My impression is that Gilles Denizot would never declare himself to be the “general” of the Red Ribbon Army, a Facebook page with an astounding membership of over 500,000, but you could in all honesty as call him the communications officer.
Not only does he often post breaking related news to the group, but also each member is free to do the same – a true community service, social networking style.
Born in Geneva, Switzerland, and from a multicultural background, Gilles, 43, has both French and Swiss citizenships. He now resides in Hamburg, Germany.
“My upbringing included a strong musical and artistic education, and early exposure to foreign cultures and languages,” he said, but did he come from a supportive family? “Supportive of homosexuality? Absolutely not. My sister however was always with me, and still is. Bless her!”
“I never officially came out, as I never felt the need to,” Gilles said. “I understand and respect the fact that many need to come out and tell. I command their courage. I simply did not feel the need to tell to be approved or to build my identity. I am much more than my sexuality. And my sexuality does not define me.”
His Facebook page gives his relationship status as “married” but he shared, “I am not married as marriage is denied to LGBT human beings in Germany. A civil partnership (Lebenspartnerschaft) is the only available option.”
Gilles many passions including opera, overturning the death penalty worldwide, and empowering the fight against HIV/AIDS. “I use my voice for equal human rights for all human beings,” he stressed.”
“I was born in a family of artists,” Gilles said. “My great-grandfather was a famous tenor and general manager of the Geneva Grand Theatre. My grandfather was a professional clarinet player. He taught me how to read a score before I knew how to write, and he also gave me my first lessons in violin, piano, and singing. I guess I was destined to become a singer too and rapidly began performing in major venues worldwide. I then was fortunate to grow into a voice teacher and also began staging opera.”
“In 2000 I founded OperaLab and have been directing it since,” Gilles said. “OperaLab is a private research, training, and promotion organization for classical singers. Its main studio is in Hamburg, Germany and there are eight more studios in Europe and in North America. In addition, I also give Masterclasses in other cities. Having experienced an international career working with eminent figures of the operatic world certainly was instrumental in giving me reputation and credibility to teach and train younger singers.”
I wondered what does Gilles find most fulfilling about his musical life?
“My goals in pursuing a career have varied greatly since my debut,” Gilles said. “I should say that as a singer, I am particularly proud of having commissioned and/or first-performed many new works. I also have a special love for words, in original languages, for poetry, for conveying emotions to the audience. As a vocal tutor, I want to provide my students with a healthy and reliable technique and to reveal their talents. Masterclasses are my favorites – I like to help students in getting a broader, larger perspective on life, through music.”
I originally connected to Gilles because of the Red Ribbon Army but as a result learned that he works passionately worldwide in opposition of the death penalty.
“I oppose the death penalty in all cases without exception regardless of the nature of the crime, the characteristics of the offender, or the method used by the state to kill the prisoner,” Gilles said. “The right to life (the first of human rights) is inalienable and should always be respected. Even for those who do not respect it. In 2009, the USA was among the five top executioners along with China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Japan, another death penalty ‘democracy’ shows a bad example to many Asian countries such as Taiwan.”
“Yet, more than two-thirds of the countries of our world have abolished capital punishment in law or in practice,” Gilles stressed. “We are on the way to universal abolition! As a board member of the American organization ‘Journey of Hope … From Violence to Healing’, I look forward to the day when people will realize that the death penalty only creates more victims and more violence because it legitimates killings. There is another way.”
How has HIV/AIDS impacted and influenced Gilles’ life? When and for how long has he been an activist?
“I have been an activist against HIV/AIDS since 1992,” Gilles said. “In 1993, I traveled to New York to locate music by composers who were hit by HIV/AIDS. We have lost most of them now, but I keep their music alive by singing in the annual NYC Day Without Art/World AIDS Day concert. I am also featured on the CD ‘Sudden Sunsets,’ a 1995 live performance recorded at Lincoln Center NYC with works by the late Chris DeBlasio on poetry by my friend Perry Brass.”
About the recent elimination of travel restrictions by the U.S. against people with HIV AIDS, Gilles said, “About time, after 22 years! This was one of those revolting U.S. policies, based on fear and ignorance such as DADT (don’t ask, don’t tell), or the FDA ban on gay blood donations, or Prop. 8.”
About his social networking success, Gilles said, “In November 2008, we created the group ‘World AIDS Day 2008: Wear A Red Ribbon on Facebook!’ with the simple premise of spreading awareness of HIV/AIDS and remembering lost loved ones by switching our profile pictures collectively for December 1 (World AIDS Day or WAD). Note that we did it again in 2009 and we will do it again this year. The group quickly evolved, becoming not only a hub for information on HIV&AIDS, WAD initiatives and events worldwide, but also a place for members to share their experiences of HIV/AIDS and to leave tributes for loved ones they have lost.”
“On Dec. 1, 2008, less than four weeks after creation,” he said, “the group was 240,000 strong and had to be turned into a page. The sea of red ribbons was amazing to see rippling across Facebook. We are now over 500,000 and I have also created Twitter and YouTube accounts for the RRA (Red Ribbon Army). I believe the RRA touches both PLWHA and individuals who simply want to learn more about HIV/AIDS and show solidarity.”
“Acceptance and respect for and from all RRA members is paramount,” Gilles said, “I strictly monitor the page to avoid heinous comments. I am proud to say that in most cases, RRA members reply immediately to such comments and I appreciate the high quality level of information they share. To administrate a page with so many articulate and responsible members is the sign of a successful social network presence.”
“Now regarding power, let me just say that we can be extremely strong,” Gilles said. “Imagine the power of ALL +500,000 members reacting when an urgent action is posted, such as saying no to executions for gays or people living with HIV/AIDS in Uganda or to support women and children who struggle with the disease. Imagine the power of the 1.2 million estimated crowd at the 2009 San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade & Celebration, the largest in the USA. Imagine them showing pride AND outrage …
“How can you celebrate being gay and ignore your brothers and sisters about to be hanged in Uganda or in Iran? ECPM will alert people at the 2010 Paris Gay Pride. Unity IS power!”
And of course, my standard question, “What gives you courage and hope?”
“I have courage because I am not alone,” Gilles said. “I have hope because I see others joining to make our world better for us all. We are all connected. We are all connected even if you don’t see that we are. As my friend Bill Pelke always says, ‘The answer is love and compassion for all of humanity.’”
Follow Gilles at gillesdenizot.com/blog, and I would like to invite you to enlist in the force where there is no DADT policy.
Join the fan pages, www.Facebook.com/Nicholas.Snow and www.Facebook.com/ThePowerToBeStrong, as well as the social network www.ActionEqualsLife.com. With questions or comments, e-mail Nicholas at [email protected].