AIDS Vancouver volunteer May McQueen helps battle stigma

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      AIDS Vancouver volunteer

      Eighty-seven-year-old May McQueen’s face lights up when the staff at AIDS Vancouver tell her about plans to make sure she has a spot on the organization’s float in the Vancouver Pride Parade.

      “Oh, I can’t wait!” she tells them, her trademark wide smile signalling her excitement.

      The good-natured volunteer has become a fixture both in the annual parade and around the AIDS Vancouver office, where she has been helping out for 21 years.

      Her motivation to get involved following her retirement in 1991 stemmed from watching news reports of a 13-year-old boy with AIDS being barred from school in Indiana.

      “At the beginning, there was so much discrimination and so much misinformation, and so I thought somebody in the family better learn, and maybe they’ll let me learn,” she tells the Georgia Straight in an interview.

      Over two decades later, McQueen describes her volunteer work as mainly consisting of “listening and hugging”.

      “Everybody needs to know that somebody gives a damn, and that’s what we’re for,” she says.

      When she began volunteering, she was paired up with an HIV–positive “buddy” that she spent time with for 14 years.

      “We would walk,” she recalls. “I think we walked down over Stanley Park. I saw a lot of places I didn’t even know existed. And if he felt a bit frightened, he’d phone and so I’d go over to his place and we’d sit and have tea and talk.”

      McQueen describes the people she has worked with through the organization as “family”. And for her, the red ribbon that she wears everywhere she goes symbolizes her friends. (She was featured in a video for AIDS Vancouver's 30 30 Campaign, in which one video was released every day throughout the month of July to take a look back at the 30 years of the organization.)

      “The community is very, very accepting,” she says. “I just have all these wonderful friends.

      “I think for someone my age to be allowed to be around young people—I mean, I’m 87, for God’s sakes,” she says with a laugh. “It is the most wonderful experience I’ve ever had in my life.”

      McQueen has photos of many of those she became close to, and had to say goodbye to, during her volunteer work. It’s this collection of photos that helps her to deal with the many losses over the years, including the loss of those with whom she shared their last moments.

      “If you can help somebody, you help them,” she says of the work. “There are so many things I cannot do, but I’m a damn good hugger, and I can sit and hold your hand while you’re dying. I can do that—I can be with you while you’re dying. And I won’t fall apart until later.”

      Since she began volunteering, McQueen has seen remarkable progress in the kind of HIV–AIDS treatment available to manage the disease.

      “People are living now,” she states. “You’re living with, you’re not dying from. And that’s a huge change.”

      The senior notes there is still some lingering misunderstanding and stigma that it’s a “gay disease”. But she believes that strides have been made in terms of public awareness since she began her volunteer work.

      “It’s so much better,” she states. “There’ll always be people who say, ‘Well, that person, naturally they would get it, but my kids never will.’ Well, you know, you can’t say that.”

      As for the lessons she has shared with her own family, McQueen notes one of her grandchildren “just thinks it’s wonderful” that instead of going to bingo, her grandma participates in the Pride parade.

      “It’s just such fun,” McQueen remarks, another smile spreading across her face. “Gosh, it’s the only parade worth watching.”