The Shirt Heard ‘Round the World
So, living with HIV is still quite a shocker, it appears. Whether true or rumored, whether “HIV Positive” is voluntarily displayed as an act of activism or the status is maliciously spread on the internet, the label still packs quite a punch. And I have to wonder why.
Annie Lennox did something extraordinary last week when she appeared on an American Idol special wearing a t-shirt that read “HIV POSITIVE.” She has worn the shirt before, and does so in solidarity with those living with HIV. And yet, even though I knew as I watched the show why she wore the shirt, it was still provocative to me, and even unsettling. She made her point beautifully, because I stared at the shirt throughout her performance. But something in me wished it would go away. I wondered how long the song would go on, who else was watching, and what they might be thinking. And I felt exposed and vulnerable.
That feeling of self consciousness is a personal bit of irony, considering I once wore almost the exact same t-shirt. In 1993, I moved to Atlanta to direct an AIDS agency, and at my first gay pride parade I wore a shirt emblazoned with “NO ONE KNOWS I’M HIV POSITIVE.”
Being young and more cavalier could account for it, and it certainly was intended to elicit a reaction of awareness, if not compassion. I remember feeling exposed then as well, but a feeling of deep pride and purpose trumped any embarrassment I had. I knew I was being judged, and that there were, even among the gay male crowd on the streets there, those who might prefer to keep their distance. But the bottom line is, I was among friends. I felt safe.
So why, 17 years later, was it so uncomfortable seeing Annie Lennox in the shirt? Do white female singers exist outside the HIV positive norm, and that bothers us? Would it have been easier to see Queen Latifah wear the shirt? No? Adam Lambert, then? Too young? Nathan Lane, perhaps?
An internet firestorm over Lindsey Lohan’s HIV status dialed up the hysteria even further. Someone reportedly hacked into her father’s Twitter account and produced a tweet saying Lindsey would have to face the consequences of her actions by “living the rest of her life with HIV.” The internet was immediately ablaze with recriminations and righteous indignation.
Lord. There’s a virus called HIV, and people get it by having sex with each other. Why are we still attaching such horrific social baggage to the infection? At worst, someone becoming infected had sex (or shared a needle) with the wrong person. We have gays on every channel, reality shows devoted to rehab, and swingers of every stripe on daytime television. I’m just bemused that someone with HIV still warrants stopping the presses. It doesn’t seem to fit anymore.
And that’s why Annie Lennox made such a wonderful contribution to the dialogue. She made me uncomfortable, and reminded me I have no valid reason why.