April 22, 2012 1 Comment
Prior to organising the AIDS Swish, I felt it necessary to gather my thoughts and explain the reasons for organising the event. This is why I did it, and why I hope the event should happen every year….
For the best part of the last decade, the gay community and to a wider extent, everybody else, has gone into a collective coma with regards to HIV/AIDS. Activism is seemingly unnecessary, the disease is ‘manageable’, the stigma has declined, treatments have improved immeasurably…and yet these improvements come at price. The cost of this scenario is that it’s unfashionable and uncomfortable to remember those that died in less accommodating circumstances…and young people are still contracting HIV, mostly because it’s easier to catch it than avoid it- especially with the high rate of infected people in London. Unsafe sex is no longer the shocking taboo it once was. In some quarters, it’s hip.
The press are tired of reporting HIV news or prevention features, as it’s not particularly sexy and the readers would rather hear about something else. Neither party can be blamed for this, that’s just how it is. Statistics of infection rates are not a cheery read in these difficult times, so people just flick past such news, if it’s there at all. It’s easy to spot those articles, they tend to look unglamorous and have giveaway headlines. It is into this vacuum of denial and complacence that we enter and in order to spark even the slightest interest in the topic, one must invest a little creativity to force people to look away from the X Factor/the economy/Lady Gaga.
World AIDS Day? Just the mention of it and there’s a palpable collapse which punches my body and soul. Those three words resurrect the buried ex-boyfriends, mates and their recurring health problems and 25 years of nerve-shredding HIV tests. Throw in the pornification of bareback culture and a recent media story which implied that fish pedicures are akin to swallowing cum…and it’s hardly surprising that World AIDS Day inspires depression rather than fireworks. Never mind the African babies, there’s enough AIDS in my yard to keep me busy for a lifetime.
When asked by the London AIDS Memorial Campaign to manage an event on World AIDS Day, I felt strongly that we should change the dynamic. A morbid procession or candle-lit trudge seems so ‘80s and quite frankly, if it doesn’t appeal to me, how can I expect others to attend. The idea is simple; as a community, we should dress up like we mean to party, then SWISH down Old Compton Street like people who enjoy and respect life. The AIDS Swish is an affirmation- we’re here and we care, not just about ourselves but each other. That sentiment is worth putting out there, with bells on, whatever your status.
Somewhere along the line, a tenuous sense of community morphed into a spirit which seems to shrug, ‘fuck you, fuck off, let’s get fucked’. It’s hard not to kick and push when fighting to get on a rush-hour tube and a self-induced coma via chemicals can seem preferable to a sober assessment of one’s life. You’ve got gonorrhoea? Fuck it, go the sauna and pay it forward. Other people’s sexual health ain’t your stuff, right? Fine. We get it. You’re angry. Tired. Us too. Who isn’t? The AIDS Swish is just 30 minutes or so of showing up, showing out and loving yourself, so you can love others.
The AIDS Swish is a demonstration of remembrance, pride, acknowledgement and community. In the past, commemoration often came draped in the traditions of a sombre funeral and sad contemplation. In a time of mass grieving and exhausting struggle, this was entirely appropriate. But those sentiments are not likely to chime with many people under 30, or have any relevance whatsoever to today’s teenagers, who are unlikely to have seen somebody die from HIV/AIDS. To call this event, The AIDS Walk, AIDS March or AIDS Procession would be to immediately alienate a large part of the community who’re highly astute at switching off at the sound of anything grimly familiar. To young people, it would mean nothing whatsoever, just old gays harping on.
‘Swish’ was once a slang term from pre-Stonewall days to describe men who did little to hide their sexuality. Post-Stonewall, as gay men became less defined in their roles, ‘swish’ left the queer lexicon and was adopted by mainstream culture to mean ‘posh’, high cultured, possibly camp and refined. As a verb; SWISH is to move somewhat regally and with confidence.
Most recently, swish has taken on an empowering and action-oriented meaning within the U.S. LGBT rights movement. To swish is to create opportunities for people who’re straight to become active in the LGBT civil rights movement. It embodies a form of activism that’s uplifting, rewarding and fun. Eg. “I swish because all LGBT people deserve to live and love equally.” One might say that Ben Cohen gave up rugby to swish- he currently campaigns to remove homophobia from sport and highlight gay bullying at schools.
The AIDS Swish is about celebrating the lives of those we have lost and in a subtle way, reminding people that while the disease is less destructive than it was, it can still be fatal. The vibe of The Swish is more carnival than funeral and hopefully this will encourage more people to engage with the event.
In keeping with a theme of celebration in addition to remembrance, Swishers will be encouraged to carry glo-sticks, rather than candles, which will not only be more practical, but are a nod to those in club culture we have lost and those who are immersed in it now. It will also look great for photographers. Attendees will be encouraged to dress up, be colourful, eye catching and fun. Drag queens, club kids, Soho characters and subcultural icons should be encouraged to give energy and texture to the Swish. People should want to attend this event because it will be attractive and fun, rather than feel indebted, guilty or resigned to it.
The AIDS Swish as a name and concept is wilfully provocative and playful, it catches the ear, makes one think and hopefully smile and wonder. Everybody knows what an AIDS Memorial Procession looks like, but until this event happens, nobody will have seen or heard of an AIDS Swish. That makes it interesting to both the press and public, and anything which brings the topic back into consciousness should be encouraged. Hopefully, the AIDS Swish will be memorable, colourful and thought provoking, engaging all corners of the community and will be an event which inspires people to connect with the issues at hand, even if only for 30 minutes or so.
Stewart Who? (LAMC Marketing/Events Manager)