World AIDS Day in Kolkata in 2014 (Photo: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images)
World AIDS Day in Kolkata in 2014 (Photo: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images)

SocietyAugust 15, 2020

Lessons we can learn from the HIV/Aids pandemic

World AIDS Day in Kolkata in 2014 (Photo: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images)
World AIDS Day in Kolkata in 2014 (Photo: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images)

The current pandemic will be a brand new experience for most, but others have been here before. Kevin Hague explains what we can learn from the LGBTQ+ community’s experience of the HIV/Aids outbreak from decades past.

If there’s one group in our country who really knows about beating pandemics, it’s surely the gay community. Before Pride there was Hero, which started in 1991 if I recall correctly. It was a long time ago, to celebrate us: the Auckland gay community. Similar festivals were established in other centres to do the same thing. We’d responded to the HIV/Aids pandemic not with fear and surrender, but with pride, determination and the extraordinarily fast adoption of new sexual behaviours.

I was working the first of two five year stints with the New Zealand Aids Foundation at the time. We were faced with the challenge of changing the ways that gay and bisexual men had sex. The obstacles were considerable. Sexual behaviour is deeply intimate and personal, fundamental to our sense of who we are. While some of our sexual behaviour was, well, exuberant, much of it remained in the margins, pushed out of reach by stigma and prejudice – how did you even talk to someone about safe sex if they were hiding their sexual orientation, identity and behaviour? The sexual behaviour we needed to change wasn’t even legal until 1986.

R: Aids foundation safe-sex poster, 1988 / L: Poster promoting condom use, 1985 (Photos: Aids Foundation & Alexander Turnbull Library)

But we did it. Within the space of just a few short years, our community went from never using condoms (what did contraception have to do with us?) to making condom use (with water-based lube, of course) a cultural norm. There was a diversification of forms of sexual pleasure, and negotiation of sexual acts. And while it took work, we’ve maintained those as key elements of our culture. When I look back on that time, I think of the friends I lost, who died in the pandemic. But the truth is that there were so many more who we saved.

During this Covid-19 pandemic, I’ve been reminded every day that this is not our first rodeo. While it’s a novel situation for many, we actually have a community of gay heroes who’ve faced down a tough, lethal foe already and have some knowledge and skills that might just help.

To start with, we know that blame and stigma are substantial obstacles – they have no value and just get in the way. Keep on being kind to each other.

Secondly, the infection control procedures and practices we use have to be used all the time, with everyone. In the early days, so many people thought they could somehow tell who had HIV and only use condoms with them. They learned the hard way that you can’t tell by looking – many people don’t have symptoms and many people don’t even know they’re positive themselves. Sounds familiar, right? You have to assume that anyone at all could have Covid-19, and that includes us.

And maybe the most important lesson is to get over yourself! It felt weird to use condoms. People were scared that they’d be rejected if they insisted on it. We needed to get people to care more about their own health and that of their partners than embarrassment or fear of judgment or rejection.

This might seem just like encouragement for the general community. But really I am speaking to my community – the gay community. We are the heroes who have beaten this kind of thing before. We are the ones who know how to do it. So let’s rock the mask, use the contact tracing app every time, maintain the physical distancing, find new ways of caring for each other and help others to do it too.

Keep going!