At a Jan. 17 unveiling at Wilton Station in Wilton Manors, Steve Stagon surprised and delighted his longtime skeptics by announcing the creation of a World AIDS Museum & Educational Center.

At the celebratory event (hosted by Jimmy Cunningham and Tom Stravecky with food by Jason King of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, wine by Michael Iacino, and flowers by Bobby Kyser of Panache) Stagon, who was diagnosed with HIV 23 years ago, displayed his significant progress at turning his longtime dream for an AIDS museum into a reality for Wilton Manors.  Having managed the complex challenges of 501c3 incorporation, and having enlisted the support, partnership and funding of community leaders, Stagon led an enthusiastic crowd through a sampling of proposed displays, and through an outline of the structure and purpose of the museum.

In his speech, he noted that Fort Lauderdale has eleven museums, but Wilton Manors has none. He made a convincing argument for finding a Wilton Manors location for the project—ideally on Wilton Drive within the cluster of gay shops, bars and restaurants—citing demographics and tourism numbers (a million annual gay tourists spending $1.2 billion).

Although it might be difficult to find anyone in south Florida whose life has not been touched by the disease and who might need convincing (Broward County has the highest new infection rate in the country,) Stagon offered statistics that support the need for an AIDS Museum.

“Since 1980, 60 million people have contracted HIV and 25 million people have died of AIDS worldwide,” he said. “Since 1980, more than 600,000 Americans have died from AIDS complications making it a worse killer than World Wars I and II and Vietnam combined. AIDS is still a crisis. People become complacent about it but every year 17,000 people die of AIDS.”

The mission of the museum is to increase awareness and decrease the stigma of AIDS by documenting the history of HIV/AIDS, memorializing those who have suffered from the disease, educating people about the disease, enlightening people about the continuation and spread of the epidemic, and empowering its survivors. These five parts of the museum’s mission would be presented as five galleries.

The first gallery would contain a chronological timeline of events that would tell the story of AIDS in a way that would make the visitor relive the impact of the disease or experience it deeply for the first time. One of the sample displays unveiled at the announcement was a collection of magazine covers about HIV/AIDS. This gallery would emphasize the importance of telling the history of AIDS honestly rather than through the discolored words of anti-gay religious leaders such as Pat Buchanan and Jerry Falwell.

The second gallery would accomplish the task of turning the numbers into names with the inclusion of the stories of celebrities including Rock Hudson, Liberace, Freddie Mercury and allies Elizabeth Taylor and Princess Diana. New locally made panels for the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt would be displayed at the museum before being added to the quilt, and recorded personal vocal histories might be an interactive aspect of this gallery.

The third gallery would provide the visitor with medical information about the disease.

The fourth gallery would enlighten the visitor about the stigma, criminalization and negative stereotypes of the disease.  A sample exhibit for this gallery on display at the announcement was a sculpture by Ed Sparan titled 10 Year Ribbon composed entirely of pill bottles representing ten years of HIV medications taken daily.

The fifth gallery would provide information about ways to bring people living with HIV/AIDS back into society and restore them to productive and satisfying lives.

Stagon knows his museum is starting small, but he offered examples of other local organizations that had similar beginnings and have grown beyond the imagining of their founders. These include Tuesday’s Angels, The Pride Center, Broward House and The SMART Ride. Stagon’s allies and supporters include experienced local activists from those groups.

What does Stagon need now? A 1,000-2,500 square foot location for the museum, volunteers of all kinds and funding beyond the contributions of the founding members including Stagon, Jeff Banning, Hugh Beswick, Dr. Elie Schochet, Thomas Sheaffer, The SMART Ride, John Ramos and Bruce Walther.

To become a part of this project, please visit or send a donation to PO. BOX 7311, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33338 or call 954 649-7095.

For more about Steve Stagon and the weekly POZitive Attitudes meetings at the Pride Center, go to SFGN online at