“Here’s our opportunity as politicians to make sure that we, as the leaders of the country, make sure that we let those folks know that we’re there to be with them and support them through whatever they’re going through, and make sure that we can find ways to defeat this.”
Twenty years ago, NDP MP Glenn Thibeault’s brother Roger died of AIDS. Roger may be gone, but the lessons he taught Thibeault stay with him to this day.
“I’m still learning from some of the stuff he taught me,” Thibeault says. “Even if I go back to the last Parliament, the [trans bill], trying to understand some of the things that I was talking about with my brother 20 years ago, and some of the issues that he went through, and it’s like wow – we’re still having to have this discussion, we’re still having to have this debate.”
From the time Thibeault was 12, Roger took advantage of opportunities to help his younger brother understand his world.
“I remember watching a Michael Jackson video, and out of the mouth of a 12-year-old comes ‘Michael Jackson is such a fag,’ and I had no clue what it meant,” Thibeault says. “He didn’t freak out. He just said, ‘Do you really know what that means?’ And I said, ‘Not really. I hear it around the schoolyard.’
“We had a whole conversation at that point about what that word meant and how he was gay and the whole process, and I’d heard rumblings from my sisters and my parents that he was gay, but again the word ‘gaylord’ was something you’d hear on the school playground,” Thibeault says. “So at 12 years old, I had an understanding about how that wasn’t a word you wanted to use in a derogatory context, and it was great that he started at that point and didn’t jump the gun, but saw that as a learning opportunity – an opportunity to step in and explain.”
Thibeault takes this lesson to his own daughters, knowing these kinds of moments can be used to bridge gaps.
Thibeault was 21 when his brother died, and he felt the need to get involved with the local AIDS committee in North Bay, where he was working as a radio newscaster. As a young, straight man showing up at the committee’s AGM, people wondered why he was there, but Thibeault was eager to play his part.
“I was speaking to the ED and said I’m more than happy to be on the board, and as a media guy more than happy to help out with fundraising,” Thibeault recalls. “By the end of the meeting, I ended up being vice-chair of the board, chair of the planning and policy committee that comes with being vice-chair. I was chair of the fundraising committee and chair of the awareness committee, and I walked out going, Holy cow, what did I just get myself involved in?”
Still, his youthful energy and ideas were beneficial in an era when stigma around AIDS as a gay disease was more prevalent.
Thibeault will never forget his brother’s funeral, which Roger helped plan, ensuring pictures were displayed of 12 other friends who had also died of AIDS.
“So many of his friends ended up dying alone because they didn’t have family, they didn’t have friends; they were even shunned from their own community because they had HIV/AIDS in the early ’90s,” Thibeault says. “Now I say, Why am I involved in the hospice in Sudbury? It’s because I wanted to ensure that no one has to [die alone].”
For World AIDS Day, Thibeault is hoping to share what he learned from his brother with Parliament.
“I hope I can bring the message that our job’s not done yet, that we still need to bring forward awareness, we still need to work harder on research, we still need to work harder on making sure that society understands that on World AIDS Day, it’s affecting everyone,” Thibeault says. “The sad thing that I see in some instances, coming from different parts of the country, there’s still the stigma that this is still a gay disease. It’s not.”
Thibeault feels it’s incumbent upon politicians to ensure the necessary resources are there so people with HIV/AIDS can live with dignity.