by David Waggoner
January is the beginning of things that are both hopeful (the inauguration of Joe Biden) and hilarious (the exit stage right of the current president in office, Donald Trump). The Clown Car (meaning the West Wing of the White House and all of its deranged and self-serving occupants) is coming to a screeching halt in its efforts to spread misinformation, distrust and the stigmatizaion of the sick and their heroic advocates; sounds a little like the end of the Reagan Administration’s refusal to speak the word “AIDS” and Nixon’s iron-clad egomania and famous cowardly resignation via Marine One. Stigma is at a real crisis for millions living with HIV/AIDS throughout the world. This concern is brought into sharp focus in the pop music world of this month’s cover story, which hits a resounding note, not only in the country of Thomas ButtenschØn’s father (Denmark) but also in the country of his mother (Zambia). Both of his parents died of AIDS-related causes and his father raised awareness before he died: “My dad, he lived with it openly. He wasn’t scared. He actually went on national TV; he was one of the first people to do that in Denmark, told his story and my story, so everyone around me has always known. For me, I’ve never felt ashamed. I never felt it was ‘my mistake’….” So Thomas never experienced stigma in quite the harsh way as others have. Yet he knows that stigma is preventing people from knowing their status and engaging in healthcare and he has started a music foundation to help empower people impacted by HIV in Zambia.
Other features in this issue also focus on campaigns that help dismantle stigma. Senior Editor Hank Trout writes about HIV in View, an initiative by ViiV Healthcare and Shutterstock to bring images of living with HIV to stock photography, and Positively Fearless, an initiative by Janssen Therapeutics that helps empower people living with HIV/AIDS to lead their best lives. Jackie Beat, interviewed by Senior Editor Dann Dulin, has long used her platform in the drag world to topple stigma, as does Robert Siegelman (featured in Gallery) in his art.
A&U magazine, which is marking thirty years of publication in 2021, was fueled in part by promoting compassion for people living with HIV/AIDS and showing how their struggles were integral to the human fabric at a time when mainstream society demonized the HIV community, and particularly gay men. For a primer, check out Managing Editor Chael Needle’s new column, Art & Understanding, which will revisit how the magazine started and evolved over the years.
Stigma is still a problem for millions; hundreds of thousands of Americans living with HIV are living with hunger in the suburbs of Chicago, Los Angeles or the rural coal towns of West Virginia. With COVID having destroyed lives and livelihoods, these horrific times have not put a stop to the stigma known for far too long by members of the HIV/AIDS community.
I’ll never forget the stigma that Mark S. Labrecque, founding A&U Board member, suffered in the early nineties. His friends threw a combined birthday party/graduation celebration for Mark’s having completed his Master’s degree in Psychology at the University at Albany, SUNY. Many of Mark’s colleagues should have been there to celebrate this major milestone in his education, but they were no-shows or almost-shows. Many of the birthday/graduation presents were left on the doorstep. Why? Because the fear of well-educated psychology students prevented them from completing the simplest of acts: hand-delivering their tokens of affection and respect directly to Mark. Sound familiar? Having HIV was then a death sentence. But not to those who simply could have hugged him and wished him well.
The simplest of acts could so easily destroy much of the stigma surrounding HIV. Not-so-random acts of kindness. Hugging, kissing, helping, caring, listening, recognizing that someone deserves the same respect as everyone else—it begins with empathy, that is, the art of understanding.
David Waggoner is Editor in Chief and Publisher of A&U, the first national HIV/AIDS magazine in the U.S.