Justice Edwin Cameron

Justice Edwin Cameron, the inspiring, openly-gay Justice of South Africa’s highest court, the Constitutional Court, writes frankly about HIV and how it’s affected his life.

World AIDS Day 2011 is a painful but also hopeful commemoration. This year is the thirtieth anniversary of the first medically-recognised cases of AIDS. Physicians from New York City and San Francisco were reporting disquieting increasing instances of grave disease amongst their gay male patients.

Otherwise fit and prosperous men in the prime of their life were falling ill with strange cancers, rare pneumonias and terrible wasting. The mysterious illness and the deaths it was causing could no longer be ignored. The US authorities officially reported the disturbing phenomenon in May 1981.

The era of AIDS was with us.

The epidemic reached South Africa soon after. The first cases of AIDS in our country were reported in 1982. They, too, involved gay white men in the prime of their lives.

Not long after, I myself made my calamitous acquaintance with the virus. Soon after coming out as a gay man, I became infected with HIV. It happened over Easter 1985.

I felt the virus in my body. And I experienced the dread diagnosis in December 1986. It felt like a sentence of death on my life.

But there was something worse. It was the sentence of shame I experienced internally. The stigma surrounding AIDS is the most devastating feature of the disease. For thirty years it has skewed the social and political management of the epidemic.

I became involved, not because of my own HIV. That I kept a desperately guarded secret. My battle with what the virus would mean for my life was pushed back deep inside. My involvement came through my work as a trade union lawyer. By the late 1980s a very different epidemic had reached South Africa – a mass epidemic affecting not gay white man, but black heterosexuals.

Same virus. Same disease. Same suffering. Same grief. Same death toll. The only differences were continent, skin colour and relative wealth levels. But horror compounded horror. The most horrific manifestation of AIDS stigma was right here, in our own country.

It was when President Thabo Mbeki refused to accept that South Africa faced a crisis of mass sickness and death caused by a sexually transmitted virus. His benighted opposition to medical science and evidence, and his resistance to life-saving treatment, caused untold deaths and unspeakable suffering and grief.

“We do not need to suffer from AIDS. We and our lovers and families and friends and colleagues can grasp life and health and vigour with AIDS…”

Now things are different. There is treatment for AIDS. I started on treatment 14 years ago, in November 1997. I was desperately sick with AIDS. I had AIDS–pneumonia in both my lungs. My mouth and throat and stomach were coated with fungus. I could no longer eat. I was looking gaunt. Without medication, I would be dead in three years.

Instead, anti-retroviral drugs saved my life. They gave me back my well being, my energy, my vitality and my joy. The drugs do not cure you of the virus. But they repress it very effectively. Successful treatment means renewed health – and it almost certainly means that you can’t pass on the virus.

I could not remain silent when my salary as a judge enabled me to buy treatments most Africans were too poor to afford. I joined the Treatment Action Campaign’s campaign against drug company profiteering.

Nor could I remain silent before the horror of President Mbeki’s denialism.

Now much of that is history. But not all of it. Thirty years on, World Aids Day gives us pause to reflect. We have a government and a Health Minister, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, who are committed to vigorous and effective policies on AIDS. AIDS drugs are cheap.

One and a half million South Africans are receiving them through the public health system. This is the world’s largest public ARV treatment programme – a cause for pride.
But at this 30-year anniversary there is still much cause for grief. Specifically inside the community of gay African men, of which I am a part, there is too much denial, too little awareness, too little activism – and too little prevention.

There are few studies of how high the “AIDS rate” (or prevalence) is amongst us. But I fear it is terribly high. And stigma, shame and fear still prevent too many of us from speaking about HIV. They prevent us from getting tested, and from accessing treatment when we need it. Unnecessarily. All of these we can overcome – each of us, in our own lives, and the lives of those around us.

This year, my message has a particular intensity and poignancy. We need to do so much more. We can do so much more. And the poignant thing is that every action we take to promote awareness, prevention, testing and treatment can make a practical difference.

The most important fact is that AIDS is fully medically manageable. When this message appears, I will have just finished the 94.7 100-km cycle race. Next year in March I will do my seventh Cape Argus (109km). I do so in humble joy, aware that so much still needs to be done.

We do not need to suffer from AIDS. We and our lovers and families and friends and colleagues can grasp life and health and vigour with AIDS. We only need to choose it. Let us undertake on this World AIDS Day 2011 to do more, very practically: let us raise awareness of HIV by talking about it. Let us test ourselves. Let us encourage others to get tested. Let us be sure that everyone we know who seems ill has got access to treatment.

And, most important of all, let us defeat the monster of stigma.

The message is provided courtesy of Exit – South Africa’s longest running LGBT publication – where it has been published this month.

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