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World AIDS Museum opens in Fort Lauderdale
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times

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FORT LAUDERDALE—Magic Johnson met the media in Los Angeles late in the afternoon on Nov. 7, 1991, to announce his immediate retirement from the NBA after having been diagnosed HIV-positive.

Johnson was again talking to the media, this time here in Florida 22 years later to the day of his NBA retirement speech—and again talking about HIV and AIDS.

Last November, in a sparse building, Johnson was at the formal dedication of the World AIDS Museum & Educational Center.

The elaborate, emotional, high-tech and creative museum officially opened May 15, filling about 3,500 square-feet with photos, facts, education, information and countless tears.

"In the Holocaust, more than 6 million people died, and there [now] are more than 400 museums dedicated to that cause. From AIDS, we have more than 39 million people who have died, and this is the one and only museum dedicated to those people," said Ed Sparan, 51, who is openly gay and the director of the museum. He is HIV-positive, and has been for 12 years.

The museum was in-the-works for about three years, with planning, preparation, fund-raising and more. There first were small displays at the local Pride Center and at the Metropolitan Community Church ( MCC ), sort of a dress rehearsal for the museum.

The museum ultimately landed a $94,000 grant, which secured the facility's rent and more for its first year.

"It's been a crazy year," said Sparan, who was born and raised in Connecticut, worked as an actor in New York City for 10 years, and has now lived in South Florida for about 20 years.

"Some people may be afraid to come here because it's too sad and they don't want to open up those old wounds and feelings [of the disease's impact, especially within the LGBT community.] It takes a little coaxing to get some of those guys here, but I think they are glad they visit."

The museum offers a timeline look at the disease, dating back to 1908—long before the world knew what HIV and AIDS were. It chronicles the horrors of AIDS in the 1980s, when deaths were commonplace, mixed in with a timeline of general mainstream life.

The museum addresses the stigma, the fear, the unknown. It also tells of the changes, the hope, and the future.

The museum tells of AZT and "the cocktail." It shares the stories of Ryan White and Rock Hudson.

"I think everyone comes here with a different experience, in a different way," Sparan said. "Our mission statement is really meaningful and stays true: to increase awareness and decrease stigma of HIV/AIDS by documenting the history of HIV/AIDS, remembering the people who suffered from this disease, educating people about HIV/AIDS, enlightening the world to this continuing tragedy and empowering the survivors."

Sparan said museum visitors have ranged from school children to locals who have been HIV-positive for 20 or more years to doctors who specialize in HIV/AIDS—"and everyone learns something every time they come here," he said.

Sparan, a gay activist across the U.S. for decades, is a former Mr. Drummer, a title previously presented within the gay leather scene. He was dating an HIV-positive boyfriend and learned he had been infected, but it actually was a "positive experience, in a way," he said. "What I'm doing now at the museum is, I'm the voice for those 39 million who have died from the disease."

Sparan said the museum is rewarding, but also "tough to talk about death every day." That's where his acting past springs forward as he's able to hide his true emotions during four or five daily tours.

The museum will open a library center and recording studio later this year, with computers and noted books on the subject. The recording studio is gathering audio clips, to share people's story about the disease—those infected and affected—in what is being billed as a virtual tapestry quilt, a spin of the legendary AIDS Quilt of years past.

So why is the museum in South Florida, not New York City or San Francisco?

"We are the epicenter of the HIV epidemic," Sparan said. "Of all new HIV infections in the U.S. Miami Dade [County] is No. 1, Broward County is No. 2, and Palm Beach [County] is No. 6. Why is it so prevalent here? We're not sure

"That said, the community wants it and supports it."

On Dec. 2, the World AIDS Museum & Educational Center is holding its formal grand opening at the Broward Center for Performing Arts, with the South Florida Symphony Orchestra. About 50 doctors who specialize in HIV will be honored.

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