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Lighting a candle for those lost to AIDS and working for a brighter future.

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For 65-year-old Kenn Basham, Sunday’s International AIDS Candlelight Memorial is an evening to reflect on many things.

It is a chance to mourn lost friends—in Kenn and his partner Philip Habel’s case “too many over the past 40 years to name individually”.

It’s a moment to give thanks for drug therapies and breakthroughs—in Kenn’s case a rotation of medication which began with AZT antiretrovirals shortly after his 1986 diagnosis and which has allowed him to live a long and productive life despite having HIV.

And perhaps the most important part of Sunday’s event will be the way in which information can be shared around HIV/AIDS with the aim of preventing further transmission.

Philip and Kenn, together for nearly 40 years and fighting HIV stigma.

Currently, there are around 500 people living with HIV in the ACT, which is part of the total estimated 29,460 people living with HIV in Australia. Sadly, around 10 per cent of this number are unaware of their HIV status.

For Kenn, data around any new diagnoses carries a mix of sadness and frustration.

“I am always concerned with any new diagnosis. I feel perplexed and sorry for the person, who is going to have to go through things they could have avoided.”

It has not been easy for Kenn to manage his health, nor has it been easy for Philip to witness Kenn’s bad days. More recently Kenn has suffered neurological effects of HIV. He firmly believes prevention is the best strategy.

Access to pre- and post-exposure prophylactics can reduce the risk of transmission far beyond the simple use of a condom.

Kenn and Philip are testament to success of safe sex protocols and despite living together since Kenn’s diagnosis 38 years ago, Philip is HIV-negative.

“I want people to take full advantage of the safety protocols that we have now, but I worry the discussion is not being had enough in Australia. AIDS has really fallen off the radar as an issue.”

He says the success of drugs and feeling that HIV was now a “manageable disease” had led to it being less prioritized in the gay community. There has also been a rise of transmission within the heterosexual community.

HIV and AIDS was not manageable in the 1980s and 1990s when Kenn and Philip lost friends so frequently he remembers having to attend multiple funerals a day.

He was also subject to massive community ignorance and fear about the virus and, as a result, became instrumental in establishing local and national HIV/AIDS organisations to educate the public and fight for equality for HIV people.

Describing himself as “a bit bolshie” Kenn helped orchestrate public campaigns, “die-ins” in Parliament, rallies, public art exhibitions, media coverage and endless conversations with people who worried HIV could be transmitted through touch, mosquito bites or from sharing a drink with someone who had AIDS.

“I am tremendously proud of the work we did back then to educate and reduce the stigma we all faced,” he said.

But with new diagnoses happening each year, Kenn says the Candlelight Memorial has an important role to play not only as a place of solace for the friends and families of AIDS victims, but to keep the disease on the public radar.

According to Eleni Gabrielides, a Senior Health Promotions Officer with Meridian ACT (formerly the AIDS Action Council) which is coordinating the event, “the AIDS crisis was a pivotal moment in Australian history that brought attention to issues such as healthcare inequality, discrimination, and the importance of community support networks. Furthermore, it contributed to the eventual decriminalisation of homosexuality in various Australian states, symbolising a significant victory for LGBTQIA+ rights.

“The Candlelight Memorial serves as a poignant reminder of this turbulent yet transformative period in our community’s history, highlighting the resilience, solidarity, and activism that emerged in the face of adversity.

Meridian’s Executive Manager of HIV and LGBTQI+ Services said the memorial service, which is free and open to all, “typically draws a diverse crowd. In addition to politicians and diplomats, we welcome family, friends, members of the general public, and people from the community who have been impacted by HIV in some way.

“This includes people who have lost friends, lovers, partners, family members, colleagues, clients/patients, or are living with HIV themselves. We always encourage more people from the general public to attend as it fosters community connection and educates about the history and impact of HIV and AIDS.”

Kenn and Philip will be there, with Philip taking the stage with the QWire choir to perform during the memorial and an opportunity for attendees to light candles for loved ones.

 

THE ESSENTIALS

What: The International AIDS Candlelight Memorial
Where: Belconnen Arts Centre
When: Sunday 19 May from 5-7 pm.
Web: Please register your intention to attend at meridianact.org.au

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