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The Conversation You Should Be Having on World AIDS Day

November 23, 2011

Aless Piper

Aless Piper

For our World AIDS Day 2011 section, we wanted to capture the diversity of the AIDS community. So, we reached out to people across the world -- regular contributors and those who have never written for us before -- and asked them to guest blog. These columns are written by people who are living with HIV, have been affected by HIV, or work in the field.

One of my favorite lines from the musical Rent comes from "La Vie Boheme": "To people living with, living with, not dying from disease." I love the idea of people living well with HIV/AIDS, and seeing this concept in action every day online and off is amazing. AIDS is no longer the death sentence it seemed to me to be when I was in the sixth grade.

That in itself is a miracle of science, that a disease that was once a death sentence could, in a relatively short amount of time, go from meaning certain death within a few years if not months to a disease where articles are being written about aging with HIV/AIDS, and life spans being near normal.

But whether or not we are on the cusp of a cure, it doesn't change the fact that AIDS turned 30 this year and we still aren't talking about it correctly. Certain politicians and religious factions may get lucky and a cure may be found before they themselves have to admit that we're not in 1950s America anymore, but ultimately when a cure is found, we will still have to own up to the fact the countless infections could have been prevented, and lives saved, if we'd done more and had the right conversations, sooner.


Whatever America's obsession with abstinence, it's obviously not happening. Statistics, experts. Hell, teens themselves tell us time and again that they are having sex. They tell us they don't know the facts about HIV, condoms, babies, and the list goes on and on. Bristol Palin even told us she didn't know she could get pregnant, which again probably means she didn't think or know about her risks of contracting an STD, either. We read that many kids don't consider oral SEX, sex, somehow.

And I gotta ask, 30 years on, isn't it time to wake the hell up? Yes people are living well with HIV/AIDS and yes, people can expect to have a near-normal if not normal lifespan with HIV/AIDS. People with HIV/AIDS can even have HIV-negative babies. But come on guys, are you really that desperate to avoid the sex talk? Would you really risk your loved one's life just to avoid 20 minutes of embarrassment?

Like it or not, teens are having sex with or without condoms, correctly or incorrectly used, and with or without the information that could prevent an STD or unwanted pregnancy. (Déjà vu much?)

Ignoring AIDS has not made it go away, it hasn't even made infection rates decline. Last World AIDS Day I read online that in certain parts of the world outside Africa, in first world countries, they were back to rates not seen since the '80s. While longer lifespans and the ever-changing face of AIDS is wonderful, and I wouldn't want it any other way, all not having it on the fourth page of the paper has done is lull people into a false sense of security: I won't get AIDS. They believe, as Mayor Ford In Toronto believes, nice moral people do not get AIDS, or AIDS is Africa's problem, or, better still, no one gets AIDS anymore. They're wrong.

This World AIDS Day I have some advice for parents:

  • If you've been putting off "the talk" convincing yourself you're waiting for "the right time," what better time than World AIDS Day, December 1? If you don't want to -- I can't force you -- at least give your kids a link to Scarleteen, which bills itself as sex ed for the real world, and is the highest-ranked website for sex education. Teens spend more time there than on Facebook!
  • Fenton Johnson wrote on page 217 of his book, Geography of the Heart, which is basically a memoir about love and loss in the age of AIDS, that when he started talking to his nephews about sex ...
    "... I realized that I was the first person from the preceding generation to speak with my nephews about sex without passing judgement -- the first to offer them information without strings attached. This was far deeper water than I had anticipated, but once off the diving board, I had no choice but to swim. If I'd thought before speaking, it would have been to hope that I could talk about HIV without discussing, well, details. My nephews were too starved for information to allow that."
  • Please don't pull your kids out of classes involving sex education and please don't keep your kids home when an HIV-positive man or woman is coming in to speak.
  • When you watch TV shows or movies where the characters are going to have sex, for the love of god, talk about it. More often than not condom use isn't advertised in TV shows or movies unless you count that episode of Friends where Monica and Rachel are both about to have sex and they rush to the bathroom to grab condoms, and there's only one left. Even if the TV shows refuse to talk about having safe sex, you shouldn't.
  • If you haven't already done it, I encourage you to talk to your kids about the importance of equality for every single person. There are kids' books out there to help you. Please don't delay. Fear, ignorance and stigma will never end if even one of us are unequal in the eyes of anybody.
  • If you don't have your own kids, talk to your nieces and nephews. Be a safe space for sex education; let them know no question is off limits or "stupid."

Finally, the morning after delivering the sex ed talk to his nephews, Mr. Johnson rode to the airport with his brother who told him that, as part of his job, he delivered AIDS awareness talks to coworkers. Understandably, Mr. Johnson wanted to say "So why haven't you delivered one to your kids?"

Back to the first paragraph, for last. My favorite quote from the musical Rent is "to people living with, living with, not dying from disease". This October 8 marked fourteen years since I met Edward. It has been six since I met the guy or gal in The Guilt Myth. My friend Kenn, who writes his own wonderful blog, is healthy and as passionate as ever about life. Larry Kramer turned 76 this year, isn't that awesome?! Oh, and before I forget, I have it on very good authority that my friend Jim will have a video here for World AIDS Day; go check it out.

I am ecstatic and so very grateful. Larry Rose, Fenton Johnson's partner who died from AIDS-related complications, had a thing for saying "I am so lucky." Aren't we all? Keep on keepin' on.

PS: If you're on Facebook, how about changing your profile pic to a red ribbon and liking The Red Ribbon Army, an awesome page and community of like-minded people. Its coordinator, Gilles, told me "We are out there!" when I wondered where all the red ribbons had gone. You can subscribe to my public updates here.

Aless Piper is a 20-something office assistant by day, world-changer by night. She lives in Canada.

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This article was provided by TheBody.
See Also
Quiz: Are You at Risk for HIV?
10 Common Fears About HIV Transmission
More HIV Prevention Guides for Parents


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