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Wednesday, November 4, 2009

I Can See You !

One of the most successful tactics of the Gay Liberation Movement back in the 70s was the emphasis they placed on "Coming Out" as a political statement. The logic was that if every gay man and lesbian came out and admitted who they were, the general public would see so many queers everywhere that they'd appreciate we were just a normal part of the population. If our real numbers were revealed, we'd be stronger. I remember reading somewhere a piece from back then where this activist said he wished every homo would turn purple overnight, so we could all be seen.

Coming out did work. It took brave people at the start, but over time it become more and more ordinary, and now it is hard to imagine a world where it doesn't happen, in the West anyway. By making ourselves visible, instead of quietly hiding away, we made ourselves part of the landscape. It was a very clever political move.

Even now, unfortunately, there are queers in New Zealand and elsewhere in the world who are still too scared to admit they are attracted to the same sex. People in Sports, Politics, Business, the Arts, on TV and everywhere else in our world who, in spite of all we've gained, even in liberal homo-friendly NZ, are terrified that someone will find out that they are somehow "different" and have to hide this part of their personality.

I have to say I find it weird that people today find it hard to come out as gay, but if you're in professional sports, trying to make a career on TV, being same-sex attracted is still seen as a weakness. Of course, if they all came out, well, it wouldn't be seen in the same way: That is the basic argument for Coming Out as an act - it makes us visible and normal.

But it can't be denied, it still takes courage to come out as gay. Those people these days who don't come out, I do tend to think of as just a little bit cowardly, but I understand their cowardice. One friend recently recalled the fear and terror of it all and referred to coming out as "stomach-churning", and I know what he means. It is opening yourself up and taking on an identity that is stigmatised, looked-down on, and saying, "Hey, I'm just as good as you!" when a number of people still think that we are sick, sinners or just evil.

But in reality we are just as good, or bad, or ordinary, as anyone else, gay, straight, queer, whatever word you want to use.

I wonder how well it could work for making HIV seem less fearful and more normal. I wonder how it would be if every HIV+ person came out, so everyone around could see that we are just normal people going about our lives. I'm not suggesting right now that every HIV+ person tell all to the world: It takes time and preparation and support before you can do that, and some people will never get to that point. But more of us could I'm sure.

One night back in the 90s at Volt (long gone alas) I was chatting with a guy, and said to him "I guess you should know I'm HIV+" and he said to me "You really don't need to tell me that, in fact, you shouldn't tell people. We should all just assume everyone is HIV+ and always play safe."

That has always been the basis of the "Use a condom every time" message. We just don't know for sure who has it or who doesn't. And that message used to be very strong in our world. This was all just after the new drugs came out, and things were starting to turn around for us, but there was still a strong communal knowledge of how bad things can get with HIV, so many of us had seen friends get so sick, and then die.

But that safe sex message has remained the same. And it does make sense still. We don't tell people "If you smoke 5 cigarettes a day you'll be ok". Even though people continue to smoke, we still don't encourage them to risk a few, we tell, with damn good evidence, that the best thing they can do is stop completely. And of course, realistically, we all know that these messages won't be blindly followed. So even though, you might be fine risking it having unsafe sex 9 out of 10 times, you might also have been exposed to HIV each of those 10 times you didn't use condoms. It's a brutally simple message, but one that is still factually true.

But I think one thing that has changed a lot is that now people who think they're HIV negative are placing a far greater responsibility of those of us who have the virus to tell them. It used to be all of us together - now it's seen more and more as the HIV positive person's job. With the numbers of people living with the virus here in NZ going up all the time, living well and not looking as though anything is wrong, and fewer and fewer of us dying, in fact the opportunity to be exposed to HIV has increased significantly.

The other advantage from that old way of behaving was that it didn't stigmatise HIV+ people as much. The burden was shared, and that was a good thing.

Today, if you're a fit, healthy looking gym-bunny who just happens to have HIV, as so many are, there is now I think even more fear and stigma about admitting it to others. And that's a shame. It used to be Poz and Neg together, not , as we often seem now, in two differing camps where the HIV Negative think the HIV Positive should shoulder all the responsibility.

Because having HIV is nothing to be ashamed of. It's a virus in our blood. It's not a moral judgement. But the weight of social judgement and stigma, not least from the gay world, is such that most people with HIV feel a need to hide it, so as to avoid the pain of rejection, pity and ostracism. And this leads to more invisibility, more fear and shame felt by those lving with the virus.

But maybe if you knew just how many of us are out there, perhaps you'd think differently.

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