The eminent American fashion designer Marc Jacobs recently offered two new tee-shirts for sale in his Marc by Marc Jacobs stores. One blue and one pink, these shirts draw attention to “Innocent Victims” of the epidemic: families living with HIV/AIDS and children with HIV/AIDS. We are encouraged to help them and to end their suffering, actions no doubt to be admired.
While Marc Jacobs’ intentions can be applauded—proceeds from sales support the charity Aid for AIDS—the implication that there are some with HIV who are innocent and others who are not is troubling. Is a sex worker with HIV somehow guilty? Or a gay man? Or an injection drug user? Or a transgender person?
Indeed, in almost all parts of the world, these populations bear a disproportionate burden of the disease and yet fail to receive the response they need. They are viewed as less deserving because presumably they were somehow complicit in their infection. But HIV is not a gauge of vice or virtue; it is a virus that makes no such distinctions, nor should we. No one living with HIV or vulnerable to it is any more or less deserving of compassion or support than any one else.
A quarter century ago, AIDS activists pushed back against the disempowering description of people living with HIV (PLHIV) as “victims.” Living with a virus is markedly different than being victimized by one. For all the suffering wrought by this epidemic, its history is defined by individuals and communities who have embraced the challenges of this disease, giving face and voice to the response, and through their strength, have found ways to fight back.
Marc, you clearly understand that the epidemic still rages, and I give you credit for your intentions. But why don’t you make this tee-shirt instead:
We are all innocent! Stand up for people living with HIV/AIDS.
Or one like it, one that celebrates the power of PLHIV. India HIV/AIDS Alliance would be a grateful beneficiary, and there’s some quite fabulous people here in India living with the virus—gay men, sex workers, transgenders, and people who inject drugs, as well as children and families—who would happily be the faces on your new shirt. I know them, and I can assure you: They are all innocent and all deserving of our concern.
The author of this post, James Robertson, is Country Director of India HIV/AIDS Alliance.