Saturday 1st December marked World AIDS Day, a truly international event that both remembers all those affected by HIV/AIDS and looks forward to a day where suffering, stigma and pain will be consigned to the history bin along with the disease itself. I am currently writing my PhD on the evolution of HIV/AIDS images (namely how the phenomenon has been depicted in films and public awareness campaigns) in Québec, Canada’s French-speaking province famous for maple syrup and Céline Dion. My research and general participation in my university’s LGBT community has led me to draw three conclusions:
1. ‘AIDS isn’t a big deal anymore’
The popular misconception that people no longer die from AIDS and AIDS-related conditions in the Western world is a damaging one. It is true that the number of people who now die from AIDS in the UK is virtually non-existent; fantastic news made possible by scientific developments and the largely successful instilling of a culture of testing across both LGBT and the wider society. However, PEP is now considered by some as a morning after pill, having morphed from being a last resort action to an excuse not to play safe. AIDS activism in the 80’s and 90’s pushed governments and pharmaceutical giants into finding an affordable and effective treatment for HIV/AIDS. This impetus for social and sexual change seems to have waned in recent years, allowing complacency to flourish.
2. ‘I don’t need to use condoms because I regularly get tested’
Whatever way it may be sugar-coated, HIV testing splits humans into two categories: those who are healthy and those who are sick. People like the safety and comfort of scientific knowledge. A test result gives us the concrete answer that we naturally crave to an issue that has been sensationalised over the years beyond recognition. HIV is not a tombstone, or a beast that goes bump in the night: it is a preventable disease, and we are all better than it. It is unrealistic to expect 100% of all sexual encounters to be carried out safely, with condom use in oral sex and in committed relations remaining something of a grey area. However, surely greater use of condoms would vastly negate the need for us to constantly define ourselves as sick or healthy? Protection means respect, and respect means greater unity in our community, another important LGBT attribute that appears (to me at least) to be on the decline. This may seem an obvious thing to say, but continually rising HIV infection figures amongst men who have sex with men as well as the heterosexual population show that perhaps this isn’t as obvious to some people as you might think.
3. ‘I wouldn’t have sex with someone who was poz’
This is probably one of the most contentious points of all when it comes to HIV. Most would argue that it is universally preferable to remain HIV negative as opposed to becoming positive. If anything, by remaining negative you are freeing up a corner of the NHS budget for those who really need treatment. This, however, does not give those who have categorised themselves as ‘healthy’ the right to shun those who are positive or who have AIDS into a cupboard, never to be spoken to again. Both happy and healthy platonic and sexual relationships can easily be had between an HIV positive person and a HIV negative person, provided that stigma and silence is replaced by frank and honest conversation. Easier said than done, I know, but possible nonetheless.
You may agree or disagree with some of the specifics of what I have said, that is completely fine. If I have come across as moralising, this was not my intention and I apologise. However, just over thirty years since HIV/AIDS started wiping out large parts of the LGBT community, we cannot and must not rest on our laurels. The increasingly glorified HIV/AIDS-less fantasy world of bareback porn simply does not exist. It is up to us to be realistic, frank and to make decisions based on respect to ourselves and to all of those around us, to stay safe and to have fun.