Red Tie Night returns to OKC on March 4 

click to enlarge Molly Ross and Sean Olmstead
  • Molly Ross and Sean Olmstead

When the first AIDS cases were diagnosed in 1981, the disease was often met with whispers. Then megawatt Hollywood actor Rock Hudson died and put a face on the crippling new disease. Not long after, Hudson’s longtime friend, actress Elizabeth Taylor, began fundraising efforts among the Hollywood elite and HIV and AIDS entered the mainstream consciousness.

In Oklahoma, the death of Jackie and Barbara Cooper’s son gave the disease a local face. When their son died, the auto dealer and his wife turned their grief toward doing something positive and started Oklahoma AIDS Care Fund (OACF) with a small group of friends.

The group’s largest fundraiser, Red Tie Night, turns 25 this year. Red Tie Night is 6:30 p.m.-midnight Saturday at National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, 1700 NE 63rd St.

“As we turn 25, we are making some big changes,” said Paula Love, OACF Board of Directors president. “We are moving the event to the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. I think our patrons will be genuinely pleased with the transformations, combining all the traditional elements of Red Tie Night with some fresh, modern ideas.”

Modernized mission

Times have changed since the early days of the disease, and HIV and AIDS are no longer the death sentences they once were. Back then, the lifespan for a person newly diagnosed was around 18 months.

The advent of new meds in the 1990s transformed HIV and AIDS into more manageable chronic illnesses akin to diabetes.

In spite of the advances in treatments, HIV and AIDS cases continue to rise in Oklahoma.

According to the Oklahoma State Department of Health, 317 new cases of HIV were diagnosed in 2015, the last year for which statistics are available.

Of those, 86 percent were male, and 14 percent were female. Blacks and African-Americans had the highest rate of infections among all racial and ethnic groups. And the 20-39-year-old age group had the highest number of new infections at over 65 percent of the total number in 2015.

Love said the need for funds remains as crucial as it was a couple of decades ago because people are living longer with HIV and AIDS.

“OACF provides grants to local agencies that help those who are infected,” she said. “Medications are expensive and can cost upwards of $3,000 a month. By keeping viral loads down and the disease at an undetectable level, our fellow Oklahomans are able to live long, healthy lives with the right treatment. That’s why the funds we raise at Red Tie Night are still so vital.”

All proceeds raised from the annual event remain in Oklahoma.

Expanding advocacy

The 25th anniversary gala honors Barbara Cooper for her pioneering efforts.

“When her son Jerry passed away, Barbara and her late husband Jackie made it their life’s mission to help those in Oklahoma who were living with HIV/AIDS,” Love said. “In those early days, there was very little fundraising happening here. And the few fundraisers that did exist were mostly at gay bars, and they were struggling. The Coopers have served as advocates these past 25 years, and they have also been instrumental in helping reduce the stigma that still surrounds an HIV or AIDS diagnosis. They brought together other families dealing with loss and grief and have forever made an impact on so many lives. We are proud to honor Barbara’s legacy this year.”

Throughout its 25-year history, Red Tie Night has raised more than $12.5 million. All proceeds stay in Oklahoma and benefit HIV and AIDS treatment, prevention and related services.

One of the first groups to benefit from Red Tie Night was Regional AIDS Interfaith Network (RAIN) Oklahoma.

“We have been providing comprehensive HIV and AIDS services in central, western and southwestern Oklahoma for more than 26 years,” said Julie Lovegrove, RAIN executive director. “Throughout much of our existence, the Oklahoma AIDS Care Fund has provided vital financial support to our organization. We have had so many changes in treatment, medication and prognosis, yet we have so many new clients every month. And they are young clients.

“The funds provided through grants from OACF mean we can provide HIV testing kits, outreach and education for our fellow Oklahomans in need. We are so fortunate for OACF and the compassion they share with others.”

Molly Ross and Sean Olmstead co-chair this year’s event, which features a silent and live auction and regional music act Dave and the Wavetones.

“As an organization, we have come a long way in the past quarter-century,” Love said. “We have come a long way in the treatment of the disease as well. But until the day we can say we have found a cure, we will continue our efforts. That’s why our generous patrons mean so much to us.”

Tickets and sponsorships start at $350. Visit

Print headline: Lasting legacy, Red Tie Night celebrates 25 years of helping Oklahomans with HIV and AIDS as it continues its work.

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Mark Beutler

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