I now have a 3 inch high biohazard symbol tattooed on the back of my neck. It won’t be particularly visible in cold weather, but come hotter weather (or places) it will be on public view, just above the neckline of a vest – I’ve always thought the black vest to be the gay man’s equivalent of the “little black cocktail dress”. I always feel good wearing a vest instead of a t-shirt – to the extent that I buy them in bulk.
Although the symbol pertains to all blood-borne viruses it’s particularly been adopted by some gay men with HIV. Why? It started out as simple recognition: an easy way of disclosing your status. In a hot sweaty club where you’ve given up and checked in your leather jacket you’ve got a visible symbol of your status (assuming you put the tattoo somewhere visible).
Yes, it’s got strong associations with barebacking now, but, frankly, if everyone present is positive (super-infection happens so rarely I feel the risk is as near to negligible as it’s possible to be), we’re just back to 1979 when condoms were a peculiar kink. The range of STIs is a little more dangerous because of our HIV infection, but by default we have regular check-ups and is it really so hard to ask for an STI workup?
I first came out into a world where the Gay Liberation Front was just about to fracture, but as it did so, I took its message of Pride in one’s gayness to heart. The defiance of the outlook showed in the badges we wore “How dare you presume I’m heterosexual”, “Avenge Oscar Wilde”, and my favourite “Fucking Queer”.
I saw “Bent” in the West End with Serena (Ian McKellan before he got his gong) starring and was asked in the bar in the interval by a rather posh lady “and are you a fucking queer?” “Damn right” I said. The badges were, in the main, confrontational and deliberately offensive to straight sensibilities, which would rather we stayed indoors and didn’t frighten the horses. And they let other queers know who we were.
So it is with the biohazard symbol. It speaks of what’s happening within us in a way the red ribbon doesn’t, or the gold, platinum or gunmetal (symbolising 5,10 and 15 years’ survival respectively) ribbons of Long Term Survivors – though I wear my metallic ribbons on my Bear magazine braces with pride. The biohazard symbol is honest and visceral. It says I have a potentially lethal blood borne disease and I’m living with it. And because it will, for me, only be seen at times when I’m enjoying the weather or the company it also says “I am living with it and fucking enjoying life”, it’s an “up yours” to all those who expect people with HIV to fall over and die.
It’s also a tribute to all the friends I’ve loved and lost through this virus. Guys who could never admit to others what was wrong, even as their death was days away. I’m strongly reminded of a photo on Facebook showing Princess Diana (I’m no royalist but we lost an incredible champion when she died) talking to a guy with KS all up his legs. Apparently his partner asked him afterwards “why did you wear shorts?” and his reply was “so everyone could see what this does”. By wearing the biohazard I feel I’m continuing that tradition of defiance, education, and activism.