Theo Gordon reflects on the tensions within Aids activism on the 26th World Aids Day
At the most recent general meeting of Aids advocacy group Act Up, we were discussing the upcoming World Aids Day, December 1, and the various events that are taking place to mark it. Someone said words to the effect of: “Who cares about red ribbons — I just want to stop new infections.”
To me this went right to the heart of the issue around the very idea of a World Aids Day.
What can one day of commemoration and mourning do? Should we not urge everyone to actively intervene in trying to end the crisis, rather than contemplate it for such a short period? Or does this one day do what once seemed impossible — make people who otherwise wouldn’t think about HIV/Aids?
These questions are old ones. The first World Aids Day was officially held in 1988, the same year that in New York City the organisation Visual Aids was founded. It aimed to bring awareness of the crisis to a wider audience, coming up with the Day Without Art in 1989, where it attempted to get art museums across the United States to close for a national memorial day — which became World Aids Day.
More famously, it also devised the red ribbon under a similar aegis. The ribbon debuted at the Tony Awards in 1991 and was quickly adopted by celebrities as an outward sign of their recognition of and concern about Aids.
Of course, this gesture was quickly criticised — people can easily adopt the posture of compassion, absolving them of having to actually do anything about the crisis, and so contributing to the normalisation of the epidemic as part of everyday life.
It is this normalisation and the resultant silence that are the major problems that we all have to address today.
Act Up has a long history across the world of addressing these issues through action and protest.
The intervention of the coalition in the development of management and treatment therapies in the mid-1990s remains a great achievement.
It is up to us now to face the new challenges presented by the epidemic — rising rates of infection in London in black women and gay men, and the lack of public knowledge of effective new prevention measures such as pre-exposure prophylaxis.
My question is: does conventional protest still work anymore – both as a way to shake up the system, to productively initiate change for the better and to raise public awareness of key issues?
I still bitterly remember the failure of the student protests in 2010 when I was an undergraduate and the anti-war movements of the 2000s. As a result, we are unfortunately sceptical of all of our power, our ability as individuals and as a group.
My answer, though, would be that protest has to work as a tool that, like the ability to strike, is one of the few ways left to express dissatisfaction.
However, I think we may need to shift the terms of protest, to expand its field.
In the history of Aids activism, there has been a conventional split between contemplative mourning and direct action.
Act Up’s call to arms in the late 1980s was to combat the sentimentalising of the epidemic that was taking place and the disempowerment of the individual by focusing on loss, which shifted emphasis away from action to end the crisis.
Out of this came Douglas Crimp’s famous call to artists: “We don’t need to transcend the epidemic — we need to end it.”
Today, we still face the same issues, but we also deal with the curious paradox that a blanket of silence exists over a virus that is supposedly part of everyday life, an issue that every 18-year-old is meant to be aware of.
Instead of thinking of activism and contemplation as opposites, we now need to bring them together, to get people thinking and talking about how the virus could and does affect us all today.
It is these discussions that will be the starting point of change. Act Up has always claimed that “silence equals death.” That charge is still as relevant today as it ever was.
We should have an activism that is borne of contemplation. Act Up has to work for the community — with all communities.
We need to open up discussion as the starting point of action and intervention.
I hope you will all come this evening to the joint Act Up London and Southern & Eastern Region TUC LGBT Network event United in Anger? at 6pm at TUC Congress House, London WC1.