March 18, 2024

Red Ribbons of Love, 30 Years Later

As the devastating HIV/AIDS epidemic unfolded in the 1980s and early 1990s, misconceptions about how the illness spread prompted places of worship, businesses, and other establishments across the country to shun gay men—a demographic disproportionately affected by the crisis.

The Hollywood United Methodist Church (HUMC), a Gothic style church located two blocks north of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, did something radical.

“We're the only Protestant church in Hollywood that opened our doors to everyone, especially to the gay community,” says Reverend Kathy Cooper Ledesma, who completed her seminary internship at HUMC from 1986-87 and has been its senior pastor since 2006.

A poster for a documentary with a steeple with a large red ribbon and the words Red Ribbons of Love in white script against a blue sky.

photo by: @HollywoodUMC

Poster for the documentary Red Ribbons of Love.

View of a church with two large red ribbons on the steeple and a pride flag on the front.

photo by: @HollywoodUMC

Exterior of the Hollywood United Methodist Church.

In 1993, the church attached a large red ribbon — a symbol for AIDS awareness — to its bell tower. Visible from famous Hollywood Boulevard, the ribbon was a visual expression of the church’s support of the LGBTQ+ community and to honor those who had passed from the disease; HUMC lost at least 35 members during the crisis.

Ahead of the 30th anniversary of the placement of the original ribbon in 2023, the HUMC was awarded a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Telling the Full History Preservation Fund, which was created with support of the National Endowment for the Humanities. HUMC used the funding to revitalize the current ribbons on its bell tower and to produce a documentary chronicling the history of the ribbons and HUMC’s broader legacy of inclusion.

“What was really compelling was their focus on LGBTQ+ history,” says Chris Morris, a senior director of preservation programs with the National Trust, “and them wanting to acknowledge and celebrate and, in some ways, recommit to the role that they have been playing in welcoming the LGBTQ+ community, while acknowledging the impact of the AIDS crisis on that community 30 years ago.”

A Fresh Coat of Paint

During the AIDS crisis, instead of turning people away, HUMC not only welcomed members of the LGBTQ+ community living with the disease but embraced them. In addition, allowing full participation in church life, HUMC supported those living with the disease in a myriad of ways, from preparing meals for the sick to accompanying them to medical appointments.

Despite drawing intense criticism from more conservative Christian groups for its stance, HUMC remained steadfast, becoming the Los Angeles hub for the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, with members of the church joining efforts nationwide to create fabric panels to commemorate lives lost. The ribbons were a visible, and permanent next step in showing their commitment.

Lovingly crafted by members of the congregation, the original red ribbon that was hung from HUMC bell tower on December 1, 1993—World Aids Day—was fashioned by hand from cloth and plastic and prominently displayed at one of Los Angeles’ busiest intersections. “No one will go through Hollywood and not pass by here and see these ribbons,” says Cooper Ledesma.

But while the ribbon was a powerful symbol, the original was not very sturdy; at one point the wind blew it off the tower. Members of the church carried it during a Los Angeles PRIDE parade.

In 1996, the ribbon was replaced with two, more durable versions, hung from the eastern and southern facades of the tower, where they remain to this day. The bright red color does fade, however, and needs to be repainted from time to time. The church used part of the $25,000 Telling the Full History grant to revitalize the ribbons with a fresh coat of paint in October 2023.

View of the Hollywood UHMC steeple at sunset.

photo by: @HollywoodUMC

The ribbons on Hollywood United Methodist Church.

But more than just aesthetics, keeping the ribbon vibrant serves a bigger purpose for the HUMC community.

“They’re iconic, and it’s important to keep them red so that people will understand why they’re there,” says Cooper Ledesma, adding, “The nature of the need has changed, but stigma is still around, to be stigmatized because you are HIV positive, and the red ribbons say to anyone you can be positive or negative, you're welcome here.”

“Red Ribbons of Love” Documentary

In 1994, the HUMC hosted the funeral of Cuban American television personality and activist Pedro Zamora, who was open about his HIV+ status before passing away from AIDS. It was the most high-profile of many such funerals that took place at HUMC during the crisis. “We would get funeral requests for people whose families had abandoned them and didn’t want anything to do with them, and whose churches had rejected them as well,” says Cooper Ledesma.

Footage from the service for Zamora is featured in a poignant 15-minute documentary, titled “Red Ribbons of Love,” that HUMC produced with a portion of the grant. The film premiered at the HUMC on December 3, 2023, World AIDS Sunday.

A group of people standing together smiling at the camera.

photo by: @HollywoodUMC

Red Ribbons of Love interviewees. From L-R: Rev. Dr. Ignacio Castuera, Elizabeth Pitman, Beverly Freeman, Rev. Kathy Cooper Ledesma, Pauley Perrette, Pastor Mark Stephenson, Rev. Dr. Ed Hansen.

Recognizing that, much like the red paint on the bell tower ribbons, memories also fade, Cooper Ledesma had the idea to create a film to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the original ribbon and preserve the recollections of clergy and members of the congregation who were active in the church at the height of the AIDS crisis.

“There are very few people who have been in the church for as long as the folks in the documentary have,” she says.

Activist, documentary filmmaker, and former actress Pauley Perrette, best known for her 15-year run as part of the cast of the CBS law enforcement drama NCIS and a member of HUMC congregation for two decades, produced and appears in the documentary, which features interviews with Cooper Ledesma, former pastors, and church members.

During the process of creating the film, Perrette was struck by a word that she says was mentioned over and over again with regards to the ribbons. “The word ‘beacon’ came up in every single interview that we did — beacon of light, beacon of love, beacon of everything,” says Perrette.

For both Cooper Ledesma and Perrette, it was also vital to document the role that HUMC played in actively challenging and resisting the stigma attached to AIDs patients, and the powerful lessons it offers, for those who did not witness the height of the crisis.

“There are a couple of generations now or will be soon, who did not live through those days, who do not understand the horror and the tragedy,” says Cooper Ledesma, adding, “We wanted to establish a digital narrative that serves as a living history accessible on our website, no matter where they live.”

And, much like repainting of the ribbons, the documentary serves as an additional testament to the church's unwavering commitment to standing with the LGBTQ+ community.

“We do everything we can to try to say to this community that has been so ostracized and so beaten down that ‘You’re loved. We love you. You are welcome here,’” says Perrette. “We’re very proud of that.”

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Nathalie Alonso is a freelance journalist and children's author based in New York City. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Outside, Refinery29 and TIME for Kids. She holds a B.A. in American studies from Columbia University.

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