Ian Bradley-Perrin discusses what still needs to be solved for a stigmatized community
The second lecture in this year’s Concordia University Community Lecture Series on HIV/AIDS will be taking place Nov. 27.
This year is the 22nd annual lecture series, which was “originally started by faculty and staff who were concerned with the HIV epidemic and who wanted to do an academic interdisciplinary response, and also engage with the community,” said Ian Bradley-Perrin, coordinator for the Concordia University Community Lecture Series on HIV/AIDS and a master’s student in history at Concordia.
The series is entirely independently funded by people in the community who want to ensure these discussions are ongoing.
“It provides a forum to use HIV as a prism on the rest of the world, and see how the world works as a microcosm dealing with health care and stigma-related issues, and I think this gives you a better view of how the world works in general,” said Bradley-Perrin.
Every year, four to five speakers are invited to Concordia to discuss HIV/AIDS-related issues across a series of academic disciplines. This year’s lineup included a science and medical perspective last month from virologist Dr. Chil-Yong Kang, who has been working to develop an HIV vaccine.
This month’s guest lecturer will be Sean Strub, a prolific figure in the HIV/AIDS activism community. He is a long-time activist and survivor of AIDS, and his credits include being the founder of Poz magazine and the first openly pos (HIV-positive) person in the United States House of Representatives. He is also the director of the Sero project, which is responsible for decriminalizing HIV/AIDS in Iowa, the first place where that was ever done.
“He’ll be speaking about his life’s work in general, but also I suspect [that he] will touch on the questions of what is the state of the pos experience of the world today,” said Bradley-Perrin.
In the coming months, two-time Academy Award winner Robert Epstein will come to talk about his filmography and documentaries which deal with the HIV epidemic, and activist Esther Boucicault Stanislas will be finishing up the year’s series with a perspective on community-based activism and the specific needs of the Haitian HIV/AIDS community.
Bradley-Perrin has embarked on quite the activist career-path as well, and has been involved with the Lecture Series and the HIV/AIDS community at large since 2011.
“When I was in my second year at Concordia I found out I was HIV-positive,” he said. “But even before that, as a gay person, HIV is a fundamental part of the way people think of themselves as part of a community. It’s a huge chunk of gay and lesbian history in the world.”
It was that year that Bradley-Perrin started organizing the lecture series.
“When I found out I was HIV-positive I started looking for that sort of community on campus where I could therapeutically, selfishly deal with what I was going through,” he said. “But also find an academic space where I could engage with HIV in some way outside of pure academia ideological terms or sort of the stereotypical ideas of AIDS in Africa, or as a disease of poverty.”
That same year, over the summer, Bradley-Perrin started organizing his own conference/workshop series with a few friends, which turned into a weekend event where they brought in people from all over the world in the HIV/AIDS community. They had panels to talk about issues that may not be important globally but were important to them.
“Even though the lecture series is amazing, it’s still within the context of an institution, you can’t have half-formed ideas,” he said. “People are presenting their life’s work, it’s very developed and they’re very mature in their career paths. But the workshop provides a context for people to sort of work through their own, less complete ideas.”
Amongst these ideas are “things like, what does it mean that if there was a cure, people who have made their living working in the HIV treatment community would lose their jobs,” said Bradley-Perrin.
These informal conversations have often sparked ideas which he would bring to the more formal lecture series the following school year. “Things that we’ve asked in the conference are often subjects that have fed my interest for the lectures, and we then bring forward to the lecture series,” he said.
“It’s amazing that Montreal has a community where there’s enough interest to have a lecture series in the academic year and also a conference in the summer that both draw such high numbers,” he said. The conference in the summer brings together around 200 people over the course of two days, while the lecture series boasts about a thousand people attending each year.
This is not surprising, considering that Montreal has second highest rate of HIV amongst gay men in Canada, and also (perhaps by consequence) has the greatest number of AIDS service organizations in the country.
Bradley-Perrin believes that the key to eventually curing HIV/AIDS lies as much in continuing discourse about the issue and finding reforms for the current limiting health care system, as it does in investing money for the development of vaccines and medications.
“Public education is such an important part of keeping the front-line work alive,” he said. “I think the search for a cure or a vaccine is always important, but it costs a lot less than people seem to think. Sometimes it’s not the money or the technology that’s needed, but the will to change the system. And that doesn’t cost anything.”
With his work, Bradley wants to emphasize that there is a gross misconception in the community. Over the last few years there has been a consistent theme in the narrative of HIV/AIDS work that attributes the development of highly effective retroactive antivirals in 1996 to the end of the HIV/AIDS problem.
“This could not be further from the truth,” he said. “There are 35 million people living with HIV in the world. Something like 1.6 million die each year from HIV. There are people in the US that don’t have access to treatment, there are people in Canada who don’t have access to treatment, and that’s even though we have a socialized healthcare system.”
Clearly, the fight against HIV/AIDS is far from over.
“We’ve solved some very serious, pressing questions, but all the pre-existing issues of social inequality haven’t been solved,” he said. “There are people who need these life-saving technologies, which for all intents and purposes should be freely available to them because it exists and it’s just sitting there, but who can’t access it. The system is inhospitable to the people that need it the most.”
Above and beyond that is the still-existing stigma around HIV and AIDS and society’s tendency to vilify those affected by the virus.
“I think that one thing the world needs to understand is first, the concept of decriminalizing HIV, and not only that but making people understand that people living with HIV are just like everyone else,” he said. “They’re not criminals, they’re not in the place that they’re in because of some delinquency, or some inability to differentiate right from wrong. It’s just a virus. And everybody is affected by it in some way.” Even if that way is just as one example of a health system that is deeply flawed.
For more information on the Lecture Series visit aids.concordia.ca.