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Ken Monteith

Ken Monteith

Ken Monteith was diagnosed with AIDS and 4 CD4 cells in 1997. Ken is a recovering lawyer (it's a process!) living in Montréal, where he obsessively counts his CD4s with equal fluency in English and French, pausing only to glare at those who dare to taunt him with their higher numbers.


Not for sale

Tuesday, 10 December 2013 Written by // Ken Monteith - Montreal Correspondent Categories // Opinion Pieces, Ken Monteith

Ken Monteith on cashing in on causes to make a buck – and asks how ethical is our community in raising money around World AIDS Day. (it is, he says)

Not for sale

Something popped up on my Facebook newsfeed a couple of weeks ago that really messed with the peaceful bubble in which I tend to live. You know the bubble — the one where people have strikingly similar values and tend to react in the same ways to issues arising in their lives. When people express values that contradict our own, or react in a way we wouldn’t, the effect is disturbing and puzzling.

So the thing that popped up on my newsfeed? A would-be t-shirt entrepreneur seeking to trademark the red square with the safety pin that symbolized the student movement’s fight against tuition increases in Québec. The students didn’t create the symbol. It was borrowed (with permission) from an anti-poverty movement, created to communicate simply and effectively the message that it is unacceptable for our social choices to leave people “squarely in the red”.

The would-be entrepreneur seeking the trademark on the image had nothing to do with either the student movement or the anti-poverty movement, and certainly nothing to do with creating the symbol over which he seeks to assert ownership. He insists he will protect his trademark aggressively, with lawsuits against those who might dare to use it without his permission or, presumably, without paying a licencing fee to him. When the fact of his lack of involvement in the development of the symbol is raised, he shrugs it off, arguing that the students themselves ought to have trademarked it if they didn’t want someone else to do so.

There’s where I choke in disbelief. Is every idea, every symbol, only an object of commercial interest? Is nothing exempt? My little bubble is threatening to burst around me.

I draw a parallel between the red square issue and some rumblings I have heard around me about World AIDS Day. Has it “lost its meaning” in the scramble of AIDS organizations — sometimes in those comments referred to as “AIDS Inc.” — to leverage that one day of the year when people in our society actually pay attention to the issue into opportunities for fundraising that will pay for their programs and services through the rest of the year, at least the ones that governments and the like don’t want to pay for?

The term “AIDS Inc.” grates on me. To be frank, I work in an AIDS organization and I do get paid, but I don’t think of myself as being part of “AIDS Inc.” I have always considered myself to be a part of the continuity of a movement of which we can all be rightly proud. I try to make sure that there is always space for diversity in the voices of the movement, that there is meaningful democracy in the structures that I might be able to influence, that I not take up more space than I ought to on the stage, metaphorically speaking. I don’t liken fundraising for social causes to profit-driven business.

Yes, World AIDS Day is about our losses. But it is also about our solidarity with people living with HIV today and with marginalized people whose lack of access to basic needs pushes them to the precariousness that can result in their becoming HIV-positive, too. It is about nurturing the soul of our movement, but by necessity it is also about assuring the continuity of our movement.

When we are faced with governments that are sometimes openly hostile to the essential work that needs to be done, we have to look elsewhere for the means to do it. When “austerity” and a strange obsession with cutting taxes (there’s that bubble of mine again) seem to be on everyone’s lips (or on the lips of those with access to the media, at least), we have to look somewhere besides governments for the means to do our work. Unfortunately for us, the one day of the year we would like to be able to reserve for our memories and our contemplations is also the one day that the rest of our society pays attention to us with any degree of empathy. Hence the fundraisers that mark this time of year, too.

There are plenty of critiques that can be — and often are — levelled against our movement, and that is fair game. Are we really doing the right things? Are we doing them the right way? Are we consciously working to eliminate the barriers that our own assumptions might be erecting, blocking access to people who are different from those in the room where the decisions are being made? We’re stronger when we listen, when we reflect on what we are doing and when we try to do it better than we have.

The movement needs to learn how to make HIV top the news and provoke solidarity in the general population on more than one day a year. We all have a role to play in that effort. When we succeed in doing that, maybe World AIDS Day can just be about our souls. Until then, we need to make room for the fundraising too, so the rest of the days of the year can offer us the kind of support and action that we expect.