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3 min

Breaking the silence around HIV

Time to care for each other and challenge institutional neglect

HIV is still with us. It’s Not over. Infection rates are rising among gay men in British Columbia.

This World AIDS Day I will be thinking about all the gay men who have tested positive here in the last five years.

In the late 1990s, gay men testing HIV-positive reached an all-time low. But in 2000 we saw a sharp increase. We hoped it was a one-time event, but now we know that it was the beginning of a trend.

This year, we saw 70 percent more new HIV infections than we did in 1999.

Today, we estimate that 1000 gay men in BC have been infected with HIV since 2000.

Having witnessed the first wave of suffering and death, I worry that not enough is being done to support gay men’s education and prevention initiatives.

Official silence continues to stifle strategic work that’s in everyone’s best interest. Why is government so reluctant to invest in gay men’s health? Why are gay men neglected in health policy?

Has institutional denial led people to believe that HIV has ended for gay men? Is cultural amnesia getting in the way of the very institutions gay men created to deal with HIV?

It’s true, HIV has dominated too much of our social and cultural lives in the last 25 years. Even so, the impact that HIV had on us has never really been acknowledged.

Today we estimate one in six gay men have HIV in Vancouver. It’s a reality that is too often ignored, a legacy that continues to affect us now. Such high prevalence intensifies the risk of exposure.

In 1988, the United Nations declared Dec 1 World AIDS Day-a day of awareness and reflection to remember those who died.

Each year, the UN asks the world to focus on an affected population and a call to action. Not surprisingly, there has never been a World AIDS Day theme focused on gay men. Imagine a slogan like this: “Gay Men: Our lives, Our world-Let’s take care of each other.” Never happened.

In 1989, perhaps suspecting that the United Nations would never declare a World AIDS Day for gay men, New York artists and activists organized A Day Without Art. It was a day of action and mourning in response to enormous anger and frustration. Galleries and theatres were asked to close their doors and send their staff to volunteer for community AIDS groups.

Despite such activism, silence has been a distinct feature of the HIV epidemic.

Here in BC, gay men experienced a decade of silence in the 1980s. The Social Credit government refused to fund AIDS Vancouver’s prevention initiatives. It was seen as a gay organization and therefore denied. The health minister of the time said, “Gays should look after their own kind”.

So many gay men died. I wonder if much has changed. Now we find ourselves having to break the silence about HIV again.

Not only do we need to get HIV infections back down, we need to reinvest in our capacity to look after our community’s health concerns.

One way to get involved is to attend BC’s first Gay Men’s Health Summit on World AIDS Day.

The summit will leave no place for silence. Come out for an afternoon of presentations and panels. Learn the latest on HIV trends in gay men. Is health policy supporting gay men’s health or hindering it? Are prevention programs really effective? Ask questions. Make comments.

The AIDS Quilt will also visit the summit. Remember the quilt?

Early on, the families and friends of gay men made quilt panels to memorialize those who were lost to AIDS. The panels grew by the thousands and, when laid out together, became a massive testimony to our suffering. The quilt is a part of our history, a symbol of how we broke through silence with dignity.

We haven’t seen much of the quilt since 1996 when the International AIDS Conference came to Vancouver.

When I moved to Vancouver from Toronto in 1986, my friends gathered for a goodbye dinner party: men I had known for years, guys who had helped me come out, ex-lovers who became best friends. By 1996 every one of them had died of AIDS.

This World AIDS Day I will be thinking of them.

Gay men are still dying of AIDS. Current treatments are helping thousands to live longer and better lives. But the side effects are cruel and the near marriage to the health system a real limit on personal independence. It’s a constant source of uncertainty.

This World AIDS Day it’s time to give visible support to gay men living with HIV. And it’s time to make sure that young gay men have better access to education and prevention.

It’s time to bring attention to the institutional neglect we have been experiencing. With such a critical health issue, it makes little sense to deny our needs.

This World AIDS Day it’s time to move forward collectively once again, as a community, in a way that honours our past and what we have learned from it.

We must break the silence together. I want to remember those I have lost. But I want to live in a community where gay men get the support we need to look after our own.