“That’s like, AIDS on your face right?” I instinctively froze. We were in the middle of the Bryan Center on a bustling career-fair day. Some of the girls tottered over in heels to look at the table I was standing behind. A few stiff, buttoned-up boys briefly glanced at the homemade marker poster—“FACE AIDS,” it read, “Can you dance for the fight?”—before turning away, satisfied that we weren’t a recruiting company. Still, a few students I knew stopped by for a quick, casual chat before heading off. So I didn’t think it was unnatural when I shouted over the crowd to a classmate that I hadn’t really talked to for over a semester. He sauntered over. His eyes caught sight of the poster, and forgoing any form of greeting, he made the opening comment that connected the name of the organization with having AIDS on your face. Of course it was a joke. After all, it took him almost half a minute to finish laughing enough for me to get a word in. Yes, maybe that name lends itself to misinterpretations, misspellings and snide remarks, but the fact that this experience has been shared by many who are a part of this organization on Duke’s campus reveals a much deeper skewed, sometimes unknowledgeable view of what HIV/AIDS now looks like.
The comment, although not intended to be construed seriously, made me think. What does AIDS on your face look like? Maybe two decades ago, it would have looked like a gaunt, gay man as he faced doctors who told him that AIDS was essentially a death sentence. Maybe in the 1990s, it would have looked like a seemingly healthy, infallible man like Magic Johnson as he stood before the press to announce his status. Today, to many students, it may be the pictures of young children and women in sub-Saharan Africa who have been revived by the power of antiretroviral drugs—people who are somehow in need of student volunteer services. Sometimes, there is no face at all. Perhaps it’s choosing a product to support the RED campaign spearheaded by Bono. In many minds, I doubt that it’s even that—it’s just a word, an acronym that stands for some sort of suffering far, far away. And in many ways, those ways of thinking about it wouldn’t be completely wrong. Maybe at one point in time, that was the face of AIDS. But that’s not what it looks like today.
Today, AIDS can look like, well, just about anyone. With advances in antiretroviral drugs, prevention of mother-to-child transmission, and the development of a vaccine in the works, the rate of new cases of HIV has hit a plateau. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for an AIDS-free generation during the International AIDS Conference this summer. There are still visible high-risk groups—intravenous drug users, commercial sex workers, children of HIV-positive mothers—but 25 years after the first World AIDS Day was celebrated, the face of AIDS has changed. In many ways, it has lost that easily generalizable public face. Now, it may be the idealistic, young, Peace Corps volunteer who made an impulsive decision one night. It may be lively children who will live with AIDS their whole lives. It may be students on this campus.
AIDS on your face? Yes, it’s an easy joke. You’re allowed to poke and prod at it just as much as the next issue, but at least take the moment to think about what that comment means. What does AIDS look like today? The truth is, I don’t really know anymore. All I know is that I’ve seen many of those faces. Sometimes I’ve known because the stories have been entrusted to me. Other times I don’t. But to someone who is positive, that comment would not be a joke because the reality is that they have to face AIDS every single day. If nothing else, we can at least respect that.
Joy Liu is a Trinity junior and the President of FACE AIDS Duke.