We as a community are, at times, our own worst enemy. We scream and shout for acceptance and equality, yet we continue to segregate ourselves off into our self styled ‘ghetto’ in some desperate attempt to save our unique identity. But is this ‘identity’ even worth saving? On the surface it all looks good – nice bars, clubs, restaurants, galleries and parks – being gay has never been or looked better, and we remind ourselves and those around us about how proud we are with annual Pride festivals… even if the actual point and purpose of Pride for the majority is lost in pursuit of the party. But when you start to dig at the surface you uncover a community at complete odds with itself, deep in self-loathing, envy, petty jealousy and needless backstabbing and discrimination. For a community that has been at the blunt end of discrimination for so long and still is, you would assume we would know better than this and by automatic virtue treat one another with the same level of acceptance and equality we seek from society at large. But we don’t. Instead we seem more content to marginalise the community into neat little sub-genres, ensuring we now alienate ourselves further and further from one another. Now, throw into the mix something that doesn’t care about the genres and sub-genres we choose to create – something that has a long and mixed history with the community. For such a small community to be affected so significantly by a virus you would have thought that maybe, just maybe, this would somehow bring the community together – joined in a common purpose and goal – and we’d be drumming home the message of awareness as a solid unified community. Wouldn’t you? Not anymore. Whilst initial reaction did galvanise the community to some degree, that sense of solidarity much like the seriousness of the virus itself, on the surface, seems to have soon been forgotten. Whilst the ignorance to the subject demonstrated by society at large saddens me, the ignorance displayed by some from within the community itself terrifies me.

For most, not all, HIV still equals AIDS, which still equals death. Even more alarming, a lot of people still do not know the difference between the two. Some people will remember the ‘Don’t die of ignorance. Don’t die of AIDS!’ slogan from the late 80’s which was the government of the times’ attempt at addressing the issue by way of a national campaign to raise awareness. It didn’t quite work that way. This was the age of Thatcher after all, a time when Section 28 of the Education Act was a key piece of legislation so with the sudden epidemic of a virus that some dubbed the ‘gay plague’; I remain unsurprised by the approach the government took in light of their stance on homosexuality. But the problem as I see it is that ever since this colossal fuck-up that was a campaign, no one has really touched the issue on a national level.

This is not to say the issue of HIV has never been addressed anywhere else. Never let a soap opera not see an opportunity for a story line after all. To some degree I can’t call them for the fact they addressed the issue by introducing HIV characters; which again helped raise awareness. But, you just knew, when Todd Carty decided enough was enough, that the character of Mark would surely die of AIDS. We all knew this the minute his character confirmed his status. HIV characters have appeared elsewhere. And refreshingly not always gay characters either.

But TV is not the only place HIV awareness has been alive and kicking. The world of fashion often supports HIV foundations, and United Colours of Benetton went one step further. My belief has always been that if you have a message to make, make it, and make sure people remember it. United Colours of Benetton attempted just that. In February 1992 Benetton’s method of communication changed radically, using a photo of David Kirby in his hospital room with his family at his bedside taken by Therese Frare. In November 1990 this image had already appeared in Life magazine as a black and white press photo and had already won the 1991 World Press Photo Award, however Benetton’s use of the same image as part of its advertising was what brought it to the attention of the world’s media and made people start talking about AIDS again. I understand the power an image has and how at times we need it, just like they needed it – the world needed to wake up, and for a small time it did. Yet they, we, soon forgot the message. But it worked, for a small period of time it worked where the Tory campaign in the 80’s had failed so miserably because it achieved what the national campaign never even came remotely close to doing. It gave the virus a human face. It gave us David and his family and for a time it made us think. And for that moment David was me, and he was you. He was my parents, my family and my friends. He was all of us. It made you think; me think, in ways a tombstone and an iceberg simply cannot. It made you think of those close to you. It made you thankful that David and his family were not you, but it also made you look past the ‘catch phrases’, the virus and made you look at the person and think, what if?

