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By remembering others who continue to live through what we once suffered we will ultimately heal ourselves
Ash Kotak leads #AIDSMemoryUK - the campaign to establish a national tribute to memories of HIV and AIDS in Britain. He organised the London AIDS Vigil with the support of StopAIDS, Pride in London as part of the UK-wide #EndAIDS2030Fest. @ashkotak
Last week, a gay male friend publicly chastised me for announcing the theme for the London AIDS Vigil, which is taking place on Saturday for the 30th World AIDS Day – “Remembering Women Affected by HIV”. We had friends in common who died. He was mates with my boyfriend Nigel, who died of AIDS in 1995. The charge against me? He found it “offensive” that women were being highlighted when so many gay men have died.
AIDS has killed 35 million people worldwide. Today, 36.9 million people live with HIV and 52 percent are women. There are still 5,000 new infections per day, adversely affecting young women aged between 15 and 24, often due to poverty and violence.
So why would an urban, middle-aged, white, gay man, with the privilege of access to HIV medication, be so infuriated?
Many of us who lived through the AIDS era experience ongoing trauma. I often feel no one wants to hear my stories. I feel forgotten, abandoned. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) forces me to live unwanted and overwhelming feelings again and again. It has led to depression, blackouts and drug-fuelled sex.
It is common to believe that those who have had similar experiences automatically empathise with others going through the same. Wouldn’t it be comforting to live in a queer community where prejudice no longer exists?
As a queer community, we often think of ourselves as enlightened and liberal. The often-ignored truth is that racism is common and HIV stigma is the norm. We all carry some prejudices against others, it a fact and foolish to not admit it. The issue is how we each deal with them. Do we project our own anger onto those who we feel are lesser than us? Or do we rise up and take action to heal ourselves?
Are people living with HIV and dying of AIDS no longer important? Where are the demonstrations against HIV stigma and LGBT+ racism, for people dying of AIDS worldwide in 2018?
In an era when no one needs to die of AIDS, nearly a million people died last year. Half of all people living with HIV worldwide cannot access life-saving medication. HIV drugs have become a $18.8bn business.
What might surprise you is only half of the people living with HIV in the USA are on medication. Meanwhile, last year India announced it will provide free HIV treatment to all the 2.1 million people living with HIV there. Indeed, as patents on key HIV drugs components have expired, India is flooding the USA market with generic drugs, which will save billions and many lives.
It is not urban gay men who aren’t being treated, though. It is women, people of colour, the disempowered and marginalised. Nothing has changed from the beginning of AIDS. But what has become more evident is how privilege works.
When gay men were dying we all fought, because it was affecting people like ourselves. AIDS as I experienced it brought people together from all faiths, races, genders and sexualities, overcoming their own prejudices to work towards common goals of survival and self-dignity.
Meanwhile, a lie is being written about the history of AIDS. Many big films and plays about AIDS in Britain and the US only feature white, gay men.
Narratives don’t work in isolation. The plight of women and people of colour living with HIV and dying of AIDS in 2018 reminds us, as gay men, of our own history and our own sadness. By amplifying the narrative of other groups we are forced to examine our own collective past.
I do not know if my friend will come to the London AIDS Vigil. Our mutual friends and lovers are long dead. We who survived remember them privately, but vigils and memorials also give us a way to direct our own memories. They also say publicly that we remember that which was huge and terrible, and that it must never be forgotten.
By remembering others who continue to live through what we once suffered, by celebrating all life and saying all human beings are equal, we will ultimately heal ourselves. I hope this is what the London AIDS Vigil will be about. And I hope that it will be healing.
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