The Second Annual Butterfly Awards were conferred on Monday evening, May 17 at a midtown Manhattan nightclub. The event honored Wayne Fischer, a New York City native and gay high school teacher, who died in 1997 after a long battle with AIDS. Fischer became an outspoken advocate of implementing curricula in the city’s school system to educate young people about safe sex practices. His niece, Bari Zahn, a New York City attorney who is a staunch supporter of gay rights, along with Ann Bennett, a friend of Wayne’s, established a non-profit group, Living Beyond Belief, to combat AIDS and honor high school seniors who work on behalf of curbing HIV infections by educating their peers about the disease.
Hundreds of donors and supporters of Living Beyond Belief gathered at The Show nightclub and mingled during a cocktail hour, during which attendees bid on items in a silent auction. Offerings ranged from an autographed photograph of Allan Cumming, the gay actor, to a luxury yacht cruise for six couples around Manhattan. The actress Rosie Perez later emceed the event at which five teens were awarded college scholarships.
During the dark years of the early 1990s, before the advent of protease inhibitors, Wayne Fischer struggled to maintain his health and remain not only an effective teacher, but also a loving partner to Jorge Bendersky.
In a series called “Journal of Hope,” NY1 News chronicled Fischer’s struggle with AIDS for several years. On camera, Fischer dealt with the loss of his T-cells below 200 and the onslaught of opportunistic infections. He mentioned knowing at the age of 4 that he was gay and wanting to kill himself when he was 17 because of his despair. “If I had met a teacher [who was gay], I would have wanted to live,” Fischer said.
Fischer grew up in the Howard Beach neighborhood of Queens. After graduating from Lincoln High School, he went on to get his teaching degree. In 1987, he found out he was HIV-positive.
Years later, as the disease began to engulf his immune system, Fischer bravely spoke on camera about his struggle to live. “I accepted this virus into my body—to wake me up in order to take every day as a gift,” he said. During three and a half critical years, Wayne waged a brave fight against the disease. In the “Journal of Hope,” he mentioned how he wanted to be remembered: “I want my tombstone to say Wayne Fischer went 100 percent, gave it his all, was committed to his vision.”
At Monday’s celebration, Fischer’s gay brother, Bob, recalled how as teenagers both brothers struggled with their sexuality. “It was very difficult,” he said. “Once we both came out of it, it was a huge, huge relief.”
This year’s five high school honorees are: Ashley Lemma, Caris Joy St. John, Courtney Chevalier, Jennifer Huynh and Nicholas Mustakas.
Zahn and Bennett are working with Department of Education officials to institute a peer education program in the city’s high schools to continue to alert young people to the danger of HIV infections and educate them about AIDS. Those interested in donating to Living Beyond Belief are encouraged to visit livingbeyondbelief.org.