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Elton John’s lasting impact on Atlanta: turning the public’s fear of AIDS into action

Many Atlantans are familiar with Sir Elton John’s local ties: his world-famous art collection that helped spark Atlanta’s obsession with photography; his hangouts at the Buckhead Diner and the former Tower Records; and his affinity for Georgia musicians—such as recording the 1986 AIDS charity single “That’s What Friends Are For” with Gladys Knight, collaborating on a 1993 duet “The Power” with Little Richard, producing his 2004 album Peachtree Road at Tree Studios, co-writing the musical Aida (which premiered as Elaborate Lives at the Alliance Theatre in 1998), and, lately, digging the sounds of 6lack and Young Thug. However, John’s fans may not appreciate that his most lasting gift to our city may be helping reverse the spread and stigma of AIDS.

With then-Mayor Maynard Jackson, John helped inaugurate Atlanta’s first AIDS Walk in 1991. He created the Elton John AIDS Foundation at a friend’s kitchen table here that same year. Since purchasing his Buckhead condo down the street from the Cathedral of St. Philip in 1991, John has raised as many or more dollars for AIDS-focused nonprofits as the number of records he’s sold (300 million) and has helped lift some of the disease’s stigma by supporting organizations on the frontlines of HIV prevention and education across the Southeast. Southern states have some of the highest rates of U.S. HIV diagnosis; and today approximately 50,000 Georgians, many from marginalized communities, live with the virus. Although EJAF is formally based in New York and London, the foundation’s contributions to Atlanta’s nonprofits, such as Jeffrey Kalinsky’s Fashion Cares, have helped pave the way for generations of activists determined to eradicate AIDS for good.

John’s Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour is scheduled for a two-night stint at State Farm Arena tonight and tomorrow, December 1—a date which also marks the 30th anniversary of World AIDS Day—and the pair of concerts brings the 71-year-old Oscar, Grammy, and Tony award winner and part-time Atlantan back to the city where he first earned his reputation as a leading humanitarian and fundraiser for HIV/AIDS charities. Riding a wave of nostalgia in a popular U.K. Christmas advert about his career, along with a big screen Rocket Man biopic set for release next May, and the finality of his latest promise to retire from the stage (this weekend’s gigs could be his last ever live performances in Atlanta), now is a good time to take stock of John’s global and local impact.

The rock star whom Billboard magazine lauded as its top male artist of all-timehas been a musical torchbearer in combating HIV/AIDS for decades—writing poignant hits like 1992’s “The Last Song” about a father and his dying son, holding benefit concerts for his late friend Elizabeth Taylor’s AIDS fund, penning op-edsabout Africa for the New York Times, and giving speeches at the International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam. However, Elton John’s advocacy on behalf of Atlanta’s LGBTQ community often receives less attention.

Valerie Jackson, an Atlanta business executive who was married to Maynard Jackson, remembers the spirit of the first AIDS Walk in Piedmont Park. In 2018, the ways in which HIV is and is not transmitted are clear to the general public, but in 1990, there was still widespread public panic and ignorance—”even about being around someone with AIDS, much less to eat and drink with those who might be infected,” Jackson says. While hosting a small reception before leading the march arm-in-arm with Mayor Jackson, John set a tone of inclusion. “Elton talked freely with us about the challenges our society faced with respect to HIV and AIDS. [In a room] of gay and straight people [at the height of the stigma], there was no hesitation on the part of anyone to eat food from the same platter or pour lemonade from the same pitcher. At that moment, I remember feeling so proud of Atlanta and that we were open-minded and compassionate enough to understand the reality of AIDS and its truths.”

Julie Rhoad, CEO of the NAMES Project/AIDS Memorial Quilt, which is based in Atlanta and has received grants from EJAF, says John helped flip the public narrative about AIDS by shifting the focus from fear to action. “From the Quilt’s perspective, our role since 1987 has been to help people find a personal connection to the disease,” she says. “That’s what Elton did when he appeared with Ryan White [the Indiana teen who contracted HIV from a blood transfusion] in the 1980s. He told America that this disease isn’t about other people—it’s about all of us. That was a turning point, and his support of White was a challenge to people who thought: HIV and AIDS can’t happen in my world.”

The demographics of HIV-positive people in Georgia today do not conform to the stereotypes of the 1980s and 1990s. They reflect national trends indicating that rural, underserved, and low-income populations are more vulnerable to infections and chronic illnesses. EJAF has responded to limited access to services by making grants to organizations such as Jerusalem House, a local nonprofit which provides permanent housing for low-income and homeless families affected by HIV, and Emory University’s Center for the Health of Incarcerated Persons project. Before performing a 2015 concert in Atlanta, John personally delivered meals to homebound H.I.V. patients served by former grant recipient Open Hand Atlanta.

Jon Santos, Director of Fundraising and Events at AID Atlanta, which provides testing services, care, and education and also organizes the annual AIDS Walk, says John’s participation in local activities such as his special 2003 EJAF benefit concert at the Tabernacle has fostered a “sense of solidarity” among the city’s AIDS-focused organizations. He warns that stigma still exists around the disease. In fact, at a 2017 public hearing with the Georgia Department of Health, one lawmaker asked about quarantining citizens with HIV.

However, strides have been made toward making it easier for newly-diagnosed people to seek help openly, Santos says. “The same day that [the state rep asked the quarantine question], I was walking down the hall in our office and I saw a young man—a boy of probably about 18 or 19—who seemed lost and overwhelmed. I asked him, ‘Can I help you?’ And he said, ‘I’m looking for the client services lobby so I can get some help, and …’ he kind of swallowed and continued, ‘I’m positive.’ I took his arm and I said, ‘We are going to take really good care of you. You’re here now and you’re amongst family.’ Some people ask me, ‘Why do we still need an AIDS Walk?’ Right there is the answer—so we can give services to those who need them and educate people to break down the shame and stigma.”

EJAF is also funding programs that use the power of pop culture and technology to promote discussions about safe sex among young people. It has supported Atlanta-based Sister Love, a women-focused advocacy organization dedicated to reproductive justice and HIV/AIDS prevention and education. Sister Love’s Healthy Love Youth Network and social media campaigns for at-risk 13 to 24 year olds are aimed at reducing stigma and stopping sexually transmitted diseases, because sex education in schools is often limited by regional curricula that don’t provide opportunities for honest conversation.

Antoinette Jones is a 23-year-old AIDS activist who began working at Sister Love this past April as a peer navigator. Born with HIV transmitted to her by her mother, she remembers taking her liquid antiretroviral drug cocktail in her sippy cup as a child. Yesterday, she was part of the Sister Love team who met with EJAF representatives conducting a site visit. She admits to initially having had to research the singer’s activism online, but says she has always known his music. “I love the song, ‘Rocket Man,’” she says. Who doesn’t?

Editor’s note: A previous version of the story incorrectly stated Atlanta’s first AIDS Walk was in 1990. It was actually in 1991. The story has been updated to reflect this.

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