World AIDS Day
Holding on to hope
Welcome to the midweek issue of Sift. Shift. Lift. Yesterday was World AIDS Day, a day on which I cannot help but mourn and celebrate those loved and lost to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, which, despite medical advances and waning interest from tabloids, continues to claim lives throughout the world.
More than 20 years ago, I worked for a regional HIV/AIDS service organization. I remember showing up on my first day to find an altar of sorts, with several candles burning, near the front door. I soon learned that a candle was lit, every day for a week, when one of our clients passed away. In those early days, before effective drug treatments were widely available, candles burned steadily. They were the first (and last) thing I saw each work day.
People can (and do) live long, healthy lives following a diagnosis of HIV, but that doesn’t take away from the stigma, pain, and fear they experience. Nor does it acknowledge the very real health inequities that increase some people’s risk of being infected with HIV while decreasing their access to timely and effective care.
This post may be a day late, but it is my hope that we will continue to talk about HIV/AIDS, and support those living with it, 52 weeks a year. To get things started, I am sharing a few resources that provide a historical timeline of the AIDS pandemic and a snapshot of its current status. As always, I’m turning to academics, artists, and activists for insight. I hope you, too, will share what you learn with others.
Separating fact from fiction.
CATIE is one of the first organizations I turn to when I want to find up-to-date, accurate, and unbiased information about HIV and AIDS. The Canadian organization:
strengthens Canada’s response to HIV and hepatitis C by bridging research and practice. [It connects] healthcare and community-based service providers with the latest science, and promote[s] good practices for prevention and treatment programs.
You could spend hours exploring the resources on CATIE’s site. Here are a couple links to get you started.
This timeline highlights critical discoveries and events over the past 40 years. From 1981, when "the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) receive reports of unusually high rates of the rare diseases Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) and Kaposi’s sarcoma in young gay men,” to 2021, when “following the success of its mRNA vaccine for COVID-19, Moderna begins phase I trials for an mRNA-based HIV vaccine.”
In this brief, three-minute video, Dr. Fauci and other medical experts share the news that undetectable equals untransmittable. “These words have changed HIV prevention messaging and changed the lives of people living with HIV.”
The story behind the red ribbon
In 1991, a decade after the emergence of HIV, twelve artists gathered in a gallery in New York’s East Village. They had met to discuss a new project for Visual AIDS, a New York HIV-awareness arts organization.
It was there that they came up with what would become one of the most recognized symbols of the decade: the red ribbon, worn to signify awareness and support for people living with HIV.
At the time, HIV was highly stigmatized, and the suffering of communities living with HIV remained largely hidden. The artists wanted to create a visual expression of compassion for people living with HIV.
They took inspiration from the yellow ribbons tied on trees to show support for the US military fighting in the Gulf War. Additionally, they decided that the elegant loop of the ribbon shape was easy to make and replicate. They avoided traditional colours associated with the gay community, such as pink and rainbow stripes, because they wanted to convey that HIV was relevant to everyone. They chose red for its boldness, and for its symbolic associations with passion, the heart and love. — From WorldAIDSDay.org
Reconciling grief and loss through art.
AIDS had a deep, devastating impact on the arts and other creative industries like fashion. Artists were among the first to express the fear and anxiety, rage and tenderness, evoked by the virus. From the red ribbon to the AIDS Memorial Quilt, they created ways for people and communities to share in that expression of grief.
I was fortunate to help produce two Dancers for Life Gala events at the end of one century and the beginning of the next. Former prima ballerina and artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, Karen Kain, volunteered to host the events featuring dancers from Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal, the National Ballet, and Cirque du Soleil, all of whom had suffered the loss of friends and colleagues.
Movies like Philadelphia helped shift the way people with HIV and AIDS were perceived in mainstream society. As did songs like “Hold on” by Sarah McLachlan, which was inspired by the true story of a woman whose fiancé discovered he had AIDS.
Then, of course, there is singer Annie Lennox’s more recent TED Talk, Why I am an HIV/AIDS activist and her moving song “Sing.”
For more examples, check out:
What am I missing? Please share other recommendations in the comments, especially those from outside North America or from Indigenous artists.
Supporting people and organizations bringing about real change in the world.
I encourage you to seek out and support your local or regional HIV/AIDS service organization, or reach out to one of the many organizations working to reduce health inequities, including:
CAAN provides a National forum for Aboriginal Peoples to holistically address HIV and AIDS, HCV, STBBIs, TB, Mental Health, aging and related co-morbidity issues; promotes a Social Determinants of Health Framework through advocacy; and provides accurate and up to date resources on these issues in a culturally relevant manner for Aboriginal Peoples wherever they reside.
m2m is working towards the following United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): helping end the HIV/AIDS epidemic, ensuring good health, well-being, and decent work opportunities for everyone, and achieving gender equality by 2030.
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