Now that we’re getting closer to the opening of the Gay Games in Cleveland and Akron in ten days time I turn my attention to an event which has become as much associated with the Gay Games as the torch relay has with the Olympics – the International Memorial Flag Fun. Having only briefly covered the Flag Run a couple of time before it seems like a good time to go into more detail today.
The Flag Run commemorates all those who have died from AIDS or breast cancer, not least of all being Tom Waddell the founder of the games. The run also pays tribute to the artist Keith Haring, a follower of the 1990 Memorial Run. The Keith Haring Foundation is one of several sponsors of the run. Victims of breast cancer are commemorated in memory of lesbian activist Rikki Streicher.
It all began 30 years ago in 1984. The AIDS epidemic was severe across north America. There were many people who claimed the disease was a judgement from God for the homosexual lifestyle. Such ignorance spread to politicians and health organisation. A few doctors spoke out against this homophobia and began to educate the community – the lgbt community as much as any other – that AIDS was not just a “gay disease”.
It was also a time when many in the lgbt community banded together to form groups and organisations to help raise awareness of AIDS and general sexual health issues. One vital element in this campaign was to push for funding for research and financial assistance to HIV patients, their partners and families, which governments around the world were slow to provide.
Out of these voluntary groups came fund-raising events such as charity runs. It wasn’t a new idea, but it was a new method for gay men who wanted to help to join together. One of these men was Brent Nicholson Earle.
Brent had seen many friends and acquaintances lose their battles against AIDS and HIV. Other friends had begun to volunteer their services to health groups and he decided to join them. The Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York held a charity run in 1984. Brent entered the run and raised $400.
This was one inspiration behind the International Memorial Flag Run. The other was a charity run by a young man in Canada to raise funds for cancer research. Brent founded a non-profit organisation called American Run for the End of AIDS (AREA) in December 1985 with the aim of running solo 90,000 miles around the USA, keeping as close to the national border/coastline as possible.
The first run began in New York on 1st December 1986. With just the minimum of a support team, just 2 people, Brent set off around the US in an anti-clockwise direction, reaching home base back in New York some 20 months later. During the run’s stay in Florida the Fort Lauderdale and Miami lgbt community presented Brent with a Rainbow Pride flag. This was to become the official standard of subsequent runs.
In 1990 Brent decided to make his second AREA run to Vancouver, the host city of the 3rd Gay Games, beginning the association with the games which remains to this day. AIDS had taken many Gay Games athletes from the community since the first games in 1982. In remembrance of them and Tom Waddell, who had died of AIDS shortly after the second games in 1986, Brent began his second run from the San Francisco stadium which hosted the first two Gay Games. With the flag donated by the Florida community Brent ran the 1,000 miles to Vancouver and led the parade of athletes into the stadium at the opening ceremony. This run is regarded retrospectively as the first International Memorial Flag Run.
For the fourth Gay Games of 1994 in New York, and to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, Brent chose a different method of getting from San Francisco to the games host city – roller blades. Named the Rainbow Roll for the End of AIDS this event included a team of 6 other skaters taking the flag to the Big Apple. They appeared at the Stonewall 25 commemoration event and once again provided the lead for the athlete’s parade at the Gay Games opening ceremony.
1998 saw another change – the first time the run went overseas. The Gay Games were held in Amsterdam and more runners, walkers and athletes took part in the Flag Run than before. By now the decision was made to include all previous host cities as part of the run. This has been the format ever since. Flag Runs have been held prior to each Gay Games. With the organising and sponsorship for the run divided between several organisations the AREA first created in 1985 has continued to raise awareness of AIDS and breast cancer and promote healthy living. While being a commemoration of those who have left us, it has also come to symbolise hope, help and celebration.
This year’s International Memorial Flag Run began on 9th February, starting as usual in San Francisco. Currently it is making its way to Cleveland after having left Europe last week.