CANFAR’s Young Professional Council held its second annual Our Future Without AIDS fundraiser last Saturday night. It reminds us why we need to keep caring about HIV—and why we’ll always need so much more than parties to remind us.
This year marks the 31st anniversary of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The issue, we know, is multi-dimensional and complicated. Even within my lifetime, the way we talk about it has changed from fear and self-loathing (riddled with homophobia) to far-reaching global advocacy tinged with optimistic complacency. On Saturday night, the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research (CANFAR) dispatched its Young Professional Council to Airship 37 to host the second annual Our Future Without AIDS fundraiser. The volunteer-based organization was created in 2010 to bridge the gap between seasoned donors and the impressionable, to remind us why we need to keep talking about this, even if it means appealing to the pleasure principle of partying.
“Do you wanna go to the art room and be, like, classy?” asked one guy as he whizzed past us in the drink ticket line. With the event held in a stark white hangar, the young and the philanthropic gathered for modest amusement. Red lanterns were strung from above, with light to match; a good-times vibe all around. It was a fundraising initiative, and a damn good one at that, helmed by a multimedia-art silent auction. (With works starting at $10 and maxing out around $400, the auction would have been especially ideal for first-time buyers. And yet it was a shame to see so few red dots.) All the revelry was accented with photo-booth funz, a cupcake and cookie station, Parts & Labour catering, and a Sade tune or two. (Oh, is that Rick Mercer?) And drinks—another white wine, please—to cushion the reality of what we’re all fighting for: hope.
I regret to wonder how many people in that room whom I know to be straight (or those whom I will unflinchingly assume to identify as so, due to overheard complaints from all the single straight girls about the lack of “hot guys”) have actually had real intersections with experiences surrounding HIV/AIDS. How many of them have had the virus knowingly coursing through the veins of a partner next to them? Or held their friend’s hand after a former partner had finally disclosed to them, after numerous encounters, that he was, in fact, HIV positive? Or worried themselves sick in an anonymous clinic waiting room because what if I contracted the virus and how could I have been so careless? How many of them have actually been tested? Maybe that’s not important. But, also, it is. And regardless of motive and experience, showing up and showing support is indisputably invaluable.
That night alone, it was estimated 1,125 people would die from AIDS. I feel guilty because I keep thinking this is a fashion event and just… thank someone for the signs, for writing the statistics on the walls and flashing them on flat screen televisions: There are 34 million people living with HIV worldwide, and 65,000 of them are in Canada. Still, you can buy a $20 cake pop—or seven—and win a big grand prize. It’s about fundraising, so that’s okay, even if the empty donation cans serve as mere table decorations. And it’s also okay if all you want to do is cry. Cry for the man who cried with you because he couldn’t live with himself if he put you at risk. Cry for those who are having sex right this second because four people under the age of 25 become HIV-positive every minute. Cry because more twentysomethings show up to a condo opening than to this thing.
But what’s the right way to talk about HIV and how do we keep talking about it effectively? What are the issues that surround the realities in a time when, yes, 65,000 Canadians are living with HIV… but how many of those are new infections and how many of those are individuals living longer? It took years to remove the various stigmas from my own thoughts. During my formative online jaunts, I would instantly block/ignore someone who, upon my inquiry, didn’t hesitate to honestly disclose. Somewhere along the way, I changed the way I looked at the situation: What if it was the reverse? Would I want to be loved or feared? Hated or pitied? My fear turned into questions; my questions reinforced the need to be informed and protected. To get tested regularly. To not use infection as yet another reason to divide us.
But when half of our grade nine students incorrectly believe there is a cure for AIDS, are government sexual-education programs failing the very generation CANFAR hopes to reach? Are we sending the right messages when condomless (“bareback”) porn is on the rise? Or are we being hypocrites? And yet one must ultimately account for an element of personal choice and consequence (if it’s laced with honesty), and pass up ascending to a moral high ground. Fact is, there are still glaring holes in the messages sent to men who have sex with men, especially those who might not even identify as gay (those married or on the DL, for example).
Make no mistake: There is no gay/straight divide when it comes to HIV/AIDS. We are all affected. But while the virus may not discriminate, we are not equal. Gay men are still at the highest risk, and that needs to be addressed. Perhaps the way I feel most strongly connected to a proverbial gay ancestry is through the crisis. The epidemic. The fear. The truth. The fact that I’ve been ignorant and unfair and unsure. I’m not shy about admitting that I’m human, that I’m animal. That I’ve been young, and naïve, and made mistakes. That I’ve been repentant. And scared. That I’ve judged and been judged. That I’ve prayed. That I have had unprotected sex a grand total of two times in 12 years and was publicly shamed for admitting so and accused of sending the wrong messages. But no, I’m not stupid. And that’s why we need to remove any sort of lingering feelings of humiliation, and why organizations like CANFAR continue to encourage such discourse.
Are you still listening?
“You can’t imagine,” says Mark Mahoney, the chair of CANFAR’s Young Professional Council, when he explains that the night will blow their initial goal to raise $40,000 “out of the water.” He’s right. You probably can’t imagine. Medical advancements have shielded me—and the majority of the younger, privileged gay community—from the reality of actually saying goodbye to our friends in rapid succession. But it hasn’t made us immune. And for that, we need to be cognizant. And when you imagine it—because, especially if you’re gay and young and horny and sexually active, you will—let me tell you: The psychological effects will linger. Those thoughts will unwillingly live within the partners you surround yourself with, and reside in the corners of a community that’s more incestuous than we’d all like to admit. Because I remember the message from day one. Because the questions lasts longer than a 30-minute episode of Girls and run deeper than any and every fucking Google search for “the stuff that gets up around the sides of condoms.” (Kudos, though, on condoms.) And just because there is little risk, doesn’t mean there is no risk. And you can do everything in your goddamn power to be as safe as you possibly can, but even then…?
By half past midnight, the mood lightens. People have shown up, bought art. Donated. Gotten drunk. Grabbed free condoms (but why no lube?). Some may rest assured that they’ve done their part for another year, or at least until World AIDS Day in December. Drake and Rihanna’s “Take Care” fills the ever-expanding white space in between: “I’ve loved, and I’ve lost,” is the last thing I hear before wandering back out into the darkness.
Donations to support HIV and AIDS research can be made on CANFAR’s official website.