Why I wear my Red Ribbon with pride

I’m old enough to remember the first time we wore red ribbons for HIV / AIDS awareness, shortly before Freddie Mercury died from AIDS related illness. I’ve worn a red ribbon every year since and for years I’ve organised the sale of ribbons in my places of work to raise funds for HIV charities. For many years I also used to make Christmas Puddings to sell to raise funds for HIV charities – at one stage I was making over 500 per year and when I gave up doing this about six years ago I worked out that I must have made over 10,000 puddings between 1985 and 2011. So as you can see, I’ve always been a supporter, but I have to be honest and say that I can’t really pin down exactly why – I just felt it was an issue and a cause that deserved support. In the early 1990’s a family friend died of AIDS-related illness, though it was never openly spoken about as such and it was only 15 or more years later that I was able to confirm his HIV/AIDS status, so even that wasn’t the original trigger for my support. Maybe sub-consciously it was the impact of seeing Princess Diana so publicly challenging the world by hugging and holding the hands of AIDS patients, and seeing the patients’ reactions to her care and warmth.

This year is different: I know exactly why I am wearing the ribbon with pride this year – it’s about challenging fear and hatred.

Quite recently I met someone who has really opened my eyes. He is an inspiration to anyone for what he has gone through and he’s come out on the other side saying “I’m just me, I’m nothing special” – I beg to differ. For a start, less than ten years ago he was diagnosed with cancer. Around the same time he was diagnosed HIV+. He told his mother about the diagnoses and promised her that he was going to lose weight, get fit, beat the cancer and not let the HIV beat him. Two days later she died suddenly in a distressing accident, leaving my friend orphaned and alone in the world, facing cancer and HIV. Within a year he had halved his weight, broken his back and recovered from it, and was declared in full remission from the cancer. This year he’s just done his second Great North Run, is celebrating six years completely cancer-free and his HIV viral load has been undetectable for more than half a decade. He’s now an athletic 8½ stone and was recently mistaken for being 20-something …. when he’s actually 40. Tell me that isn’t inspirational.

So, with all these massive achievements to celebrate and be so proud of, why am I thinking of him particularly on World AIDS day? After all, he is – as far as the rest of the world knows – an incredibly healthy man. Well actually that alone is a very good reason: to celebrate the fact that living with HIV doesn’t mean living with constant illness and misery, but I do have another reason. I’d not known my friend all that long when he told me about some of the abuse he has received, including people telling him to go away and kill himself rather than be a burden on the world, being described as “dirty”, and entering a bar to have so-called friends shout across the entire room “don’t go near him, he’s got AIDS!”, But what shocked and upset me most of all is that my friend now describes himself as “undatable” – indeed he even applied to go on the TV show “the undatables” because of his HIV+ status and the abuse he’s suffered. When he told me this I cried. What a despicable world we live in when someone is made to feel this way.

So this year I will be wearing my Red Ribbon with even greater pride than normal, to show how intensely proud I am of my remarkable friend and how deeply sorry I am that society is still so bigoted that it can make such an inspirational person believe that he is “undatable”.

Dave Darwent – Senior Lecturer: E-Learning Technologist in D&S

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