Faces of HIV – Twenty Three

By Shayne Woodsmith, Faces of Edmonton

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“We need something set up to protect and to treat people. If we tested everyone, our HIV rates would go through the roof in Canada, at least initially. But then we could get them on treatment—we could actually do something. Treatment as prevention works, you know, people become undetectable and it’s not going to be everybody, that’s just really difficult to imagine, but we could get so much closer. But right now as grassroots activists and as a community, there’s only so much we can do, and I guess that’s why now I feel it’s time again to go more politically.”

“HIV is the one disease that people get blamed for—if they hadn’t done this or if they would have done that—you know there’s already so much shame that to shame people for a virus or disease, it’s just inhumane. I think it’s because people don’t see themselves in the HIV picture … Someone asked me once why more people don’t get tested, and I think it’s fear. People are afraid of what they don’t know and they react out of fear. So if we could normalize some of that, people might feel they’re in a safer place so if they found out they were (HIV positive), they might not feel that their world were coming to an end. It can be something that they can manage and live with. Yes, their life will look different, but they wouldn’t feel that their life is over.”

“The reason I’m so passionate about it and that vision of zero is because we are a cause where we can get there. We’re so close, I can see it. It’s partly what keeps me going, but it’s also so utterly frustrating … It’s so close but we don’t have any political will. There’s the politics of everything that goes along with HIV, so that’s the politics of harm reduction that makes people uncomfortable and sex that makes people uncomfortable and the spectrum of gender and the spectrum of orientation. All of these things make people so uncomfortable, and it’s that discomfort I feel that often drives so much of that stigma. And I feel like there’s a fear politically for people to get involved, that if they get involved it might not be popular.”

“When I started working in HIV, it was condoms—here, use these. Now … we have treatment as prevention, we’ve got sexual health information. I feel like we’re at this place where we were getting closer and then it’s like everybody said it’s not really a big deal anymore, like, okay, there’s treatment now and somehow that’s enough. It’s frustrating because it’s the one disease that I can see the end to; it’s preventable, we understand how it works, we understand how to treat it, and we know that just by treating it, you are stopping onward transmission. Those are huge things. Other causes would do anything to have that. What’s missing is that political will and that ability to have someone say this matters and these lives matter and we’re going to invest in this because we can get there and then we can focus on something else.”

Photography Credit: Shayne Woodsmith

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Ross Armstrong was an activist and he wanted life to be better for those living with HIV. After his diagnosis in 1984, he became a part of HIV Edmonton’s (previously the AIDS Network of Edmonton) team and emerged as the public face of AIDS in Edmonton. Ross died on July 1, 1986, two short years after his diagnosis.

The challenges and suffering Ross endured and the courage he displayed during those first years of the local epidemic led HIV Edmonton to name the hub of our agency – the drop-in centre – the Ross Armstrong Centre, which is a safe, caring place for HIV positive individuals to meet, have a cup of coffee, or share a nutritious community meal.

The Ross Armstrong Centre is a constant reminder that HIV is not always the biggest issue that our clients face. The biggest hurdle for most of our clients is accessing what they need to survive – their basic human needs. Our client programs allow us to support and assist our clients during the most chaotic times in their lives and to alleviate some of the struggles that they face on a daily basis – such as securing the 500 calories that are required to take their HIV medications. In order to continue to support our clients in this way, we rely heavily on the generosity of donors.

All money raised during this campaign will go towards supporting our clients who, in addition to living with HIV, struggle to meet their basic needs such as food, shelter and access to health and social services. It would be amazing if we could reach $5,000 by the end of the series. Even if it’s a small amount, please consider donating: http://tilt.tc/U2VI.

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