02 December 2006

World AIDS Non-event 2006

Protesters gathered at the Bastille monument held up posters and banners, reminding us that the world has been fighting AIDS for 25 years, and that since 1981, more than 25 million people have died from AIDS related illnesses.

Facts and figures about AIDS don’t make encouraging reading or writing, but I’m setting them out to make sure that I don’t forget. At present, almost 40 million people are living with the HIV virus, with 63% living in sub-Saharan Africa. Last year, there were 4.3 million new infections, with almost 3 million related deaths.

First rumours of a gay plague back in the early 1980s did not cause national governments in the western world to mobilise: it was the realisation that the heterosexual majority of the population was also at risk that prompted something to be done. In those early days, gay men and lesbians demonstrated great initiative, setting up volunteer groups and organisations to support those infected and educate those most at risk, while lobbying national governments to do more.

By the 1990s, much progress had been made, and I was among those who benefited. Thanks to what was done, I understood how AIDS was transmitted long before I had even a sneaking suspicion that I was gay. When I came out in the early 1990s, I knew to protect myself. There was no difficulty doing so, even in a place like Ireland where the sale of prescription contraceptives had been illegal until the 1980s.

It wasn’t until 1995, when I started professional employment with an organisation involved in HIV prevention work, that I appreciated how fortunate that I had been. Even at that time, UK public funding for projects that worked on prevention/with those infected was a contentious issue, although it received little publicity: projects working with those most at risk- gay men, sex workers, IV drug users – received much less of the allocated funding than projects working with those who were less at risk. It was a shocking imbalance; in the area where I worked, those projects working directly with gay men received only 5% of the prevention budget. Our organisation was one of several engaged in a fight to redress that imbalance and do what was possible with our share; with the commitment of volunteers within the gay community, we achieved a great deal.

By the end of the 1990s, ART enabled those infected to live healthier and longer. Since that time, AIDS activism has been on the wane, and so has public awareness of the risks and the issues, and so too has public funding. That trend is as likely to continue as the rise of HIV infections and related deaths.

Because my coming out fell within that blessed period of time between ignorance and complacency, I remain uninfected. Thankfully, I have never had to watch a friend die from AIDS, although unfortunately one of my best friends has been HIV positive for the last five years. He was upset when he discovered this and he went through a phase of being angry with himself, but in characteristic style he re-evaluated his own life: one of the positive outcomes is that he took time from his professional career to get involved with the African project, The HIV Gage.

Why am I talking about all this? Why did I attend the World AIDS Day vigil in Paris?

I’ve never forgotten how lucky that I was to have been born at the right time, that’s one of the reasons. I want to keep reminding myself of that, so that I continue to be careful. I want to give thanks.

Another reason is that I’ve never forgotten how indebted I am to those who were infected and died before anything was done: some of those men and women fought to make their personal suffering a political issue, and if it hadn’t been for their selfless courage, I might not be here.

Because many of those gay men left no partners to outlive them, or families to keep their memory alive and pay tribute, I feel morally obliged to do so, for no other reason that that I am also gay, and a day will come when I have left no descendants behind to remember me. Going on a march once a year doesn’t seem much, all things considered, but it’s better than nothing at all. With admiration, I look at the Jewish community and how they honour those 6 million people who died in Nazi concentration camps during WW2- their continuing commitment contrasts with that demonstrated by my own ‘community’ within living memory of the first AIDS infections.

With each passing year, the World AIDS Day vigils are attended less and less. Ile de France (Paris and its suburbs) has a higher rate of infection than anywhere else in the developing world, according to one of the people that I spoke to involved with a local group, yet no more than a thousand people bothered to attend that march this week. My anger about this trend is another good reason to attend.

There are more reasons: out of respect for my friend, as a mark of solidarity towards those who bothered to make the effort, and, most of all, to manifest concern for those that not enough has been done to help.

With anti-retroviral treatments available to us in developed countries, it’s convenient to forget that in sub-Saharan Africa less than 5% of those infected receive those treatments. In that part of the world, there is no effective lobby for more governmental involvement: citizens do not have the limited benefit of living in a democracy where effective protest will result in a response of some sort. Some of their governments continue to deny that the HIV virus exists.

If the G8 were to use influence to encourage change in those countries, it would make a considerable difference, saving thousands of lives. That is the reality. It is also the reality that most of the citizens living in the G8 countries don’t give a shit about what is happening in Africa. As for the gay 'community', we don't care any more than the majority. Most of us would rather not see any parallel between those who turned a blind eye to the plight of gay men dying in the 1980s, and those who are turning a blind eye to Africa now.

It outrages me that gays doesn’t feel more outrage about this issue. It rattles every homophobic bone in my body. There is nothing more contemptible than hypocrisy, but it comes close to show no gratitude for how fortunate we are- to have been warned, to have the means of prevention, to have anti-retroviral treatment available if we are unfortunate- yet have no empathy with those who are in the same position that we were in, less than a decade ago. It displays a selfishness of spirit.

I appreciate that there is not a lot that can be done by going on a march once a year, giving money once a year, volunteering every now and again… yet do nothing to extend our benefits to those in a situation equal to our own, that sickens me. The greatest mistake we can make is resigning ourselves to doing nothing because we can only do a little to make a difference.

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