Island activists share their stories
By Elizabeth Lande, Co-Copy Editor
Sitting on an upturned bucket in a Tacoma food co-op in 1980, Peter Serko is recovering from both a peanut butter-induced choking fit and a stranger’s announcement that their brothers are lovers. It’s a complete surprise to Serko, who’s thankful he’s still sitting.
So begins Serko’s one-man play titled “My Brother Kissed Mark Zuckerberg,” a chronicle of both his brother David’s fight against AIDS, and Serko’s personal journey of activism and discovery.
Peter and David grew up in a close-knit family in Upstate New York, but their six-year age difference acted as a barrier to their relationship.
After Serko left for college, the brothers lived in largely separate worlds, with David remaining in New York to pursue his passion for the performing arts and Serko living on Vashon as a stay-at-home dad.
Their dynamic changed completely in March of 1988.
“[David] called me on the phone and we started our conversation and then he said, ‘I got tested, I’m HIV positive,’” Serko said. “For a moment I just didn’t even know what to say.”
While not necessarily surprised by the situation — Serko was aware of the AIDS epidemic in New York City and its prevalence among members of the gay community — he was still shocked. Days later, Serko flew to visit David in New York.
“That was the beginning of us really spending a lot of time together,” Serko said. “It was definitely a turning point in our relationship.”
However, the diagnosis was serious. AIDS was, and still is, incurable, but the treatment today is much more advanced, making living with the condition possible.
“Back then, nothing could be done,” Serko said. “If you had a diagnosis of HIV, that was a death sentence. You were going to die. It was just a question of how long and what terrible thing that you were going to catch.”
David battled with AIDS for the next four years, finally passing away due to related complications in the fall of 1992, at the age of 32.
David’s passing had a profound effect on Serko.
“I knew when my brother died … I was going to tell the story of his life and death, because the experience was so profound to me,” Serko said.
The story finally came to light in 2012, when Serko started the David Serko Project, with the intent of learning more about his brother’s life in New York City.
Serko began reaching out to people on Facebook, finding David’s friends and associates. In the months that followed, Serko amassed a wealth of stories, memories, and photographs of his brother that he turned into “My Brother Kissed Mark Zuckerberg” in 2013.
In the years that followed, Serko performed the drama around the Seattle area. He also brought it to the Cider Mill Playhouse in Upstate New York, the very place that David had acted in his early theater days.
“Most of the audience in the theater were all people who knew my brother, people who participated in the project,” Serko said.
After the play, Serko continued his activism through transmedia art — an art form based around using various mediums to tell the same story.
Throughout his multi-year journey, Serko has created a website, documentary, and short book about his brother’s fight with AIDS.
Serko continues his project for a simple reason: keeping the story alive by reaching as many people as possible.
“I just want to make sure people know about what happened,” Serko said. “Sometimes it just feels like a drop in the ocean, but it’s an important story and … AIDS is not gone.”
For Serko, the key to spreading the message lies in inspiring others to take action.
“One of the really important lessons … is that one person can make a difference,” Serko said.
For English teacher Stephen Floyd, the AIDS activist movement showed him this difference first-hand. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, he had a front-row seat to the suffering of the disease.
“Everyone around me [was] dying,” Floyd said. “There were times in the early 1980s [when] we literally thought we were all going to die.”
This stark reality pushed Floyd to begin participating in perhaps the most well-known aspect of AIDS activism: open protests.
In Portland, Floyd and a group of activists became particularly opposed to Ballot Measure 9, a proposed amendment to the state constitution designed to bar the state government from supporting homosexuals on the grounds that they were “unnatural.”
“We worked really hard in Portland,” Floyd said. “I attended school board meetings in Portland, I attended a number of public forums, and we worked very hard to make sure that sex education in schools addressed HIV and HIV transmission and safer-sex education.”
As a part of this activism, Floyd helped stage a ‘die in’ to bring awareness to the consequences of a reduction in HIV education — loss of life.
Ultimately, the actions of the protesters were successful, and the measure was defeated in the 1992 general state election.
Reflecting on more current events, Floyd discussed the ways in which this education remains important, despite the increase in available treatment. The HIV infection rate in people under 25 has risen over the past two years
“I feel like there’s been a failure to communicate or convey the urgency of this to younger people,” he said. “When it’s no longer something that’s going to immediately threaten your life, it’s easier to ignore, and people take risks.”
Like Serko, Floyd is passionate about lowering the global impact of AIDS, and feels the recent drop in funding to various health organizations has the potential to reverse steps made against the disease so far.
“In spite of the fact we’re in a very different time in terms of how many people are dying, half the world has little to no access to drugs that might save their lives,” Floyd said. “It feels like we’re now beginning to go backward after a number of years of progress.”
The AIDS epidemic and the loss of life surrounding it has brought insurmountable pain to those involved. Though the activism behind it has highlighted the movement’s strength, Floyd spoke to the devastating impact the disease continues to have.
“It is something that I’m proud of being associated with, though [I] would gladly trade that experience for the friends I no longer have.”