'Stigma Breeds Silence' Says Panti During Annual Lecture On HIV And AIDS

A number of panellists discussed stigma and strategies for HIV prevention at last night's Annual Prof Michael Kelly Lecture on HIV/AIDS.

panelists from the annual AIDS and HIV lecture

The Annual Irish Aid Michael Kelly Lecture on HIV and AIDS took place last night at Smock Alley’s Banquet Hall. Michael Kelly gave the lecture via video while broadcaster Dil Wickramesinghe moderated live speakers. The lecture addressed stigma, silence and solutions around HIV and AIDS.  Guests included activist Robbie Lawlor, Executive Director of SCDI Vietnam Oanh Khuat and activist and drag queen Panti Bliss. Nicola Brennan, the Policy Unit Director at Irish Aid and Minister of State for the Diaspora Ciaran Cannon also gave special addresses.

The theme of this year’s lecture was “Leaving No One Behind”, and, with this in mind, the panellists explored current priorities and commemorated World Aids Day.

A recurring issue from the lecture involved the urgent need to reduce the stigma surrounding HIV, and the panellists discussed the best ways to address it.

Robbie Lawlor talked about the need for increased visibility of HIV Positive people in nationwide campaigns. Lawlor also addressed the lack of diversity in these campaigns, which very often, only feature the stories of HIV Positive gay men:

“We don’t get trans people, we don’t hear from women, we don’t get sex workers, we don’t get drug users. Without hearing their stories, their needs, their wants, they’re erased from the conversation.”

Lawlor added that silence on HIV and the lack of visibility in campaigns only adds to the stigma that surrounds HIV:

“Every single government campaign always features the back of people’s heads, or hands shaking – that’s insulting to people living with HIV. It perpetuates the stigma that it’s something to be ashamed of.”

Lawlor continued:

“When people are silent about HIV in Ireland, that’s where the stigma comes from, that’s what disempowers people not to come out of the closet, silence becomes their norm.”

Following on from Lawlor’s speech, Panti added that misconception and a lack of representation are in a cyclical relationship, as she stated that “stigma breeds silence”.

The Dublin drag queen and advocate suggested that Ireland requires an attitude shift in order to reduce stigma:

“The leaflets are great, the education is great, necessary and important. But that is not how attitudes change. Attitudes change by knowing people with HIV. It is imperative that people like me and Robbie can stand up and be open about HIV in order to create a space for people behind us.”

Oanh Khuat illustrated the extent of how damaging stigma can be. Khuat told the story of two friends who were HIV Positive and died from suicide:

“What killed them was not HIV. What killed them was stigma and loneliness.”

On the topic of visibility and diversity, Khuat reiterated the need to have diverse community leaders in order to represent the broad spectrum of the HIV Positive population:

“By having diverse community leaders, the community will grow stronger. If we want an increased representation of HIV Positive women, we need more women leaders.”

GCN’s live-stream of the Michael Kelly lecture is available to watch on our Facebook page.

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