World AIDS Day comes around once a year like clockwork and, as is the case with so many other annual events or commemorations, there’s a tendency for us to become jaded and to not pay too much attention to its significance.
The significance of World AIDS Day, however, can often be a very personal one; tied directly to our own experiences with the HI virus and the impact it’s had on our lives. So what does World AIDS Day mean to you? I asked a few South African gay men to think about and express their feelings about this global event.
For Janie, a 39-year-old lecturer living with HIV for the past 11 years, the day reminds him of how much of a hold the virus has had on him.
“It has been tough to survive. This disease changed my life so much. It changed the way I see myself and how I fit into society,” he says. “Coming from a conservative Afrikaans background, nothing could have prepared me for the negativity and rejection that I experienced from friends and family. Not only was it impossible for them to accept my sexuality, but also, a few years later, my status. Most HIV positive people are blessed with acceptance and support from their families. That was not the case for me.”
World AIDS Day is also a marker for the fact that he remains largely closeted about his status. “In a typical white South African work environment, it is impossible to disclose your status. One would think that in this day and age society has changed. Sadly it hasn’t and unless I move to a more liberal country, I will have to struggle in silence for the rest of my time.”
Ultimately, he says, “World AIDS Day is a day when I’m reminded of how lucky I am to be alive and breathing. On this day I pray for all the people that died alone and neglected from this disease”.
The younger men I spoke to reflected the gradual lessening of stigma around the disease and the vast improvement in its treatment within their generation.
Steve, a 23-year-old peer educator, is HIV negative, although he has lost a family member to AIDS. He says that HIV/AIDS “is an epidemic that affects us all… It is important to acknowledge the existence of HIV/AIDS and how it has changed the way we live our lives”.
He sees World AIDS Day as not just an event to remember those who have passed away from the disease and its devastating impact, but also as a day of hope. “It means celebrating all the challenges we have overcome,” he says. He goes on to say that the day is about “accepting people who have been infected and motivating the nation to know their status.”
Siboniso, a 23-year-old student, has had very few direct experiences relating to the HI virus. He explains that he doesn’t know anyone who is living with HIV and has never lost anyone he knows to the disease. When it comes to his own HIV status, he admits, somewhat troublingly, that he doesn’t know what it is.
And while he acknowledges that HIV/AIDS “is a critical issue of concern to all – affected and infected,” he doesn’t seem to place much value in World AIDS Day. When asked what it means to him, his response is probably one shared by many others.
“To me,” he says, “it’s no different to every other day.” It’s a response that seems out of kilter with living in one of the countries hardest hit by the epidemic. Consider that, according to UNAIDS, close to six million people in South Africa are living with HIV. Then again, some might argue that because so many live with the disease every day, making a fuss about it for one day of the year seems pointless.
Jared, a 48-year-old manager, is HIV positive, but has a matter-of-fact and possibly less emotional view of the virus that has infected him. He describes HIV simply as a “controllable chronic disease.” But, for him, just like for Janie, it’s not necessarily the virus itself that has been the most damaging factor in his life but rather “the stigma attached to the way people supposedly get infected” by it.
He believes that World AIDS Day is an opportunity to “never forget those who died due to the disease, and to continue to make people aware of what it does, and what you can do if you get infected”. He adds: “No one asks to be infected, but we cannot reject those who did get infected.”
What about the “official” meaning of World AIDS Day? According to UNAIDS, the day “is an opportunity for public and private partners to spread awareness about the status of the pandemic and encourage progress in HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and care in high prevalence countries and around the world”.
The theme this year is “Getting to zero: zero new HIV infections. Zero discrimination. Zero AIDS related deaths”. It’s a theme that’s been put in place for five years – from 2011 to 2015, reflecting a change in focus from looking at the past to changing the future and ridding the world of the virus.
Whether you spend the day reflecting on living positively, remembering those who lived or are living with HIV, or even how you can prevent becoming infected or infecting others, it is important that World AIDS Day does mean something to you. You don’t have to wear a red ribbon or make a big fuss, but at the very least make sure that this year you know your HIV status on the 1st of December. You might not be able to save the world, but you can save yourself.
For free HIV screening and counselling as well as advice and help with HIV treatment contact OUT in Pretoria on 012 430 3272 or via their website at www.out.org.za. For information on sexual health and tips and advice for men who have sex with men visit www.men2men.co.za.