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Have We Reached a Point Where AIDS Is Funny?

By Aaron Laxton

December 6, 2013

I rolled over and completed my morning stretch. The first thing that I reached for, as I always do, was my iPhone. I went through my morning ritual of checking emails, text messages and then making my rounds through social media. My notifications on Facebook indicated that a message was left in the early morning hours and it was as follows: "AIDS helped me lose 35lbs."

It took me a moment to process as I read the screen. Clearly, I must have been reading this notification wrong since it stated that this Facebook status had been posted by a friend. This was not like a friend I had never met, that simply existed in the imaginary world of Facebook-land; he is an actual friend. An actual friend had posted an ignorant line from the popular cartoon South Park on my Facebook wall. He did know that I am an international HIV/AIDS activist, blogger, radio show host and above all else a person living with HIV, right?

I quickly read through the responses and most were rebuking the status. There were comments from people living with HIV, those who had lost loved ones to AIDS-related illness as well as friends of mine simply coming to my defense. As quickly as it all started the original poster retorted that he was extremely intoxicated and very apologetic for posting it. However it got me to thinking: Is AIDS funny? Have we reached a point in our culture where the death of millions of people is funny? Is AIDS nothing more than a punch line to a joke that is told at parties?

I do not believe that the person that posted this comment had malicious intent; he was simply regurgitating things that he had heard on television. AIDS, if mentioned in mainstream media, is nothing more than a sound bite far removed from the tragedy that befell our nation and the world. It seems as if the millions that have died and continue to die globally fade, without afterthought to their pain or suffering. We simply step over their bodies as we march on. As medications have gotten better and people have started to live longer, the need to view AIDS in a sinister light has decreased, or so some might believe.

According to numbers released by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) last year alone in the United States there were 50,000 new HIV infections, with the largest group being African-American and Latino youth ages 13-24. Globally there are approximately 2.5 million new HIV infections every year with 50,000 deaths according to the World Health Organization. I suppose that I fail to see the humor in these statistics.

For the first time in the pandemic we are equipped with new prevention tools such as PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) which when taken as prescribed reduces the risk of contracting HIV by as much as 90 percent. Studies are currently underway to evaluate efficacy when doses are missed however initial data-sets looks as if PrEP provides between a 30-50 percent reduction in risk when doses are missed. Not to mention that HPTN 052 showed that the risk of transmitting the virus from HIV-positive individuals who are virally suppressed drops by up to 96 percent.

Instead of AIDS service organizations and providers working together to get the message out about this new prevention tool, there is in-fighting. One of the largest AIDS service organizations, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, has single-handedly made it their mission to disregard this new science and instead stick with a "condom only" prevention strategy perpetuated Michael Weinstein. Is a shift at hand though? Impulse Los Angeles has made a great effort to bring attention to the issue of PrEP and other important topics, but will the message be lost since it is affiliated with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation?

The need for credit and accolades trump the task at hand and as we fight amongst ourselves, the next generation of HIV patients is being born and spoon-fed the belief that "AIDS is funny."

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Reader Comments:

Comment by: Edward (New Orleans) Tue., Jan. 7, 2014 at 6:20 pm UTC
I've had HIV for 29 years and I'd like to see more, not less humor, but, like with any kind of public talk, how it is received depends on who it's coming from, in what context, and who it's being told to. When without HIV, people are leading miserable lives. I once saw a man with HIV providing comedic discussion on his alphabet-soup meds (AZT, DDC, 3TC, etc.) in a song, and I wasn't offended at all. I felt much more empowered to hear him talk about it in a funny way. I find it so tedious the way some old timers in particular want to freeze the HIV world into some kind of permanently grave matter. The fact that other people are getting infected or dying now need not make me feel ashamed for wanting to be entertained, including the airing of would-be taboo HIV dialogue. Far too often, the tired old narrative of HIV as a long slog of suffering gets trotted out, and we're all supposed to nod in agreement and accept this indoctrination that we're "not okay." Please give me more humor. I'm not asking for hateful talk, but given that it is now possible to live healthily with HIV for the longterm, no one should be required to put on an artificially sad face just to feel like they belong in the HIV community. Throughout history, people have been oppressed, and often have developed humor as a wry way to talk back to the oppressor and make fun of the unfairness of it all. Yes, I hope to start thinking more often that AIDS is funny, like everything else in this crazy world may be.
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Comment by: Ed Nederlander (Bangkok, Thailand) Thu., Jan. 2, 2014 at 11:16 pm UTC
I couldn’t agree more. There’s a particularly talentless Scottish comedian/media whore called Frankie Boyle who seems to think that the best way to punch-line his way out of a particularly weak set up is to simply intone the phrase ‘Haitch-Eye-Vee” and wait for the big laugh.

