Keep talking about HIV/AIDS

There are many reasons a mother’s heart jumps (or worse) when her son comes out of the closet. Fear of “it,” HIV, the virus, the gay cancer, is usually chief among them.

We console our moms, telling them we’ll be safe, responsible, always use a condom. I did.

But the reality is often different. Sometimes things happen in the heat of the moment. Rage and passion, agony and ecstasy, the lubrication provided by alcohol and drugs; even the most “responsible” of us makes mistakes, gets swept up in the moment. I have. Let’s be honest — most of us have.

We don’t often talk about this; we don’t often admit that fucking up is okay, that we still engage in risky behaviour when we know we shouldn’t.

When we do have these conversations and come out the other side of fear and ignorance, it is enlightening, educational and empowering. Sometimes we even change our behaviour.

When Jessica Whitbread got HIV she took responsibility for it, admitted to herself and everyone in her life that she was in control of what went between her legs and that she would live with the consequences. Some might disagree with this; others will call Whitbread brave and liberated.

Whitbread and other activists have teamed up on a poster campaign to get people talking about some difficult issues around sex and HIV. It has worked. One has to look no further than the comment section under the story on Xtra’s website to see that such discussions are divisive, charged and passionate. Many conversations about sex, sexual rights and HIV are. The fact we are having them is a good thing.

It’s the 30-year anniversary of our short time with HIV/AIDS. In that time the virus has rapidly spread, much like the stigma surrounding it, because we’ve been scared to have tough, messy conversations and face those unspoken realities about our sex lives.

People like Stephen Lewis have talked about the devastation this silence and stigmatization has caused in Africa. Having lived in southern Africa, I, too, have seen up close what happens when people don’t face reality and don’t talk about HIV or sex. And despite the best efforts of activists like Lewis, there are big sharks in the water. Corrupt governments, avaricious pharmaceutical companies, tabloid media and a prurient, primitive Catholic Church continue to sit by and watch as millions die.

In Canada, numbers show us that even though we may know the facts, we don’t necessarily change our behaviour. A 2011 Social Research Centre in HIV Prevention poll on Canadians’ attitudes, knowledge levels and perceptions about HIV and AIDS found that, while 30 years on we are much more knowledgeable about HIV, our behaviours have not fallen in step.

The study found that 93 percent of Canadians 16 years and older consider themselves “moderately knowledgeable” about HIV and AIDS. Yet 57 percent of Canadians with multiple or casual sexual partners do not use condoms, and 47 percent have never been tested for HIV.


This is why the disease has become less concentrated in Canada’s gay community, with prevalence amongst women, First Nations people and black Canadians on the rise. However, rates among gay men also continue to rise, despite much better information about the disease. Why aren’t we engaging in more responsible interactions?

For its part, our Conservative government has also ignored scientific findings, choosing not to invest in harm reduction and instead to bury its head in the sand, cut funding to HIV/AIDS programming and refuse to take on big pharma.

The study also notes, quite rightly, that our behaviours are shaped by our social, political, cultural and economic situations. We do have control over some of these. One sure way to hammer away at negative behaviours is through continuous engagement in dialogue, discussion and debate. It’s untidy, frustrating, painful and not always fruitful, but it’s all we have.

As we enter the fourth decade with HIV, let’s keep talking.

Danny Glenwright was formerly Xtra’s managing editor. He has a background in human rights journalism and media training and a masters in international cooperation and development from Italy’s University of Pavia. Before coming to Xtra, Danny was the editor of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary news service in South Africa and a regular contributor to South Africa’s Mail and Guardian news. He has also worked in Sierra Leone, Palestine, Namibia, the United Kingdom and Rwanda.

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