Stephen Fry: HIV and Me reminds us that we don't know it all
I look back at the title I've just written and wonder if we, comfortable in the privileged, Western lives we lead, need a documentary like Stephen Fry's. Asked how you contract HIV, what you can do to avoid it and the ways it is actually transmitted (hint: holding hands, using the same bathroom, sharing a plate of food? No) we can generally answer with eloquence and deny the stereotypes of 80s emaciated gay men that, unbidden, rise to the surface of our minds. And yet there are the quiet confessions of stopping condom use without being tested, of being sure it'll never happen to us.
How much are we actually aware of and acting on what we're spouting, parrot-fashion? The first part of a documentary that saw Stephen Fry conduct an independent and personal investigation into attitudes towards and knowledge about HIV at home and abroad has suggested not much. Being female, I naturally gravitated towards the stories that women had to tell. There were three stories in particular that struck me and made me frightened for our communities and our future.
Perhaps the most familiar one of these was the story of a South African woman, now in her 30s, who contracted HIV from a promiscuous, faithless partner. Throughout their marriage he slept with anything that moved, and she paid the price. Fry verifies her tale of male pride through an investigative trip to the country and promiscuity in South Africa, and wonders why the statistics of infection are so high there that almost twenty percent of the entire population is HIV positive. The fact that the country's government refuses to recognise the connection between HIV and AIDS and recommends eating beetroot rather than paying for drugs to keep the 360,000 who died from AIDS last year alive says a lot. But it's all too easy - and completely wrong - to write off AIDS as an African problem as we lazily wrote it off as a problem for gays and addicts in the 80s.
The second woman, rather unusually, contracted HIV in her 50s from her husband, who didn't know he was positive until he developed AIDS and died. She moved home to Britain, and attempted to get help. She was middle class, white, well-spoken. Yet her son had been beaten and taunted, grafitti was sprayed on her walls, she was scared to reveal her location for fear of being targetted further and she was unable to move to Australia to care for her dying mother or move to New Zealand to be closer to her sister because the countries will not allow her to migrate thanks to her HIV diagnosis.
I often don't think much of people in general, but this level of ignorance shocked even me. What was startling was that as she was talking before a group of middle-class, public school teenagers, they responded with "I thought you would be, like, thinner, or with something on your skin...". Clearly the relentless campaigning of the 80s that I grew up with has not been repeated even half a generation later.
The final story was the one that made me sob my heart out. A sixteen year old girl was born with HIV, but was unaware of her status, despite her slow development, until she was already in her teens. Her mother was also undiagnosed. She has faced up to taunts, writing a blog of her experiences that shamed some of her tormentors into apologising, but the relentless stream of bullying that she has encountered was staggering. Fry, and the audience with him, was moved to tell her that she was quite one of the most extraordinary people he had ever encountered. Her new boyfriend stood quietly by until she asked him why he put up with her status when he could have any other girl without the hassles. "They're not you. They don't have your personality," he replied.
I remember being at school and receiving a visit from a woman, Emma, who having contracted HIV from a regular partner when a condom burst, went to work for Body and Soul, a charity catering for the oft-neglected HIV victims: women and children. Her own family had then accused her of being a slut and questioned her life and morality. Ten years later it is both staggering and depressing that these attitudes have flourished in the face of the fact that it is predicted that in the next five years there could be 60 million people who are HIV positive in the world.
We still can't cure it. We can make life worth living for the people who have it, and we can protect ourselves from it. It's long past time to think it will never happen to you, and we should never be so crass and ignorant as to torment a sufferer. What's sad is that it took someone like Stephen Fry to make some of us - myself included - sit up and notice again. There he was, bumbling likeably through interviews, exclaiming with blunt and natural candour over the emaciated body of one man and declaring with heartfelt honesty that the people he spoke to were brave not for suffering from the disease but for speaking out about it in the face of such abuse. I was not guilty of thinking people with HIV were dirty, stupid or lacked morals. But I had never noticed that others were still so ignorant, nor had I given that a second thought.
The second part of the documentary will air on Tuesday 9th October on BBC2.