In 1998 I started working for an AIDS Service Organisation. Jim took me under his wing. He was in the Education Team, I was the new Volunteer Coordinator. He was the first person with HIV that I’d met. He taught me everything I knew. He taught me about the virus. How to educate people, what an educational moment is and how to use this to fight ignorance.
He helped me understand why people still contracted the disease when they knew how to prevent it. He helped me understand the impact of stigma and taught me how to care for people with HIV and fight the stigma by treating people like human beings, who deserve love as much as anyone else.
Jim hated World AIDS Day as a single day of the year for people to show they cared and be off the hook the rest of the year. He resented the fact that for people who don’t have HIV, they can do a day a year, whereas everyone with the virus, lives with it every day. And many of them die alone, uncared for, rejected. For many, the self-loathing drove them to further risk-taking behaviour, isolating themselves, reflecting their perception of how they thought society viewed them.
In the years I spent working for the agency it was a time where the population infected was transitioning from predominantly gay men to the street entrenched community, sex workers and those who use drugs by injection. This brought a lot of conflict and tension into the space but our primary focus as health care providers was to be a safe place for people to come without judgement. This was difficult when the gay men judged the street people and vice versa.
But there were also people who used the disease as a reason to live life fully. I got to know these people, the ones who were hurting, the ones who were health-focused, the ones who scared me at first, and even the ones who frustrated the shit out of me. I learned from all of them. I learned to let go of judgement and see the human behind the disease, behind the bad behaviour and hurt, the acting out and the drama. I grew as a person because of my experience with them, because they let me help them. I am so deeply grateful to all the people I worked with, clients, colleagues, co-workers, volunteers.
One of the people who started as a volunteer for me is now the CEO. And the organisation is still full of people who care and are committed to providing a safe place for people to be, and addressing the complex issues associated with living with and preventing the disease. The stigma is still very much alive and fear is still a huge response to the word AIDS or HIV.
Jim passed away within a year of my return to Australia, but his cheeky smile and his quirky ways are still with me 12 years later. Thank you, Jim, I’m forever in your debt.
This is post 29 of 45 posts for 45 years.