I was quite surprised to find that there are many collectors of stamps issued for World AIDS Day and HIV/AIDS awareness in general. I wasn’t aware of that many stamps on the subject but digging deeper I found that there are hundreds of them. The strips of stamps above and below come from just the first rows of AIDS stamps which appeared when I googled the subject.
AIDS has been highlighted on postage stamps since 1988. Several nations issued stamps to commemorate the first World AIDS Day held in that year, including the ones pictured left which were issued by San Marino.
In 2009 the Universal Postal Union (UPU) started an initiative to promote awareness of the disease with the use of other material such as postcards, posters and leaflets for use in post offices. The UPU was created in 1874 and became a specialised agency of the United Nations in 1948. Over 20 nations have taken part in the 2009 initiative, including Burkina Faso, Kazakhstan, Russia and Iraq.
There are also philatelists who specialise even further and concentrate on collecting stamps depicting famous people, past and present, with HIV/AIDS. More often than not these stamps make no specific AIDS reference and are issues to commemorate the individual.
AIDS awareness stamps continue to be produced. According to Stephen Lorimer, webmaster of the AIDS On Stamps website (and women’s roller derby referee), the only year in which no known AIDS awareness stamps were issued was 2015.
Stephen Lorimer could be regarded as the current world authority on AIDS stamps, but if anyone can be described as a pioneer it is Blair Coldwell Henshaw (1949-2002). Blair was a gay man growing up in Canada. He was a keen stamp collector from his childhood but didn’t start to specialise in AIDS until the first one was issued in 1988. Blair was himself diagnosed with HIV in 1985. He stated that he had no fear of dying because he had been brought up with the frequent presence of death as a child. His mother was a “death-sitter”, someone who stayed by the bedside of those near the time of their passing. His mother instilled in Blair the belief that death is natural no matter what circumstances that may invoke fear and pain and should not be feared itself.
Throughout the following years Blair collected thousands of AIDS stamps and related postal ephemera building it into a collection which may well have been the largest collection of AID-related stamps in the world. His enthusiasm developed into a series of newsletters beginning in 1993 which gave news of new stamps and other postal news and encouraged readers to start their own collections.
Blair had noticed by 1992 that Canada hadn’t issued an AIDS stamp. He began lobbying the government and postal service who received hundreds of suggestions for themes every year. Blair’s suggestion was granted in 1995 and the first Canadian AIDS stamp was issued in May 1995 to commemorate the 11th International AIDS Conference that was held in Vancouver.
Following Blair’s death from AIDS-related complications his whole stamp collection was auctioned off. One of the 72 lots was the entire AIDS stamp collection. It was purchased by John Keenlyside of Vancouver who donated it to the Simon Fraser University Special Collections department in 2004.
In the 21st century the postal service worldwide has declined because of the improvement in communications and email, but I hope commemorative stamps will continue to bring awareness to social and health issues for as long as they exist.