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Where Has Your Red Ribbon Gone?

By Aless Piper

November 30, 2012

Aless Piper

Aless Piper

"Cut red ribbon 6" in length, then fold at the top into an inverted 'V' shape, use safety pin to attach to clothing." -- early Visual AIDS handout

Six years after the idea to use a red ribbon as a symbol of HIV/AIDS support, awareness, etc, was hatched in 1991 at the Visual AIDS Artists Caucus, on October 8, 1997, Edward pinned a red ribbon to my cream turtleneck. I was, as most of you know, in Mrs. Sullivan's grade 6 class at Brookhouse Elementary and filled with nervous energy and trepidation that was tempered with excitement. Naturally, a bit of the same fear I still take into all new endeavors was also present.

I remember the thin red threads that ran through my mostly grey tartan skirt, a skirt I thought made me look most grown up and impressive. I also remember, and was painfully conscious of at the time, the loud click of my heels, borrowed from my mother, in the empty hallways.

My first red ribbon was nice, enamel -- as are most of mine -- and it sat there on my cream turtleneck, noticeable, like a beacon.

As I transfer yet another red ribbon from my fall jacket to my winter coat, I am reminded of the red ribbons that followed that first one. It would be nice, sweet, and moderately poetic, to say that the red ribbon I now wear is the same red ribbon Edward presented me with in the foyer of Brookhouse Elementary, but that is not the case.

I received my second red ribbon, also from Edward, in 2005 or 2006, with Hiroko, a woman I still fail to be able to accurately describe, who was visiting from Japan to write a book about the Titanic and Halifax Explosion.

We attended the Christmas craft show at the Halifax Forum, where I was asked what my ribbon was for, I told her, and the response was something very similar to that detailed in Laura Engle's "Where Have All the Ribbons Gone?" which appeared in the January/February 2000 issue of Body Positive. I smiled as I closed my eyes and tried to recreate Barrington Street well enough to explain where exactly the AIDS Coalition was, and that yes, it did still exist, AIDS activism is still relevant.

I received another red ribbon, this one of the actual-ribbon variety, at the World AIDS Day vigil I attended in 2010, which is something I've meant to write about, but as with describing Hiroko, have failed miserably at. What I remember most about that night are the quilt panels from the Canadian AIDS quilt that lined the wall, and -- during the reading of the names -- the lady who read Holly's, who paused and, her voice breaking, added "My Holly". I know nothing about Holly, except that, according to the list, which I downloaded recently from the AIDS Coalition of Nova Scotia's website, she died in 2006.

The ribbon I wear now is my fourth, purchased this summer in New York City. With mere hours to go before meeting Olivia, et al, at Max Brenner, I retrieved Broadway tickets for Nice Work If You Can Get It and Sister Act, and then detoured into the nearby Broadway gift shop. Mulling further purchases, I peered down through the glass counter at pins from shows, mostly The Phantom of the Opera, when I saw the red ribbon. I stared at it so long in intense debate with myself over whether or not to purchase it, that the lady did not ask if I wanted to see it but instead slipped it out of the case and set it on the glass in front of me.

Of course I bought it, counting out ones on the glass counter.

Engle writes of the red ribbon "... for whatever reason or combination of reasons, the red AIDS ribbon is less ubiquitous than in years past. To some, it remains a symbol of continued commitment, even in the face of AIDS apathy. To others, it has itself become a symbol of the fickleness of the self-proclaimed philanthropist. To yet others, it is just yesterday's accessory."

To me, this ribbon is resilient, like this community (to borrow from Angels in America, again, you are fabulous creatures, each and everyone), and like some friendships.

So this year, take your red ribbon down from wherever you keep it the other 364 days of the year. If you don't have one, find one. If you're not sure where to find one, call your local AIDS service organization. While on the phone, or there in person, make a donation. Every little bit helps, and I've said it before, and I'll say it again, ASO's are chronically underfunded and need support to continue their wonderful work.

Most importantly, of course, after you've observed World AIDS Day, given yourself time to grieve and/or celebrate, or whatever you do to mark December 1, on December 2, take off your red ribbon if that is your preference, but make a commitment to continue your support. In Kathe Kollowitz's words "I am in the world to change the world." So am I, so are you. Whatever you do for the remaining 364 days of the year that aren't December 1, make time in your busy life to change the world, and join us in the fight to end AIDS.

Finally, this piece is so late coming because I spent so much time recruiting for my own World AIDS Day project, called Kenn's Project, I have been utterly devoid of inspiration. You can read the submissions, including one from Edward, as they roll out December 1. You can also submit your own piece, if you so desire; here are the very loose guidelines.

And, last but definitely not least, I owe a debt of gratitude to Edward, Anthony, Wayne, Emerald, Patricia, and of course, Olivia. Without these people this piece especially would not exist.

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

Read Aless's blog, Flaming Red.




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