Friday 27 December 2013

The HIV Soldiers

The “Soldiers” in the 2012 POZ 100 list present a cross-section of the many people from all walks of life who are keeping the works of the Seekers, Hunters and Defenders in the public eye. They do this by raising awareness of HIV/AIDS and by championing campaigns and charities. They help to encourage funding for more research either by persuading politicians to put more money into HIV programmes or by fundraising themselves. Here are several HIV Soldiers.

The “first assault”, as it were, came from the first HIV patients who were brave enough to reveal their status publicly, risking personal criticism due to the essentially homophobic attitude that surrounded AIDS in the early years.

Bobbi Campbell described himself as the “first AIDS poster boy”. He was the first person with AIDS to announce he had the disease and became one of America’s first AIDS activists. Bobbi’s contribution to the community was his honest disclosure of how the illness affected him. He brought the only first-hand experience to other HIV patients who perhaps wanted reassurance that their own illness was not an isolated case, and that advice and information from a patient (rather than a doctor) who was going through the illness would prepare themselves for their own battle ahead. At the same time Bobbi was educating the community as a whole and raising awareness into what the disease does to a person’s body.

Bobbi became a spokesman for HIV patients, writing a column in the San Francisco Sentinel, and co-founding the organisation People With AIDS Self-Empowerment Movement. As well as educating and raising awareness as one of my “HIV Soldiers” Bobbi played his part as an “HIV Defender” by encouraging safe sex and early testing.

One of the first public candlelit marches took place on 2nd May 1983. Organised by a small group of people with AIDS, including Bobbi Campbell, the march raised awareness of HIV patients and remembered those who had died. Bobbi himself succumbed to AIDS in 1984.

The work of educating communities is still as important today as it ever was, most especially in Africa. One person I mentioned a few days ago in my Olympic torch relay article is working hard with UNAIDS and WHO, Musa Queen Njoko. When she was diagnosed with HIV in 1995 the doctors told her she had 3 months to live. “I had to grow up and deal with issues that other 22-year-olds didn’t have to think about”, she said 17 years later on World AIDS Day 2011.

As a Christian Musa found a strength that led her immediately to inform and educate her community in KwaZulu-Natal about her HIV status and the disease in general. Beginning in her own church she began a series of education programmes and started to use jazz and gospel music to provide inspiration and spiritual support behind her message. She is now well-known as a gospel singer throughout South Africa, and continues to support UNAIDS.

Another singer whose HIV status influenced his music was the Brazilian rock singer Cacuza (real name Agenor de Miranda Ajaújo Neto). Although not an activist or campaigner in the usual sense, after he announced his HIV status publicly in 1989 his music became more serious and often incorporated themes around social issues. Just by revealing his status he helped to change attitudes towards the disease, and following his death his mother founded the Viva Cazuza Society, an AIDS prevention charity which also provides housing for HIV+ children.

Raising awareness of AIDS need not be vocal. Actions speak louder than words sometimes. Action from governments in the form of funding and provision of health care is only part of the job. Charity fundraising has always been part of any cause. Ways to raise money are endless, and one which also serves as an act of remembrance is one created by Brent Nicholson Earle - a long-distance run.

Brent’s first run, the American Run for the End of AIDS (AREA) in 1986 came about as a result of the deaths of many of his friends and was inspired by a similar charity run by a Canadian HIV patient. Funds were raised for many local AIDS and gay men’s health projects along the 9,000 mile route through the USA and Canada.

Building on it’s success Brent organised several other runs coinciding with the Gay Games and ending in the host city. This evolved into the International Rainbow Memorial Run, which acts like a kind of Olympic torch relay, carrying the Rainbow Pride flag from the home city of the Gay Games, San Francisco, to the games’ host city.

Whichever method the HIV Soldiers have chosen, and still choose, the message has been diverse. Whenever communities become complaisant about the problems still faced with HIV/AIDS these Soldiers help provide a reminder.

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