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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.

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.

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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I’ll miss the youthful thrill of Claire’s Accessories – but the tween Mecca refused to grow up

From an adolescent rite of passage to struggling to stay open: how the tackiest shop on the high street lost its shine.

The first day I was allowed to go into “town” (hailing from rural Essex, that’s the local shopping centre, not London) with a friend – unsupervised by a parent – was a real cornerstone of my childhood.

We were 13, and looking back, we had neither mobile phones nor contingency plans, and my mum must have been sat at home for the entire two hours scared shitless, waiting for when she could pick me up again (by the Odeon carpark, 3pm sharp).

Finally free from the constraints of traipsing around department stores bound by the shackles of an adult, my friend and I had the most grown-up afternoon we could imagine; Starbucks Frappuccinos (size: tall – we weren’t made of money), taking pictures on a pink digital camera in the H&M changing rooms, and finally, making a beeline for tween Mecca: Claire’s Accessories.

As a beauty journalist, I’m pretty sure Saturdays spent running amok among the diamante earrings, bow hairbands and fluffy notebooks had an influence on my career path.

I spent hours poring over every rack of clip-on earrings, getting high on the fumes of strawberry lipbalm and the alcohol used to clean freshly pierced toddlers’ ears.

Their slogan, “Where getting ready is half the fun”, still rings true for me ten years on, as I stand on the edge of dancefloors, bored and waiting until my peers are suitably drunk to call it a night, yet revelling in just how great my painstakingly applied false lashes look.

The slogan on a Claire's receipt. Photo: Flickr

On Monday, Claire’s Accessories US filed for bankruptcy, after they were lumbered with insurmountable debts since being taken over by Apollo Global Management in 2007. Many of the US-based stores are closing. While the future of Claire’s in the UK looks uncertain, it may be the next high street retailer – suffering from the surge of online shopping – to follow in Toys R Us’ footsteps.

As much as I hate to say it, this is unsurprising, considering Claire’s commitment to remain the tackiest retailer on the high street.

With the huge rise of interest in beauty from younger age groups – credit where credit’s due, YouTube – Claire’s has remained steadfast in its core belief in taffeta, rhinestone and glitter.

In my local Superdrug (parallel to the Claire’s Accessories, a few doors down from the McDonald’s where we would sit, sans purchase, maxed out after our Lipsmacker and bath bomb-filled jaunt), there are signs plastered all over the new Makeup Revolution concealer stand: “ENQUIRE WITH STAFF FOR STOCK”. A group of young girls nervously designate one among them to do the enquiring.

Such is the popularity of the three-week-old concealer, made infamous by YouTube videos entitled things like “I CANNOT BELIEVE THIS CONCEALER!” and “FULL COVERAGE AND £4!!!”, no stock is on display for fear of shoplifters.

The concealer is cheap, available on the high street, comparable to high-end brands and favoured by popular YouTube “beauty gurus”, giving young girls a portal into “adult life”, with Happy Meal money.

It’s unlikely 13-year-olds even own eye bags large enough to warrant a full coverage concealer, but they’re savvy enough to know that they can now get good quality makeup and accessories, without going any higher than Claire’s price points.

They have naturally outgrown a retailer that refuses to grow with them; it’s simply not sustainable on Claire’s part to sell babyish items to a market who no longer want babyish things.

Adulthood is catching up with this new breed of teenagers faster than ever, and they’ve decided it’s time to put away childish things.

Tweenagers of 2018 won’t miss Claire’s Accessories if it goes. The boarded-up purple signage would leave craters in shopping centre walls soon to be filled with the burgundy sheen of a new Pret.

But I will. Maybe not constantly – it’s not as if Primark has stopped selling jersey dresses, or Topshop their Joni jeans – it’ll be more of a slow burn. I’ll mourn the loss of Claire’s the next time a pang of nostalgia for blue-frosted shadow hits me, or when it’s Halloween eve and I realise I’m bereft of a pair of cat ears. But when the time comes, there’s always Amazon Prime.

Amelia Perrin is a freelance beauty and lifestyle journalist.