I noticed that all political parties rushed to actively speak out about raising awareness on the 1st December – World AIDS Day – but one must ask, where are the national government initiatives and campaigns if they are that keen on raising awareness? I’ve already made my views felt about the misguided knee-jerk approach taken by the Tory party on raising awareness in the past and the fact we’re still, rather ironically, fighting the stigma that this campaign helped to generate. But should mistakes made by others in the past be allowed to continually haunt us? Should we not look at this as a warning of what can happen when subjects are approached in an insensitive sterile manner, where the facts and information are ignored for the sake of putting the fear of God into us, making us give in to paranoia instead of listening to the rational thoughts our brains are telling us? We see it everywhere, the power of paranoia. We’ve gone to war on the strength of it.

I’m also aware of various online initiatives – the Internet is a powerful tool – but is this really enough and with the rate of new diagnoses still worryingly high one has to ask the question, is enough still being done? The answer has to be an overwhelming no. I was aware it was World AIDS Day mainly because that day has more meaning to me now than ever before, but also due to my own level of awareness coupled with knowledge of groups on Facebook of all places. But away from Facebook and the Internet, I did not see or hear much mention of it. The number of Red Ribbons I saw was depressingly low as well.

I’ve discussed the significance of the Red Ribbon with friends, both positive and negative and all seem to agree on one thing: the importance of the message it symbolises has been lost, due in part to the fact that some people disturbingly are not aware of what it means, or sadly, simply do not care because it doesn’t affect them and look down on those with whom it does affect with contempt. Yet, on a personal note, it was a very touching and heart warming feeling to log onto Facebook and see how many of my ‘friends’ had changed their profile pictures, and from those I noticed more then three quarters had added the red ribbon; almost all of them were friends who are aware of my status. Coincidental or not it still touched me, but the bitter side of this pill was that this was still a small handful out of a few hundred friends, which I feel is sadly very telling of the problem at hand.

Ignorance breeds fear and fear breeds stigma. Raising awareness only goes so far in rectifying the situation. Education and accessible, straightforward information is paramount. When I attended a local HIV charity soon after my diagnosis for simple basic advice and assistance, I was taken aback by just how much information on the subject was available; I felt the same with the GUM clinic. But why is this information not out there and far more accessible already? I’m not ignorant, yet besides the collection boxes that become ever more apparent the closer we get to Pride weekend and World AIDS day, for the most part, there is no mention of it. The ribbons are soon taken off, put away till next December and the day itself, the 1st December, is then only remembered as a point to start the countdown to Christmas from.

So yes, sadly I feel our community still has a lot to learn about what it means to be living with HIV today. It may not be the gruesome reality it was 25 years ago, but nor is it a walk in the park on a Sunday afternoon. Still today, for many awareness of what living with HIV really means is largely shrouded in blissful ignorance, because the unpleasant realities have been airbrushed from HIV campaigns for years now, replaced with a message of it no longer being a death sentence, the medications do work. Half-messages lulling some into a false sense of security and with no government showing a keen interest on initiating a national campaign of productive awareness – past the scripted ‘sound-bites’ designed to display false empathy – to work alongside the good work that is being done by organisations and individuals; I don’t see this situation changing anytime soon. Within all the silence and mixed-messages, society has forgotten the real dangers, blinded by complacency whilst becoming more concerned over trivial matters of celebrity, and what they wore at the weekend, rather than the real issues of the day. I feel it really will take a celebrity coming out as being HIV positive before the majority in this country sits up, pays attention and takes note.

We seem to live in an age where everybody wants to change the world, but just do not want to change with it – the comforts of denial and ignorance are far more alluring. After all, it is something that you always hear affects others? So whilst ignorance is rife amongst the meek, the invisible army will remain just that and awareness will only ever reach those for whom it is already sadly too late. Bombs will always fall and fall, yet the world still goes on and we soon learn to forget the lessons learnt and the reasons why. HIV may be considered manageable, at a price, but I’d sooner not have to manage it, I’d sooner not have it at all. The knowledge that the drugs do work does nothing to reassure me or help make me accept my situation better, and nor should it you.