HIV stigma: My fear of the red ribbon
From FS, Ruaidhri O’Baoill tells of dealing with the internalized stigma made apparent by wearing the red ribbon.
I remember the first time I wore the red ribbon for World AIDs Day and how uncomfortable and self-conscious I felt.
I had only been diagnosed with HIV six months before, so looking back now I can appreciate that I had a lot going on. However, I remember being incredibly nervous of the looks or the attention I might receive as a result of wearing it. Would wearing it mean people would automatically assume I was HIV-positive? If so, how would I feel about that?
These were the two overriding concerns I had when I stepped outside my front door wearing the ribbon for the first time. I remember making my way to the underground and noticing how at every chance I could get I tried to block the ribbon from view, while also at the same time doing the exact opposite and ensuring it was proudly on display.
"What you see isn’t always the truth and just because someone may wear the red ribbon it doesn’t automatically mean that they themselves are living with HIV. No matter their reason or choice for wearing it, they are showing support and solidarity for those who live, or have lived, with it."
These conflicting feelings of embarrassment and pride were painfully frustrating. Not only did I want to show my support for World AIDs Day but I also felt it extremely necessary to give myself some of that much needed support as well. It was my way of giving myself a well-deserved pat on the back for how was I handling my diagnosis thus far, but I couldn’t stop my own fear getting the better of me. Did others think I was HIV-positive? Did other gay men think I was HIV-positive? Did any of this even matter?
I gave myself such a bloody hard time over not being proud or comfortable enough to wear it. My own fear let me down. I then saw a post on Facebook, from I guy I know, about his experience while wearing the ribbon. While wearing it on a train he had mentioned that a mum had told her child, sitting opposite him, that he was wearing the ribbon because he had AIDS which then resulted in laughter from others in the carriage. This was the attention I was worried and afraid of, and seeing how embarrassed it made him feel was deeply upsetting.
However, as I continued to read on and saw his passion and strength retaliate against the stigma and ignorance, I started re-evaluate my own fear and decided enough was enough. I was extremely proud of him. I was extremely proud of myself. I was, and am, extremely proud of everyone who has lived through HIV/AIDS in whatever capacity that may be.
What you see isn’t always the truth and just because someone may wear the red ribbon it doesn’t automatically mean that they themselves are living with HIV. No matter their reason or choice for wearing it, they are showing support and solidarity for those who live, or have lived, with it. This is something that should never be sneered at. If the person wearing the ribbon does happen to live with HIV they are wearing it as an act of courage and defiance. They are showing the world, and more importantly themselves, that in the face of something terrible they are still here and living! And living we are!
Considering where we were 30 years ago, it is pretty incredible that more of us are living with HIV as a manageable condition rather than a death sentence. When on treatment most of us experience minimal impact on our day to day lives and we are that one step closer to a cure. The very idea of a cure to me, and many others, would be life changing and beyond our wildest dreams.
There have been stories of cures before but more recently there seems to have been a gear shift in the science behind HIV/AIDS treatment and we could actually now be on the brink of a major breakthrough. Of course we haven’t reached that point yet, and although I feel we should always be aware of sensationalism and err on the side of caution, we should also get excited about the developments made and invest all our energy and attention into making a cure happen.
We can all do this by taking part in World AIDs Day, and this starts by wearing the red ribbon. Not only does it publicly display your support and love but it gives me, and I’m sure others living with HIV, a little bit of reassurance that we are not alone, and if we are all honest, we could all benefit from that from time to time.
Ruaidhri O’Baoill | @RuaidhriOB