The little red ribbon

1 December is World AIDS Day, and has been for 30 years. When I was 16, my school became part of a then-pioneering project around AIDS awareness. Rather than have a teacher stand at the front of the class and hand out worksheets to a no-doubt giggling class, they sent four or five of our sixth-formers to a centre in a nearby town where they spent a week having intensive (well, for a teenager) training in HIV and AIDS. They learned the lot, and then came back to school, took us into small groups, and told us all about it. 

The first thing they did was get a huge sheet of paper and some markers and sit us down on the library floor and ask us to write every word we knew associated with sex – and we were allowed to swear. Once the obligatory “fuck”s and “bumming” had been got out of the way, and the shyness had melted away, the more niche terms made an appearance. It’s where I learned what rainbow kissing was, and felching, seagulling, and snowballing. (Look them up, but not at work.) It was possibly the most open discussion about sex I’ve ever had, and once the ice was broken and our minds were ready for penetration, as it were, they told us the facts, all things I have never forgotten, even the complicated medical stuff. They used a banana to show us how to put on a condom, told us all about what was and wasn’t safe taught us about contraception and protection, and gave us all kinds of stuff like condoms, dental dams, lube, and femidoms. I think it was probably the first time I had been part of a discussion about sex at school that did not end up in running away to a corner to hide because someone said I was gay. I began wearing a red ribbon and wore it every single day, and there wasn’t one day that went by where my personal bully – he was called Julian, in a bizarre “gay name” coincidence – didn’t punch me and call me a poofter for doing so. But I wore it all the same. Every single day. People would ask me what it was, constantly, and I would answer calmly. “Does it mean you have AIDS?” they said, to a 16-year-old. The nineties really were another country.

Aside from my French conjugations, the HIV lessons are probably the thing I remember most from school. They made quite an impression, and I wanted to feel that grown-up, and knowledgeable, and pass the magic feeling on to others. so the following year, when I was in Year 13, I signed up for the course and went along with a few of my schoolmates. I think I was one of only two boys to go. The other came out at university and died when he was 21. I think about him sometimes; he was a nice guy and always left me alone. It didn’t occur to me why at the time. 

I hated school, so the week-long course, wearing casual clothes and having chip-shop chips for lunch, was just perfect. Even though the subject matter was pretty intense, the training was light and relaxed. We met a guy with HIV who told us all about the illnesses you could get and the signs that meant it had become AIDS and that you were going to die – because that’s how HIV and AIDS rolled in 1994. He was lovely, despite the bleak future he imagined for himself every day. He was gay, and usually I would shrink away from gay men for fear proximity would lead to comparison and exposure, but he had kind eyes and a soft voice and, I now realise, saw the tiniest light within me. I hope he’s all right.

So revolutionary was the scheme that we even appeared on local television, on Look North. I was interviewed briefly and still remember exactly what I said and what appeared on the programme. “I wanted to do this course to help educate others, people at my school, and to fight prejudice.” I went back to school energised and ready to teach the lower sixth all about it; I was so looking forward to it. Maybe it would change their lives like it had changed mine. The buzz of knowing about something that was so important and necessary, explaining the story about the little red ribbon and why I wore it and how they should too. 

It didn’t go too well. The people in the year below us weren’t particularly curious – morons, mostly, I’d go as far to say – and the fact I wasn’t hugely popular didn’t help. The group I took laughed throughout, calling out faggot or repeating things I’d just said back to me in a sibilant impression of a stereotypical homosexual. But my friend and I carried on “educating”, because at least we could say we’d tried. And I’d do it again.

I wore the red ribbon for much of my first year at university, but I heard the guys in the rugby team saying in the student union that I wore it because I was gay and had HIV. I couldn’t let this happen to me again, not when I worked so hard to get away from all that at school, so I removed it. But I got older. And bolder. The one beautiful luxury of ageing is that the petty preferences, prejudices, frustrations and restrictions of others become less important to you. I wear a ribbon now every year when I can find one, and one year was so frustrated that I sent off for a load and sold them all in my office to my bewildered colleagues.

HIV is no longer the death sentence it was feared back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, when I was young. People with HIV can, and do, live long, full, healthy lives; getting tested is pretty easy; and there is now medication that can help prevent it or, in cases where it may have been contracted catch it before it develops, like a morning-after pill. Many people with HIV on effective treatment cannot pass on the virus. But we still need to wear the red ribbon. The fight is not over. The ceaseless war on sexual health services and funding means education about HIV and AIDS is lacking, and many people are still contracting and unwittingly infecting sexual partners with HIV.

We should not be scared of HIV anymore, but we must never be complacent. Getting them taught young, by their peers, is, I can say with some authority, a very effective and essential way to get the message across. Talking openly about sex and when can happen to you when you have it is the best thing you can do for a teenager. It frees them from worry and uncertainty and far from ruining their innocence, it gives them clarity and power, the power to be in control of their own body. Maybe it won’t go in, and maybe they’ll heckle, but we have to try.

On 1 December, if not every day, wear the ribbon, talk the talk, and change lives.


Image: NIAID

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