The Surprising Source Of Connectedness Amongst Intergenerational HIV Positive Populations
The other day my friend asked me, “So what did you think about when you were diagnosed with HIV?”, and quite simply I replied, the Grim Reaper TV commercial.
For those who don’t know you can watch it online on YouTube, but at that time I was a young guy aware of my sexuality, thinking about being gay and how would that play out in my small country town where everyone knew everyone else’s business! Now, not only did I have the fear of being outed as gay, but I had also been handed the intersectionality of sex and death which amplified my fears about my sexual identity.
Naturally, this led to a prolonged self-stigma of hiding my sexuality and abstaining from sex.
Anyway, I digress. So back to my friend, “Huh, the Grim Reaper TV Commercial, but you have access to highly active antiretroviral therapy, so you know you’re not going to die from AIDS!”. Of course, I know he’s right and I know the facts, but what’s going on here? I explained to him TV was our main entertainment at home back in the 1980s and when this TV advertising launched in Australia in 1987 it created an indelible mark on my psyche that persisted as a latent fear, the fear of death.
From the moment the Doctor told me I was HIV positive, it was as if the panic mode had been activated and all my worst fears suddenly became real. Incredulously I listened, despair set in and despite all the best efforts of Doctors and Nurses helping me at that time, I was emotionally distant, essentially shell-shocked – I just wanted to be alone.
My friend, his diagnosis was in the early stages of the pandemic and a probable death sentence, as the treatments offered were in their nascent, experimental phase with deleterious side effects and a strict regimen of tablet dosage that made the treatment more than unbearable. His main goal was simply to survive, with the hope he could see an advance in therapy that could be more easily tolerated, let alone not suffering the calamity of drug resistance.
So yes, we have both suffered the trauma of being diagnosed HIV positive, yet the treatment modality was in stark contrast and the prognosis radically different, but we shared a common fear of dying and the stigma of the Grim Reaper TV campaign. That’s a powerful and damaging legacy of a marketing “fear campaign” that’s perpetuated over 30 years of stigma upon the LGBTQIA+ community and is what I called the surprising source of connectedness amongst HIV-positive populations. I could probably add the word ‘damaging’ before connectedness, but I strive for acceptance and see the resilience of elders within the PLHIV community who openly challenge the fear and create new hope.
It is from their legacy and the ongoing acceptance of our family, friends and allies who learn the positive truth about being HIV positive, that we can continue to challenge HIV-related stigma and discrimination which persists in many domains of everyday life such as social rejection, denial of health or social services, and the ongoing criminalisation of HIV transmission in certain circumstances.
Today and always, I stand with the generations of HIV-positive people worldwide and within my local community who strive for acceptance, compassion, and the human right to be loved. Your indomitable spirit will never be forgotten and at this year’s AIDS Candlelight Memorial Vigil, I will honour the elders who came before me and have gone too soon.