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
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