDS Walk at the base of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in downtown Philadelphia, along with over 30,000 others from around the region. To say that experience changed my life, and the life of my twin sister, who also had not yet come out, would be an understatement of immense proportion. Everything we do today, the people we are, is because of that one moment in time.

I have written about this before, but in short, my sister and I had a tough adolescence, were bullied relentlessly in our catholic grade school. We were outcasts not just because we were twins but because we were different, we were tomboys, and we were also, as time would tell, both gay…but we didn’t know that then, not really. I had known since I was very little that I preferred women to men, but as a sheltered kid in northeast Philly, I didn’t know what that meant on a sexual preference and identity level, but clearly my cells did.

On that October morning at our first AIDS Walk, I looked around and saw tens of thousands of people just like us — people of every different race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual preference, identity, and ability, all there for one reason, to help people living with HIV and AIDS. Even now, I can close my eyes and be transported back there.

From that day on I knew that was the community I wanted to be a part of, that we both needed to be a part of; so soon after, my sister and I began volunteering with the organization that produced the Philadelphia AIDS Walk, at the time known as From All Walks of Life (FAWOL). FAWOL was run by a small group of committed individuals and activists who took us in as family, and cemented the people we would become. It is not hyperbole to say that it was the first time in my young life that I had ever felt like I belonged somewhere.

It was during those years that we learned everything we now know about life and death, friendship and family, working hard, speaking up for others, accepting and embracing people for their differences, the hard realities of life, violence, illness, disability, and mental health. And it was there where we learned to not just speak up, but the power of standing up and showing up — to protests and candle light vigils, to rallies and pride parades. We learned the power of people coming together for one cause; it is a powerful, time-tested thing.

The skills we learned during that time of producing events and running non-profits we have both used extensively throughout our adult lives; the activist I am today is due to the people I met at ACT UP Philly then, people I still hold in the highest of regards; the individuals we met that day in October and over the years after, we still consider family, and we still think about the friends who are no longer with us today due to AIDS-related deaths, violence, suicide, and old age.

I came out thanks to all of the LGBTQ community I first saw that day and was in awe of. I met my first girlfriend at the FAWOL offices, who took me to Boston, where I came into my own as an individual. That time in Boston also cemented my decision to go into nursing which has since led me to where I am today. That same girlfriend also led me to my wife — who has given me the best 20 years of my life and the most extraordinary kid in the world.

Twenty-six years since that singular day in October and I can map my entire life from that point through to now, to that one moment, that one decision, that one sign, and what it means to embrace people from all walks of life.

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Marion Leary

Marion Leary

Science geek. Passionate abt Philly, resuscitation, social media, scicomm, innovation, art, & helping others. http://marionleary.strikingly.com