Pride Week 2012: Teacher's Documented Battle With AIDS Still Inspires
As the city kicks off Pride Week, NY1 begins a series of stories looking at some of the issues the LGBT community has encountered over the past 20 years, beginning with a man whose courage and honesty helped put a human face on the AIDS crisis. NY1's Tara Lynn Wagner filed the following report.
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Inspiring. Courageous. Compassionate. These are just some of the words New Yorkers used in emails sent to NY1 following the death of Wayne Fischer. Fischer was not only the first public school teacher in the city to openly announce he was HIV positive, he invited the public to follow his journey step by step - chronicling his triumphs and his struggles through weekly reports called "AIDS: A Journal of Hope."
"He was willing to open up his life and show the world what it means to have HIV, have AIDS. People saw a person, they saw a brother. They saw a teacher. They saw a hero," said Fischer's niece, Bari Zahn.
And they saw it all with stark realism long before reality TV. His 175 reports took viewers through years of medications and hospitalizations, until his final breath in 1997.
"The only thing I ever dreamed of was to see my life as being able to make a difference in other people's lives," Fischer once said.
The fact that he achieved that goal is undeniable. Actress Susan Sarandon whom he had befriended summed up his impact in a hand written letter to Bari Zahn following her uncle's death.
"I hope he eventually realized how much larger his classroom had become as he taught us with his generosity and his love of life," Sarandon wrote.
Fischer's belief in the importance of HIV education in schools continues, through an organization Zahn founded in his memory, Living Beyond Belief. Currently undergoing a transition, the non-profit is dedicated to increasing HIV awareness among young people by encouraging them to be advocates and peer educators -- and recognizing their work with college grants -- called the Butterfly Awards.
Were Fischer still here, Zahn has no doubt he himself would still be active and vocal. And while he would still stress the importance of safe sex and the need to get tested, she believes his lesson plan would go a lot deeper.
"Looking at kids and saying, 'You know, love yourself. You're perfect the way that you are and accept yourself,'" Zahn said.
For more information, visit livingbeyondbelief.org.