The Body: The Complete HIV/AIDS Resource
Follow Us Follow Us on Facebook Follow Us on Twitter Download Our App 
Professionals >> Visit The Body PROThe Body en Espanol
  • Email Email
  • Comments Comments
  • Printable Single-Page Print-Friendly
  • Glossary Glossary

Baby's Got the Red Ribbon Blues

July/August 2000

A note from The field of medicine is constantly evolving. As a result, parts of this article may be outdated. Please keep this in mind, and be sure to visit other parts of our site for more recent information!

It's the end of March, and I am enjoying a glass of mellow red wine on the patio of an enormous convention hotel located in downtown Los Angeles, with all the smokers. You can't smoke inside anywhere in that silly town. Getting a breath of fresh air usually means stepping into a cloud of Newport, but, truth be told, I'd search out the smokers anyhow. They're usually cooler, despite their toxic tastes and stinky fingers.

I'm "doing" LA (hey, isn't that the restaurant from "Pulp Fiction"?) thanks to the Chicago Department of Public Health, which has graciously sent me, and more than twenty others from Chicago's HIV Prevention Planning Group, to a national leadership summit on HIV prevention. It feels like the big time, and it is, more than 1,000 participants, all the heavy hitters, big wigs from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), everybody who's anybody on the national HIV prevention scene.

And me. Just soaking in it. Tres glam.

All day long for five days a packed schedule of (mostly) dynamic sessions focused on the important and exciting work of prevention -- workshops, round tables, institutes, plenaries -- and after all of that, each day I'd meet up with the gang and whoever on the patio just as enthused as can be. I'd want to share what I had learned -- about implementing interventions on the Internet from a couple of guys from the health department in Lexington, Kentucky (of all places), about the development of microbicides (which is really where it's at), products similar to spermicides but designed to kill HIV and other microbes that cause sexually transmitted diseases, about the targeting of HIV positive people for prevention initiatives, which made all the sense in the world to me -- every new infection requires one, after all. Everybody else would talk about their knowledge gains, too.

Interesting stuff to be sure, but as it happens at these things, a lot goes on outside the realm of workshops and speakers and "affinity sessions" that is also very informative and mind expanding. I met a fascinating woman from upstate Washington, for instance, who does prevention work in small, rural towns. I met Sister MaryMae Himm, one of the famed Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, which is a group of gay men from San Francisco who wear nun drag to spice up their advocacy and fundraising work. I imbibed expensive hotel drinks with wonks from the CDC, with fellow Chicagoans I'd never met 'til I flew a couple thousand miles away, with people whose names I didn't catch but who made for good conversation.

Was it all fascinating? All friendly? Did everyone I meet find me irresistibly provocative and charming?

Believe it or not, no.

So it's one of those late afternoons, early evenings on the patio in LA. We're all sitting around, talking shop, drinking expensive hotel drinks, when this guy breathlessly relates how his state has just made it so you can get a red ribbon stamped on your license plate. "Isn't that fabulous, isn't that wonderful?" And, "What a great thing!"

I was like, "What's the big deal?"

There was a kind of hush. All the twitterings, silenced. All eyes, deering out in the headlights of my loud, obnoxious voice. Hating a vacuum, I filled the void.

"Yeah, I mean, who really even sees the red ribbon anymore? What does it mean? Nothing! It means nothing, it's vapid. Its grotesque ubiquitousness has rendered it utterly meaningless," I said. Or something like that. Dissed it but good. "There's a ribbon for everything now. Who cares?"

The guy tried to break in, but like a train out of the station I could not stop and kept going, picking up speed. "Putting a fleckin' red ribbon on the license plate of somebody's Duster is not going to stop someone from getting HIV." So there! And for my finale, I pronounced something along the lines of, "Like the pink triangle and the rainbow flag, the red ribbon has just turned into something really, really stupid."

Well, not only had I offended the license plate aficionado, I also managed to piss off a couple of my compatriots, one of whom wears a red ribbon pin on his jacket, and has for years. He takes it seriously and thinks of it as a way to honor those who have passed, and those who still suffer. Which I failed to remember when I was embarking on my dismal harangue.

But do you see my point? I'm not big on symbols that have long since outworn their usefulness. For me, slapping a red ribbon on something or someone has lost all relevance, it has become disconnected from its original significance -- just as one does not think of all the homosexuals persecuted by Nazis when placing their cosmopolitan on a pink triangle beverage coaster, just as one does not think of the beautiful diversity of our gay brothers and sisters when they see a factory-crafted rainbow votive display on sale in the local crap shop. What they see -- okay, what I see -- is just a bunch of tacky shit.

And tacky shit does not enlighten, nor does it save lives. Tacky shit, even if it is diamond encrusted, even if it is made from the finest silks, is simply tacky shit. What that state should be putting on their license plates is the image of a condom. Or a sterile syringe. Or the phone number of an AIDS hot line.

Call me cranky and antagonistic, but I was also unimpressed, and practically just as red-ribbon-annoyed, at the free slinkies given to all conference attendees in our big bag of goodies. They were made from blue plastic and had the brand "Viracept" stamped on them. Very weird. Does that mean taking Viracept is like a "wonderful toy," "fun for a girl and a boy?" No one else found this twisted or deeply disturbing. But I did.

Yet, I still have mine. Just to keep me in touch with my exasperation, and besides, it is fun to play with.

Got a comment on this article? Write to us at

To read more of Jim Pickett's columns, click here.

A note from The field of medicine is constantly evolving. As a result, parts of this article may be outdated. Please keep this in mind, and be sure to visit other parts of our site for more recent information!

  • Email Email
  • Comments Comments
  • Printable Single-Page Print-Friendly
  • Glossary Glossary

This article was provided by Positively Aware. It is a part of the publication Positively Aware. Visit Positively Aware's website to find out more about the publication.
See Also
More News on HIV Activism

No comments have been made.

Add Your Comment:
(Please note: Your name and comment will be public, and may even show up in
Internet search results. Be careful when providing personal information! Before
adding your comment, please read's Comment Policy.)

Your Name:

Your Location:

(ex: San Francisco, CA)

Your Comment:

Characters remaining: