SLACKTIVIST NATION? The new HIV activists of Oz

Has HIV activism really slackened off? Daniel Brace believes that it is alive and well in Australia.

Our history of HIV activism is certainly a remarkable one. Australia owes much to those committed individuals who at first challenged and then worked together with government to bring about change. The privileges people living with HIV enjoy today are due largely to those early HIV activists.

Poz Action tatoo.200-wide










Photo: Poz Action tattoos on display at recent Australasian HIV and AIDS Conference, Darwin

Sadly, many of them are not around anymore and of those who are, only a few have the energy to act up. Some are now senior and respected professionals in their own fields or within the community sector that emerged as a result of their struggle.

But what of the new generation of HIV activists? Have we really become a ‘slacktivist nation’? Are we all ‘armchair activists’, passively and virtually ‘liking’ every new cause? Are today’s self-proclaimed activists no more than professional marketers wanting to flex their multi-platform social media skills to improve their own employment opportunities?

Certainly, there have been seismic shifts in the way people now congregate, communicate and relate to issues. Networks are no longer limited by geography or post-reporting. Journalism has evolved and we now all have the ability to report news and to be followed. People can now be mobilized almost instantly. We may be physically disconnected, but we can all link-in to virtual community networks of like-minded people.

And if we look outside of HIV, for a moment—at gay marriage or refugee asylum, for example—we can see the attributes that we associate with traditional activism. We see community-driven, well-attended protests and rallies often mobilized by social media. They prove that, when necessary, we are still prepared to front-up and demonstrate our commitment to a cause.

While there are still issues within the HIV community worthy of a rally—stigma, discrimination, treatment access, prevention, gender inequality and inter-generational challenges to name a few—they do appear less urgent than those we fought for in the early days; when HIV treatments were being withheld and lives were at stake.

But across the globe there are many individuals working hard to change opinions and attitudes, to break down stigma, to increase and improve access to treatments, to reach out to vulnerable populations and to make sure that governments work harder to protect and care for those living with HIV. And many of these individuals are working here in Australia.

The ENUF campaign is a great example of HIV activism at work today.

Photo: ENUF activists congregate after the Melbourne Pride March

Online, individuals are able to investigate the research that sits behind the ENUF message. They can share their own experience of building resilience in the face of stigma and record the process of change as it happens. They can even sign a pledge to stand up and challenge HIV stigma should they encounter it; in other words, commit to becoming an activist themselves.

ENUF has achieved activist status by bringing people together under a banner with a challenge they believe in.

‘Poz Action’ is another example of organisation-based activism. Launched by NAPWHA at The Australasian HIV and AIDS Conference in Darwin, Poz Action is a national movement aimed at reinvigorating the HIV positive community-led response to the current and future needs of all those affected.

The red stamp is now being used by people living with HIV organisations across Australia to brand any work they do for the collective good.

But what about outside these organisations?

Positively Fabulous+is one example. This art project uses mannequins as a device to challenge issues relating to the 17 million women living with HIV worldwide.

‘Activism needs to be about getting attention in a way which challenges and stimulates discussion,’ says Melbourne-based organiser Kim Davis.

There are real groups of HIV positive Australians congregating in real time on social media for the purpose of activism. Some of this activist energy has even spilled over into the public arena. Voices are emerging that are not grounded within the HIV establishment, but are free agents for social change.

By acknowledging all forms of activism, great or small, individual or collective, as being driven by committed people wanting to influence change for the better, we will be stronger as a community. Handing the baton of activism onto those willing and ready for the challenge is about succession planning and the ongoing protection of our privileged position.

The latest HIV Futures Seven report shows our continuing need for positive action. While ART means that AIDS deaths are practically unheard of in Australia, nearly one third of PLHIV still live below the poverty line. Almost 50% of us worry about disclosing our status because of the current laws; and nearly a fifth of us have been diagnosed with depression in the past two years.

These worrying findings may not be enough to galvanize the broader community into rallies or protests, or even coax some of those original activists off their couches and into the streets; but it’s a reminder that there are still areas that need the directed energy of activism to challenge us to do better.

There is a strong and vocal community of HIV positive people who are not sitting idle or resting on the laurels of past success.

If we are to improve the lives of all people living with HIV, we need to acknowledge that these new activists are at work right now and join forces with them. Activism always needs new voices and new energy.

The nature of the epidemic and Australia’s response has changed. People with HIV are mostly living longer and better and can rise to the challenge of new responsibilities. We are better equipped now than ever before to invest in our own community, to support each other and to help reduce and stop the transmission of HIV.

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in Positive Living, the quarterly magazine of National Association of People Living with HIV Australia (NAPWHA), Written in response to Shirley Robinson’s Activism Revisited, both articles explore the past, present and future of HIV activism.

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