At a HIV Ireland conference in Smock Alley Theatre to mark 30 years since their foundation, well-known LGBT activist Tonie Walsh delivered an insightful presentation focussed on the potential and ability of an AIDS memorial to enable communities to “memorialise loss and grief, which allows them to better value and share the coping mechanisms and survival strategies of a previous generation”.
I listened with pride on December 1st, 2017, as President Higgins quoted Tonie, at a reception in Áras an Uachtaráin, to mark World AIDS Day, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of HIV Ireland, and to pay tribute to people and organisations working to assisting people living with HIV and to prevent the spread of AIDS.
Stunning AIDS memorials exist in Toronto, New York City and Durban, South Africa.
Ireland should now follow suit.
In 1987, ‘HIV Ireland’ began to organise. They did so against a backdrop where homosexual acts were deemed illegal, within a world that was struggling to come to terms with the brevity of the AIDS crisis. While the scientific community laboriously investigated the causes of infection, prejudice and stigma gained strength. The LGBT community now faced new forms of discrimination from which to defend itself.
Not until prominent cases such as the death of Ryan White, a US teenager who contracted HIV through blood transfusion to treat his haemophilia, would the public perception of HIV/AIDS start to shift. The remnants of stigma and prejudice would however remain.
According to a ‘HIV in Ireland 2017’ report, stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS remains alive and well. 24% of people incorrectly believed that HIV can be transmitted through kissing, while 9% incorrectly believed that the virus can pass through contact with a toilet seat. Perhaps even more worrying – the misconceptions heightened amongst young people.
This stigma has its effect on those living with HIV. 17% of respondents living with HIV felt suicidal in the last year – more than four times the national average. While a fear of rejection by friends, loved ones and society remains widespread.
Yet there is always hope.
We can combat the virus through prevention and treatment – for not only has detection improved, but people who are HIV positive can live full, happy and healthy lives, as the effectiveness of treatment has improved to a degree that HIV may be suppressed to become undetectable, meaning that the virus cannot be transmitted.
The roll-out of contraceptives like PrEP (Pre-exposure Prophylaxis) and PEP (Post-Exposure Prophylaxis) has started worldwide, with near-100% effectiveness in preventing HIV.
However, our education system fails to provide fully inclusive sex education to LGBT students as the SPHE and RSE curricula exist without formal clarity in schools. Much of the population are unaware that condoms only provide 70% effectiveness in HIV prevention for anal sex. PrEP has yet to be made freely available by the HSE despite its proven effectiveness. And importantly, stigma still plays a massive role.
A ‘National AIDS Memorial’ – a physical site of remembrance, can serve as a place to grieve and remember loss and give hope to the future, because significant advances have been made in treatment and methods of prevention.
Government should support a memorial in consultation with civil and civic society. It would represent a commitment to HIV prevention, and act as a tool of acceptance by a state that has historically served on the side of stigma.
President Higgins noted that “in those years, in terms of living up to its duties to its citizens, our society and State was anything but adequate or indeed republican”.
A consultation process must best represent the wishes of the people. Those who have lost loved ones and friends and our wider communities who wish to stand up and speak out. It’s time to listen.