Toronto
3 min

What’s wrong with being a whore?

Recently editors at Xtra received an email from an HIV-positive activist in another country (when I contacted him he declined to say which one). His subject line reads: “Canadian AIDS activists bought off!”

His attitude is not atypical. At home and abroad people commonly declare that AIDS activists and AIDS service organizations (ASOs) that accept funding from the manufacturers of HIV/AIDS meds are working for the dark side. Drug companies, they argue, are greedy heartless beasts motivated only by profit. Because of them millions of people can’t afford the HIV drugs they need to stay alive. In the calculus of big business, they say, maximum profit trumps human life every time.

Although the email’s author says he isn’t Canadian, he is versed on the who’s who of our HIV activism scene. He condemns ASOs like the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation (TPWAF) for receiving funding from big pharmaceutical companies and he lashes out at two notable Canadian activists by name.

“I for one am tired of my Canadian ‘friends’ talking the talk while popping their ARVs (antiretroviral meds) and drinking bottled water,” he writes. “Meanwhile my friends and I will hope to have good water, third-rate ARVs and food tomorrow…. So much for community activism around HIV/AIDS in Canada.”

Let’s assume that Canadian activists and ASOs do get financial support from big pharma. I know a lot of the heroic players in HIV/AIDS communities personally. Our activists are the last loudmouths who would allow themselves to be big pharma’s paid monkeys and I would love for anyone to bitch directly to their faces about the money they get for the work they do.

One Toronto activist named in the email is someone whose leadership has been a galvanizing force since she found out she is HIV-positive almost two decades ago. She travels the globe and is outspoken in her criticism of governments and pharmaceutical giants, ceaseless in her demands for change.

The other local AIDS luminary, HIV-positive since the epidemic’s start, knows the disease inside and out. He is a media go-to guy for sound bites on the myriad issues stemming from the epidemic.

The idea that they, or any activist or ASO, is sullied by pharma bucks is insulting to them and the critical work they do. But, writes our emailer, “Canadian AIDS activist = drug company whore.”

What exactly is wrong with being a whore? Why shouldn’t Canadian ASOs, HIV/AIDS activists and poz folk enjoy a modicum of prosperity?

The writer refers to “These poor ‘disabled’ activists living hand-to-mouth on longterm disability or social assistance….”

The sarcasm stems from what many think an AIDS activist ought to be: flat broke, unmotivated, defeated, lying on a donated couch, numbed by television until pill time.

The dynamics of the Canadian AIDS scene beg for the relationship between big pharma and activists. Drug companies, in most cases forbidden by law to advertise directly to consumers, must find alternate ways to brand and market. They work with ASOs, often helping activists to be activists. In this way some of the profits from the sale of the drugs actually go to fight the disease.

Take our globetrotting activist, revered for teaching that AIDS is not just a gay disease. These days she is writing a book. I hear her writing coach is being paid for by a pharmaceutical company. That’s good. Whatever it takes to get what she has to say in print ASAP.

The activist, having lived with the disease for more than two decades, is now an HIV/AIDS expert in his own right. Shouldn’t he be treated and paid like any consultant? Why shouldn’t he get financial support for something that makes his activism more effective?

HIV/AIDS isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. There is no imminent cure. It’s a multibillion-dollar industry from which countless stakeholders profit. Why shouldn’t ASOs use some of that money to fight the disease? TPWAF just moved into lovely new digs. Why not? Would it look more politically correct if underpaid ASO staff scraped by operating out of hellholes?

In a country where celebrities with dubious talents earn large sums of money for chopping carrots on camera, we should make celebrities of our activists. They at least actually do things worth celebrating. The ones I know are all intelligent, media savvy and funny. Get them on ET Canada or give them reality shows; Canada’s Next Top Pharma Whore. I’d even host.

“I have before me two HIV-positive whores,” I’d say. “One of you isn’t HIV-positive enough.”

My heart hurts that our emailer and millions of others are suffering. But the pharma rep drives a BMW and the AIDS doc has a summer cottage. Let ASOs, activists and those with the disease have a break.