“I remember that day so clearly,” says Tony Di Pede of the 1989 demonstration that solidified his involvement with PWA. “I remember what I was wearing, how pissed off I was. I even had a cellphone — it was the size of a brick. It was my first demo, and it got me out of being a suburban fag living a quiet life in Etobicoke. I hadn’t even been to Pride.” When his partner Mel died, “I went to the Hassle Free and joined the support group that David Kelley ran. They said, ‘You need to get involved.’ I called PWA.”
Di Pede put his accounting background to work as treasurer, though roles were loosely defined. “To be honest, a lot of it is a big blur. There were two staff when I arrived and 16 when I left in 1997. We were growing an organization, doing advocacy, and I think we were also running away. The more you got involved the less you had to feel. We went from 300 clients in a year to 9,000 to 12,000. It was like rolling out a carpet — it expanded faster than could be handled. And people were dying pop, pop, pop. It’s hard to imagine that in the midst of all that emotional turmoil things got done. Most people only knew that they had AIDS when they got really sick and died within a year. Three years was a long-term survivor.”
When a video clip from a popular televison show was needed for the PWA Ovation Awards ceremony, there was an unfortunate delay. “We were all at brunch and Jim got on the phone. Some minion was not returning his calls. He blasted her, ‘You know, lady, you’re dicking me around and I need this. So get off your ass, ’cause by the time you get around to this I could be dead. I have AIDS and I don’t have time to waste.’ We all thought it was hilarious. Three-quarters of those people are dead now. The history of PWA gets sanitized ’cause your heart gets numb to all the death.
“We were so unbelievably busy, but it was a kind of coping mechanism. And that anger. It was a damn good anger that made us not wallow in our pain but fight for our community. It’s amazing what the community did. I came in when it was all set up, and those people were not well. Those people need to be honoured in a very profound way for making it happen.
“It was so practical, so hands-on. Someone was going to benefit directly: food, housing, a massage, even from the advocacy. You could see someone getting helped. A client came in. You’d stabilize them, get them on Family Benefits Assistance, put them on a housing list, get them organized, give them a bit of money . . . the amount of stress reduction that provided. People did not know what to do. They’re in shock. That alone justifies the PWA Foundation. That’s already a huge monument to supporting our own.”
Di Pede was there for many of the battles that PWA helped win. “The battle to make AIDS an invisible disability, to get recognized for the Ontario Disability Support Program. Doctors were rejecting PHAs left, right and centre. ‘This man’s practically palliative, what’s the problem?’ I don’t know how many appeals we fought — that our staff organized and filed the paperwork. Or when Toronto Public Health decided they wouldn’t fund any groups that wouldn’t state that PHAs should abstain from sex. We were ready to kill. That’s not the way to talk to sentient beings; it’s insulting and it doesn’t help prevention. At that point we got $300,000 from the city, but we decided it was unethical, too offensive. We ripped up the contract in their faces, saying we can’t live with ourselves. We probably shouldn’t have, but when there were organizations that screwed with PHAs we called them on it. We even took on campaigns we knew we’d lose.”
Di Pede believes that PWA was instrumental in creating self-sufficiency and pride. “There was a subtle subversiveness in the mission statement — significant and appropriate representation by PHAs are to be part of the staff and board. This fight for self-determination by all people wasn’t just in Toronto; it was happening everywhere, but we were the only organization to achieve it.”
Di Pede moved on from PWA and has been active in many groups, but he remains a self-described “observer. I was a different person then. These are better times — for some. That’s why PWA is there and needs to be until the epidemic is over. They make life better for a lot of people. To help somebody in need — there’s just not enough of that in this world, so three cheers for surviving 25 years.”