Amazingly, he is a very popular ‘entertainer’ in the UK, and infests TV on an almost nightly basis. So, yes, we have a problem.
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Comment by: Andrew (Sacramento) Thu., Jan. 2, 2014 at 11:02 pm UTC
I like Mark's take on the humor thing and I agree it's a good idea to not take ourselves too damn seriously. But I have to admit that there are times in which I find this type of humor to be really distasteful. Sarah Silverman is a good example. I like her. She's too cute. But she throws the AIDS bomb out there more often than I care to hear. But that's her right as much as it is mine to change the channel. So they do it at their own peril - or the peril of their careers.

I've had friends carelessly forward me stupid chain emails that are supposed to be funny AIDS jokes. I just sigh, remind myself that they are my friends and know that they don't know better or just lack a certain grace.

I do find using a teaser title and lead in to get readers to a true agenda kind of annoying too. But that's just me. :)
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Comment by: SEL (Los Angees) Thu., Jan. 2, 2014 at 8:44 pm UTC
Wow, I have NEVER heard an AIDS joke before. It is in extremely poor taste. Most people i know are too afraid of the disease to joke about it. i assure you tnis is NO LAUGHING matter. we have made great strides in the treatment of HIV. Clearly, there is much work to be done. This is an outstanding website. i referred an HIV counselor to this website, I could not believe that she had never heard of it before. I am blessed to able to converse, read, and learn from this website.

Be Blessed and contiue with this work!

Thank you!,
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Comment by: Melinda (Florida) Thu., Jan. 2, 2014 at 5:37 pm UTC
Well, goody for her humor....I can't seem to find HIV/AIDS even remotely funny.....Happy New Year Aaron!
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Comment by: MJ (Georgia) Thu., Jan. 2, 2014 at 3:59 pm UTC
I hear you. I've seen many comedy shows (lots of cartoon types) who use HIV/AIDS as a punchline. The world has become very callous and uncaring and these hack shows are teaching people to be that way. I won't name them, but there are 3 shows that refuse to watch...oh hell, I'll name them; The League, Tosh.O and Brickleberry...otherwise funny but go for the cheap laugh with no regard to other's feelings.
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Comment by: Mike Willis (Baltimore, MD) Thu., Jan. 2, 2014 at 3:53 pm UTC
Humor is a coping mechanism and a survivial tool.
It can help when you are feeling low. Not every joke is a knee slapper but I dont believe every joke comes from a bad place either.
In the bad days, before meds, jokes were all we had.
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Comment by: Mark S. King (Washington, DC) Tue., Dec. 10, 2013 at 11:19 am UTC
Humor, or at least laughter, is a coping mechanism. It's the reason why people laugh at uncomfortable or even inappropriate moments. It's why we make jokes to "break the ice."

Why should our approach to HIV be any different. You wouldn't believe some of the conversations I've had with dying friends -- or friends who have recently tested positive. They were outrageous and often damn funny.

I appreciate, very much, your points about stigma and new prevention techniques such as PrEP, I just wanted to put in a good word for humor on its own terms.
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Replies to this comment:
Comment by: Tracey K. (Decatur, IL) Thu., Jan. 2, 2014 at 4:53 pm UTC
I have to agree with Mr. King. Being positive for the last 20 years has had me finding both the bad and the humorous with my friends in this disease. It is not funny that people are still being infected and dying everyday, but laughing about things makes it a bit easier for me personally to deal with it.

Chasing down the post lady looking for my check because I had no meds is not funny. But my girlfriend turning to me and stating "I am not a lawyer, but I do believe bum rushing the postman is a federal offense" was just what I needed at that very moment. A moment of humor in a dire situation.

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My HIV Journey

Aaron Laxton

Aaron Laxton

I am simply a guy who on June 6, 2011, received the news that over 33 million people have received: I am HIV positive. I decided in that split moment to record the journey that I was embarking on so that I might help others as they receive that news.

I am not a doctor and I do not endorse any agenda other than simply living a healthy life. I am an activist and advocate and simply want to make the world a better place. I hold a degree in sociology and psychology. I am a product of the Missouri Foster System and this is one of my main passions, second only to the work I do with HIV/AIDS outreach and prevention.

I embrace a sex-positive model. People are going to have sex; it is a natural part of who we are. However we need to make sure that it is safe. I can be found on weekends throughout St. Louis, Missouri, passing out condoms and safe-sex kits.

I am now an M.S.W. student at Saint Louis University's College of Public Health and Social Justice and the School of Social Work.

Whether in St. Louis, D.C. or around the nation, I always jump at the chance to help change not only policies to better serve those that need help but to also change the landscape of the society that we live in.

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