There is an immense emptiness without a generation of queer people who lost their lives throughout the HIV/AIDS crisis. But it is important to note the legacy they left behind through years of protesting and advocating for destigmatisation, and an improved healthcare system that doesn’t discriminate against minorities.
March 1987 saw the formation of ACT UP. A campaign started by a group of queer people in New York determined to change the way in which society viewed HIV/AIDS and the victims who contracted the virus, by challenging the oppressive politics with protests that couldn’t be ignored. A good example of their blunt and to-the-point activism was in response to Jesse Helms, a politician responsible for funding cuts to education surrounding the promotion of safe sex and spreading general misinformation about the gay community and HIV/AIDS. A giant, 15-foot condom was inflated over the politician’s home with the statement “A condom to stop unsafe politics, Helms is deadlier than a virus” printed on it was enough media coverage to overcome the censorship that HIV/AIDS awareness was experiencing at the time.
Here in the UK, we had our own branch of ACT UP, founded by long-time activist Peter Tatchell a little later in 1989. As many may remember from the scene in Russel T. Davis’ It’s a Sin, ACT UP London lay on the ground, known as a mass ‘die-in,’ in protest against The Sunday Telegraph for spreading misinformation that caused an increase in discrimination toward queer people and stigma around HIV and AIDS. ACT UPs message was simple: Silence = Death. Conversation, activism and awareness surrounding HIV will not stop until all marginalised groups have access to advanced healthcare. The little support for migrants, drug users and trans people living with HIV means many infections go undiagnosed – and this is all down to identity politics.
There are still are many misconceptions about HIV. The biggest being that it is a ‘gay disease’ – which is simply untrue. There are near enough the same number of heterosexual people who contract the virus as cis gay men. HIV is not only contracted sexually, but also through mixing of blood. This includes the sharing of intravenous needles, dialysis, or the mixing of blood between a mother and their unborn child.
Undetectable = Untransmittable. It is often wrongly assumed that people living with HIV can’t have healthy sexual relationships with other people. So long as their HIV viral load (amount of HIV virus in their blood) is undetectable, there is no way of transmitting the virus to someone else.
Nowadays there are various prevention medicines when it comes to HIV, two of those being PrEP and PEP. And despite there being no true cure, there are life-prolonging treatments that improve the quality of life of people living with HIV to a standard where they can live normal, healthy lives. This treatment, known as ART (anti-retroviral therapy) is an umbrella term. Varying on an individual basis, a healthcare professional will decide which of the 6 main classes of anti-retroviral drugs should be administered. These are normally combined and taken orally to drastically reduce someone living with HIV’s viral load.
A combination of misinformation, fear, intolerance, and hate led to the loss of an entire generation of marginalised people – it is only fair to honour them in remembrance on World AIDS day. And while there is still somewhat of a stigma surrounding HIV, the bravery of queer people has allowed us to move toward an improved society, where to be HIV+ can mean a full, happy and healthy life.
Word provided by Lewis Hadfield.