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Will an AIDS Monument Be Erected in Amsterdam?

by Redaktie in Health & Body , 23 November 2013

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar
length: 10 minuten

“In the early eighties, Amsterdam was hit by HIV/AIDS. At the time, I was working as the head of the Health department of the Public Health Service of Amsterdam (GGD). I was very involved with all the developments in this area, and have seen the disastrous consequences of this infectious disease. Antiretrovirals only became available in 1996. Before that time, an HIV/AIDS diagnoses meant a death sentence. In the early years, a lot of young people died of HIV-related illnesses. These were anxious times with some very disruptive problems. A memorial can serve as a way for the bereaved to remember their loved ones.”

This is the response of Roel Coutinho, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Control and professor of epidemiology and disease prevention at the University of Utrecht, after hearing about the initiative to erect an AIDS monument in Amsterdam. The initiative was taken by Jörn Wolters, Stefan Silvestri and Cuno van Merwijk on behalf of the Foundation NAMENproject Netherlands. This foundation has its twenty-fifth anniversary this year. The NAMENproject thinks the time has come to erect a monument that represents the large impact of AIDS on Dutch society. The promoters would like to see a monument in our capital on December 1, 2015, following San Francisco, Vancouver, Manchester, and other cities.

From 1988 onwards, quilts are made in The Netherlands in remembrance of the people who died of AIDS, and the NAMES Project was founded to conserve these quilts and draw attention to this unique cultural heritage. Originally, the AIDS memorial quilt is an American phenomenon that was an idea of AIDS activist Cleve Jones. As part of the 1985 march commemorating the murder of Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone in 1978, Jones asked people to write down the names of loved ones who had died of AIDS. These signs were attached to the Federal Building in San Francisco. The signs reminded Jones of a huge patchwork quilt. That was the source of inspiration for the project he officially started in 1987 in San Francisco, supported by Mike Smith and the volunteers Joseph Durant, Jack Caster, Gert McMullin, Ron Cordova, Larkin Mayo and Gary Yuschalk. The Quilt is meant to commemorate, but also to celebrate the lives of those who died because of the AIDS epidemic. Each quilt approximately has the size of a grave, closely connecting the concepts of death and AIDS.

Not Over Yet

Since the onset of the epidemic, approximately five thousand people died of AIDS in The Netherlands. As Dennis Altman concludes in his autobiographical exploration of gay life over the last four decades “The End of the Homosexual?” (University of Queensland Press 2013), The Netherlands, with Denmark, Switzerland and Australia, was one of the few countries in which the government “not only saw the need to respond to the disease, but did so by working directly with gay community organisations, as well as representatives of sex workers and injecting drug users.” But besides the government, health organizations such as the Public Health Service of Amsterdam (GGD) quickly realized the seriousness of the disease. Despite this realization, very little could be done, as at first, it was not clear what it was exactly that needed to be fought. And after the identification of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) in 1983, the development of a treatment took several years.

Those who have seen the effects of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s up close, will remember these times of social unrest, loss, sorrow, and fear in bewilderment. Fortunately, the massive and gruesome AIDS deaths slowly came to a halt in the West after the introduction of HIV inhibitors in 1996. This was a big breakthrough, but because of the breakthrough, HIV and AIDS are in danger of gradually becoming invisible. In The Netherlands, about fifty people still die every year because of the disease. Not everyone benefits from HIV inhibitors.


It will be clear to everyone that the bereaved, as well as others involved, have the need to commemorate the fallen. To this end, the HIV Vereniging Nederland (HVN) has been organizing the Aids Memorial Day for years, but the HVN has concluded “that commemoration (the need to do so and the way it is done) is changing. This is the reason why we are organizing a Candlelight Memorial Concert since 2013,” HVN president Robert Witlox wrote in a response to the proposal for an AIDS monument. However, the HVN is very enthusiastic about the proposal because: “Visitors often tell us they would appreciate being able to visit a permanent place, and often refer to HIV/AIDS monuments or places in other countries. A monument refers to the larger group (the group of AIDS victims and their next of kin), and commemoration can be personal, at any time of the day.” Jörn Wolters, who lost his partner to AIDS and is one of the initiators of the monuments, stated in “Hello Gorgeous,” the magazine for everyone living with HIV: “I want a place where I can truly commemorate my life with him, an inspirational place where I can cherish the memories and give my thoughts free play. When I found out that more people felt this way, the step towards an AIDS monument was quickly made.”

Yet, the initiators prepared themselves for critical questions: Why an AIDS monument when there is no monument for cancer? But we already have the Homomonument!? Also in “Hello Gorgeous,” Stefan Silvestri, one of the other initiators, responded to these imaginary objections: “Of course we have the Homomonument, which is used a lot to commemorate homosexual victims of AIDS. But it was never meant as an AIDS monument. The Homomonument is there for gay emancipatory reasons, and the gay community is not the only community that was hit by the epidemic. Also, we think AIDS is important enough to have its own monument.”

Raising Awareness

Despite, or perhaps precisely because of, the progress that has been made in the fight against AIDS, it is still necessary to make people aware of this disease. To do so, World AIDS Day is organized since 1988 on December 1st. For the twenty-fifth time this year. But this official day, organized all over the world, and on which the president of the United States delivers a proclamation since 1995, isn’t noticed by a lot of people. COC Amsterdam concluded in a response to the initiative for an AIDS monument that “increasingly, HIV is seen as a chronic disease that is manageable with the support of medication. This is an excellent development, but the drawback is that people are becoming less cautious.”

COC Amsterdam “is disturbed by the results of a GGD study on the health of Amsterdam’s youth. It shows that over twenty-five percent doesn’t always have safe sex. It also shows that the number of HIV cases is increasing more among non-Western citizens.” An AIDS monument can serve as a reminder to everyone that prevention is still the best way to guarantee the quality of life of every individual.

Living with HIV is not always easy. Even though people who are HIV positive are bravely dealing with taboos and discrimination, they could still use more support. An AIDS monument in The Netherlands would be a statement: we stand in solidarity with those who are HIV positive, and are working on a future in which the virus is banished from the body and the world.

The AIDS monument should not be limited to the groups concerned, but should serve a wider public. Just as the National Monument on Dam Square is not only for people who have personally experienced war and tyranny, and the Homomonument attracts many visitors that are not homosexual. In a way that can be compared to those monuments, the AIDS monument should spread a more general message. It should interest people who are there for the monument just as much as accidental visitors.

Past and Future

The objectives of the initiators are just as much about the past as about the future. One the one hand, the monument should serve as “a tribute to the loved ones who died of AIDS,” but also “to support those who are living with HIV” and as “a place that will ensure that HIV and AIDS will not be forgotten.” Lastly, it should also be “an ode to buddies.” Besides a lot of misery, AIDS also made good things happen. In New York, gay men started to take care of their friends with AIDS as a buddy. This approach was implemented world-wide, especially in cities with a large gay community like Amsterdam. In the year 2012, Buddy care is no longer limited to homosexuals. It is a model for a humanitarian way of dealing with people who no longer (temporarily) can take care of themselves. The AIDS monument would also honor this group of volunteers.

The initiators do not want it to be an ode to buddies only, but also to Amsterdam. The choice for the capital is obvious, because of its national and international reputation as a cosmopolitan and progressive city. The commonsensical approach to sexuality and drugs has created an atmosphere in which people feel at home and can develop themselves. Amsterdam still has a large international appeal because of this. The tolerance of people who are different, even though this is under pressure, still serves as an example to other cities. It is this agreeable social climate that has attracted many HIV positive people who did not feel at ease in their former places of residence, or were facing discrimination. An AIDS monument would therefore be an ode to Amsterdam and would enrich the cultural landscape of the capital.


The NAMENproject may have good plans, but it cannot succeed without the cooperation of the City of Amsterdam. The parties in the City Council and the Mayor and aldermen have now received the project plan. Soon after, the initiators spoke with the PvdA councillor Martin Verbeet and with councillor Roeland Rengelink of the Center district. But they were told that as a first step, the bench of Mayor and Aldermen needs to respond first. In a letter dated July 12, Mayor Eberhard van der Laan expressed his appreciation of the proposal, however without politically committing to it. He concluded the letter with: “For the moment, I wish you success with this wonderful initiative. The subject remains very important, especially for all those citizens of Amsterdam who have had to deal with the consequences of AIDS, up close or from a distance.”

Whether the AIDS monument would work depends on the location of the monument. Choosing the right location is an important part of the plan. The initiators have selected a number of locations they think would fit their criteria. But there are many voices in the gay community and they all express their own note. According to Gert Hekma, teacher at the University of Amsterdam, “it should be in the Red Light District because of the way most victims are infected.” However, Stichting Roze Buddyzorg Amsterdam would prefer “a location in the vicinity of the Homomonument.” The initiators are happy to present sponsors and contributors with the opportunity to make their favorite location known, even though the City of Amsterdam will have the last say in the matter.


In order to realize the project, money needs to be raised.  For their plans, the initiators have taken the city of Munich as an example. In Munich, an AIDS monument was realized for 85,000 Euro. They think it should be possible to raise 100,000 Euro. Much to their delight, the Amsterdam Fund for the Arts (AFK) reported in response to the plans that, in principle, it would be able to “match” the amount that would be collected if the work of art was good enough. This means that if 100,000 Euro is collected, the AFK would double that amount to 200,000.

In the start-up phase, several groups that were involved with HIV/AIDS were asked to support the project in a financial or moral way. A large number has responded positively, and at the moment, ten sponsors are supporting the project with at least 1,000 Euro. In a newsletter, the NAMES Project reported on September 25 that the total is now 10,750 Euro. This is enough to finance the first phase, the artist competition. The Amsterdam hospital Onze Lieve Vrouwen Gasthuis (OLVG), which treats a large number of people with HIV, has announced it wants to be one of the project’s main sponsors, which means a commitment of at least 10,000 Euro. Corporate funding will commence after the summer. But the initiators also appreciate individual donations, for which a donation button has been created on the website.



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