WARNING! INCOMING RANT!
“That’s gay, gay like AIDS.” What? A friend of mine overheard this little gem on public transit a few years ago, and ever since she told me about it I find myself occasionally replaying it in my mind. Can we just have a moment for how repugnant that statement is? It actually makes me visibly agitated when I think about it too much, and good luck to anyone who says it if I’m within earshot. I have a uniquely academic-meets-front-line way of tearing down ignorance while educating about the topic, and additionally gesticulating so ferociously that people who have walked into my circumference are forced to duck, roll and cover.
That’s not to say that I don’t occasionally let a word or phrase slip out of my talkin’-hole that causes a similar reaction from the company I might be keeping. It happens that we hear things from media sources, friends, family, or colleagues that we repeat without actually knowing the impact our words can have. For me, I had a very hard time removing the word ‘retarded’ from my vocabulary. Like most, I was using it as a synonym to mean inconvenient, dumb, or unfortunate. After a lot of conscious work, and the help of a few peers, I was able to replace it with ‘ridiculous’. It feels the same when it’s spoken, if I start to say the other r-word I have time to catch myself and replace it, and coincidentally enough, it’s what I was actually trying to articulate to begin with.
What I assume our bus-riding linguist was trying to express was that the thing(s) being discussed were not only dumb, or unfortunate, or boring, but that they were quintessentially dumb, or unfortunate, or boring. Here’s the problem with that. While HIV does have a strong impact on, and history within the gay community, it can, of course affect or infect anyone. When we make jokes or colloquialisms out of stereotypical views, we perpetuate the stereotypes. When stereotypes are perpetuated we find ourselves in a place where other populations become the fasted growing demographic for new HIV infection, because “That’s gay, gay like AIDS” can easily translate into “I’m not gay, I’m probably not at risk, I probably don’t need to be tested or use protection”. Additionally, what was also implied when our topic phrase dribbled out of the public-transit-anti-linguist’s mouth was that gay people, and AIDS were obviously equal to those synonyms: stupid, undesirable, and bad. Seriously? BAH!
How AIDS New Brunswick likes to address the issues of stigma and stereotyping that we encounter (when I’m not gesticulating myself into an assault charge) is with primary education, and awareness events. November 24th – December 1st marked annual National AIDS Awareness Week, with December 1st marking World AIDS Day. This year as part of our event program AIDS New Brunswick, AIDS Moncton, AIDS Saint John, and Healing Our Nations we screened Positive Youth, a film focused on addressing the rising HIV infection rates among youth. This film (see trailer below) outlines what it’s like for youth to live HIV positive in a world where jokes and ridicule from peers snowball into fear, isolation, and rejection. How growing up with a parent who is HIV positive works. And, What it feels like to tell one’s parents they are not only gay, but also HIV positive. It does it very well, and I cannot wait to get feedback from our viewers.
It’s a long road we travel, and we pick up debris along the way. Right now, for me, “that’s gay, gay like AIDS” happens to be the place where I am, swinging away with a pickaxe (INSERT VILLAGE PERSON JOKE HERE), looking mighty fine in my yellow hardhat, trying to humbly change the world.
This article first appeared in the journal of AIDS New Brunswick here.