By Amber Perera
The history of the AIDS crisis is that of stigma and silence. Openly speaking about AIDS and battling misinformation is of great political significance, helping to normalise living with the virus and dispel myths about HIV/AIDS which led to the vilification and marginalisation of the gay community. In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, World AIDS Day has taken on a new significance as the silent pandemic which still affects the lives of millions.
It is estimated 25 million people have died from HIV/AIDS, and roughly 33 million people are currently living with HIV/AIDS.
Given the context of systemic inequality in global healthcare outcomes race and sexuality, increasing awareness for the HIV/AIDS pandemic is a political act which foregrounds queer and POC lives as valuable.
HIV/AIDS was ignored by Reagan and Thatcher when the virus began to proliferate in the 1980s. In the early days of the pandemic it was common for those with AIDS to be blamed for their illness due to the widely held view that AIDS was directly caused by homosexual behaviour, thus leading to its stigmatisation as a ‘gay disease’ to which the general population was not at risk. Although AIDS was first identified in 1981, Reagan did not mention it publicly for several more years, notably during a press conference in 1985 and several speeches in 1987. Three years into the AIDS pandemic, 7239 cases and 5,596 deaths had been reported, with no action from the White House.
In the UK, reports of a ‘gay plague’ were rife in the 1980s; this was an age of stigma and misinformation HIV.
This reflects the scientific community’s inability to explain the unfolding pandemic, which led to widespread blame of gay community in wake of fear and uncertainty.
The UK’s 1987 campaign ‘don’t die of ignorance’ stigmatised survivors of the virus further. However, artists such as Keith Haring used their art to fight for LGBT+ equality and sex education: working to lift the spirits of the LGBT+ community during the height of the AIDS crisis. Nations such as Uganda and Zimbabwe – successfully provided public health information and slowed the spread of the disease – but international AIDS groups did not follow Uganda’s model, overlooking simple, inexpensive approaches shown to prevent HIV spread.
Being HIV-positive is no longer a death sentence; there is more hope for HIV-positive people with access to healthcare than there has ever been.
Public figures such as Jonathan Van Ness (Queer Eye) who was diagnosed with HIV seven years ago, have shown that it is possible to live a fulfilled life while being HIV-positive.
Since the mid-90s, antiretroviral treatment has enabled HIV to be managed as a chronic condition rather than being a death sentence; furthermore the viral load can be lowered such that it is possible to be HIV-positive and not infect your partner. PrEP, the drug taken by HIV negative people n order to prevent HIV transmission, was rolled out in NYC in 2015, PrEP is set to be rolled out by NHS England as of September 2020, although funding beyond the first year has not been confirmed.
A HIV diagnosis continues to carry stigma and misunderstanding, and political demand to make life better for survivors and decrease transmission continue to be underfunded.
By engaging with World AIDS Day, you are standing in solidarity with those affected by HIV/AIDS. Below is a list of media curated by Sexpression Durham (special shoutout to Anne Herbert-Ortega!) to watch related to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Another special mention to my favourite play, Angels in America; a surreal, heart wrenching and unapologetically queer tale of hope.
By speaking about HIV, we create an environment where it is easier for people to be open, get tested and seek care.
HIV can live outside the body. The virus can only stay outside the body for three seconds before dying
HIV is transmitted by all kinds of physical interaction. Unprotected sex and needles are most effective ways of transmitting – receptive anal sex is most likely to result in HIV transmission to bloodstream.
HIV can be transmitted by all bodily fluids. There are only five fluids in which HIV is present: semen anal mucous vaginal fluids, breastmilk – it’s not contained in tears or saliva – when the copy of the virus is so low that it is undetectable then it cannot be transmitted
Most people who have HIV are LGBT+. Half of British citizens with HIV are heterosexual – it is a myth that the virus is mainly transmitted amongst gay men – but it is true that the virus is most easily transmitted by anal sex of all the types of sex
Films, documentaries and TV series to watch for World AIDS Day
Dallas Buyers Club
The Normal Heart (starring Mark Ruffalo, Jim Parsons, Matt Bomer, Julia Roberts and Alfred Molina)
Holding the Man
120 Beats Per Minute (French film about AIDS activism and homosexuality in the 90s in Paris, based on the true story of ACT UP)
Sorry Angel (French)
How to Survive a Plague
And the Band Played On
Tongues Untied (challenges of being black and gay)
Fire in the Blood (pharmaceutical companies and Western governments preventing low-cost drugs in the global south)
We were here (HIV/AIDS in San Francisco)
Last Men Standing (survivors 25 years on)
Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt
All of US: An Investigation of Rising HIV Cases Among African American Women (available on Kanopy through Durham)
Memories of a Penitent Heart
United in Anger: A History of ACT UP
Voices from the front: AIDS activism
Remembering the Man: A True Story of Love and Loss [Kanopy]
Thing with no name: The Story of HIV Positive Women in South Africa [Kanopy]
Still Around: 15 Short Films Commemorating the 30-year Anniversary of the Epidemic HIV Story Project
Angels in America
If you’d like to know more: