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1 December 2016

Young queer people must stop ignoring the older generation’s fight against AIDS stigma

In our quest for conservatism, we’ve forgotten the bold activism that gave us the rights we have today – now we need it more than ever.

By Niamh Ni-Mhaoileoin

For those of us who are too young to remember the “plague years” of HIV/AIDS, it’s difficult to appreciate just how recent they are or how bad they were.

In an age of rapidly-expanding rights for (at least some) LGBTQ people, it’s perhaps understandable that the days when queers were openly despised and left to die feel like ancient history.

But earlier this week, in a debate about HIV awareness, a member of the Northern Irish Assembly admitted that, until a charity worker explained the facts to him, he didn’t know that HIV “also affects heterosexual people”.

Shortly before this, one of his DUP colleagues told a constituent that he wouldn’t wear a red ribbon for World AIDS Day because other diseases should be prioritised, diseases that “afflict far more people that are not always as a result of lifestyle choices”.

And this year, AIDS charities had to fight a legal battle to force the NHS to fund pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a highly effective preventative treatment for individuals at high risk of contracting HIV.

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All these incidents emphasise that, while a generation of young, queer people might want to put the panic and prejudice of the AIDS epidemic behind them, the events of those years continue to poison public discourse, and endanger queer health.

To lots of people, AIDS remains a gay disease, which gay men contract because of their “lifestyle choices”. The logical next step is that neither the NHS nor the hard-pressed taxpayer should be obliged to fund treatment for a minority of people who have only themselves to blame. Of course, this stigma is compounded by the fact that the disease also disproportionately affects other marginalised groups – sex workers, drug users and immigrants, particularly black Africans.

This public indifference, and the continuing racist and homophobic stigma, is why infection rates are static at about 6,000 a year – despite medical and political advances. It’s why people still refuse testing because they can’t deal with the prospect of a positive result. It’s why two in five people don’t get a diagnosis until after treatment should have begun.

And the stigma goes both ways. Those living with HIV/AIDS are stigmatised because the disease is associated with queerness, but we must also recognise that modern homophobia is inextricably linked with AIDS, and the gay panic of the Eighties and Nineties.

No one seems to talk about that anymore. In major campaigns for marriage equality, HIV/AIDS is not up for discussion; it doesn’t chime with the sexless, happy-go-lucky, love-is-love narrative that defined the marriage equality movement.

But by embracing that extraordinarily conservative narrative, young queer people not only undermined the identity and wellbeing of their own generation. They also severed ties with the generation that bore the brunt of AIDS, erasing the countless thousands who died, and abandoning those who are still living and traumatised by what they saw in those years.

We forget that all we have achieved – marriage, non-discrimination laws, relative physical safety – is built on that generation of activists who, even as they were dying, demanded better from government and from society.

As AIDS historian Sarah Schulman puts it, the two generations are “separated by the gulf of action fuelled by suffering on one hand, and the threat of pacifying assimilation on the other”. While many people see the normalisation of LGBTQ relationships as the ultimate marker of progress, Schulman points out that “the young [have] the choice to live quietly because of the bold fury of the old”.

As young queer people, this is our inheritance, for better and worse. Now, as Donald Trump appoints his breathtakingly homophobic leadership team, we’re suddenly scrambling to dust off the AIDS generation’s modes of radical resistance, the ones we hoped weren’t necessary anymore.

World AIDS Day offers a chance to reflect on the fact that queerphobia – alongside racism, misogyny, ableism – never went away. The western AIDS epidemic may have ended, but the stigma survived, the myths survived, the distrust and judgement survived.

Like any other group, we ignore our history at our peril.

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