Flashback 1992: Changing the rhetoric of HIV/AIDS

First published South Australian Institute of Teachers Journal, November 11, 1992

World AIDS Day dates back to 1988, when an international summit of health ministers called for ‘a spirit of social tolerance and a greater exchange of information on HIV/AIDS’.

Since then each December 1st has been observed worldwide as a day of action, designed to raise community awareness of HIV/AIDS and act as a catalyst for new and greater commitments against the pandemic, and all its associated stigmas. In principal the notion of a World AIDS Day is great but as all educators understand there is much more to raising awareness than purchasing a badge that calls for social justice, or even tolerance, one day out of 365 a year. Education like conception is a process, not a split-second event.

In the past ten years HIV/AIDS has been forced onto the public’s agenda, in the news on radio and television. It has been the subject of countless theatrical productions, art exhibitions, charity fundraising events, healthcare education programs and numerous other outlets of the cultural milieu. A veritable AIDS Industry has arisen: Health Commission HIV/AIDS Unit, Education Department AIDS Education Team, AIDS Councils in every State and Territory, specialist AIDS lobby groups such as ACT UP and the National People Living with HIV/AIDS Coalition, the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations et al.

It astonishes me then that despite the fact that ten years have passed, for some very little has changed. PLWHAs (People Living with HIV/AIDS) continue to live underground, hiding from prejudice, ignorance and fear. Doctors, counsellors and educators continue to advise PLWHAs to keep their infection status secret. Why? How are we to grow in our understanding of HIV/AIDS if the primary source of information concerning the human impact of the virus is consistently alienated from us? How do we encourage PLWHAs to come out from under the rocks and share their experiences with us; and if there is a way to do this, is it an appropriate thing to do?

In answer to my last question I say, “Yes! It is appropriate!” and by this I don’t mean we’d be spending our time wisely calling, “Come out come out wherever you are!” I think creating an environment that is supportive and conducive to learning is the first positive step we need to take. So how do we construct such an environment?

First things first, let’s acknowledge and understand the social environment that we PLWHAs face; identify the problems we can see; suggest resolutions to address those problems. Discrimination and confidentiality are problems. Both are extremely complex issues.

If I tell someone I’m HIV+ are they going to react with uneducated fear and ultimately going to alienate me; estrange themselves from me? If someone tells me they’re HIV+ do I have the right to tell other people? Of course you’re getting this information from the horse’s mouth as it were. I am a PLWHA, I’ve told people my status and yes, I’ve been alienated by many ignorant people because of it. I’ve spent a great deal of time with PLWHAs; we share this struggle for security in the community. Their issues are part of my environment because I am equal among them. However, if I ask you what you could identify as being part of your environment, you would have to acknowledge the current images projected of HIV+ people to the community both you and I are a part of. Looking in any newspaper, listening to radio reports, watching television news, current affairs, hearing what they say. Descriptive images of PLWHAs such as:

Person with the AIDS virus. Innocent victims. AIDS victims. Perverts. Prostitutes. Gays. Drug addicts. Sex workers. Dying of AIDS. AIDS cutting a swath through the community. Carrying people off. Afflicted. Untouchables. Living on death row. At the end of a Hangman’s noose.

The current rhetoric of HIV/AIDS is discriminatory. The media ‘informs’ the community and the rhetoric created in the media is easily adopted by the community.

Images of death, notions of judgement, inaccurate information, constantly churned out over the past decade; common notions shared by many people are:

You get AIDS then you die. Homosexuality equals AIDS victim. PLWHA equals drug addict. AIDS equals death. Women only get AIDS if they are prostitutes. Gays are responsible for AIDS. If you got AIDS through a blood transfusion you are an innocent victim (implying others are ‘guilty’).

Perhaps the reason why PLWHAs largely remain underground becomes clearer; how would you feel? Constant images of judgemental death and misinformation create fear, suspicion and ignorance. We are dealing here with influencing the thought of one’s hearers and readers, rhetoric.

How to respond to this problematic element of both our environments?

As educators I would challenge you to inspire a new range of descriptive ideas when dealing with HIV/AIDS issues. Acknowledge that people live with the virus, that treatments exist for PLWHAs; that HIV is the virus and AIDS is the condition; that human life is to be celebrated, and part of this celebration is our individuality, our creativeness, our constructive input into society; one part to be cherished above all, is our sameness; we are all human, we are mortal.

Describe the virus as an infection of human blood. Use your skills to communicate non-judgemental concepts when dealing with the virus and use poor media reports as examples of ‘poor media reports’.

Seek out information that has been created by PLWHAs; invite an HIV+ speaker to address your students or your staff (easily arranged through the AIDS Council of South Australia’s Positive Living Centre), empower people who are living with this human blood virus to share what they have learnt through their experience. You don’t need to have a splinter in your finger to know it hurts.

To some what I am saying will be nothing more than semantics. As a creative artist I use language to communicate ideas and images. When you’re privy to images and ideas I share, you’re able to journey along the path I look back on. I offer you my insights into things that savage my life, afford you opportunity to empathise. While I do you have that gift; understand me. You do not have to experience the imprisonment of HIV/AIDS to understand it. There are many stories, but in an angry uneducated environment; difficult for people to open up and share. There will be no progress without the help of educators open to offering young people new ways of understanding and communicating around this issue only a continuum of ignorance and fear.

World AIDS Day is the first day of December. This year the World Health Organisation’s theme for December 1st World AIDS Day is ‘A Community Commitment’. As a member of the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisation’s World AIDS Day National Steering Committee, I am asking for your mind-full support and an ongoing commitment as teachers to de-stigmatise HIV/AIDS and those of us living with the virus.

I ask you to use language in a way that helps focus on the facts that really matter to all of us, because I believe that things will change for the better when we all realise that each and every one of us are able to contribute to that change.