why i wear my red ribbon

On World Aids Day people wear their hearts on their sleeve. Cayte Williams asks why

Debbie Vowles, 41, Health Promotion Officer

"Back in 1986 a friend who I hadn't seen for four years died. His death was a complete mystery until it emerged he'd suffered from Aids. We did have a sexual relationship, so I rang the HIV helpline. They said that I was at risk and should have a test.

"At the time I worked for the British Council and my friend's death happened three days before I was due to go to Uganda on business. I was thinking I'd forget about it all out there but one of the first cases I had to deal with was a man with Aids. Having thought I'd escaped from HIV, I found myself beset with problems about it. And it changed my life.

"A few years later I went back to Uganda, at which point a tenth of the population were infected. I knew people who had eight graves in the garden and people had to choose which funeral to go to. It was a very, very sobering experience.

"When I came back I did a Masters in health promotion, focusing on HIV- infected women. I work with a lot of gay men who either have the virus or are affected by it. I go to quite a few funerals each year. Working in the fight against Aids helps me and I hope it helps other people.

"I don't always wear my red ribbon but it certainly has an importance and resonance for me. I don't think it's appropriate to wear it all the time - I put it on my coat in winter because it cheers me up!

"I wore my ribbon to a philosophy evening class recently and people (mostly men) were saying: 'Oh, gay men bring it on themselves' or 'they're against God'. When people confront me, sometimes I'm rude, sometimes we agree to differ and sometimes I talk about the people who've been affected. I talk about humility."

Heinz Schweers, 25, Educational Consultant

"I was approached by a man at Paddington Station with a collection for World Aids Day and I bought a red ribbon. I'm gay, but this is the first time I've worn a ribbon. I've only recently come out and I've never felt confident enough to wear one before because people assume you're gay if you wear one. Now I'm proud to walk around proclaiming my sexuality on my chest. I suppose it's my allegiance to the gay community. I know of many people who've had their partners or best friends die - it's a terrible thing to watch people suffer."

Deborah Ramswell, 31, Club Promoter

"As I work in the clubbing scene, a lot of my friends are gay, but I'd wear a red ribbon whether I had gay friends or not. It saddens and angers me that people I love and care about are suffering because their friends are dying. A close friend of mine is going through that process now - his friend will die any day now and it feels so wrong. Aids has been around for a long time, but the grieving never lessens.

"None of my friends or colleagues ever comments on my red ribbon, because we all wear them for World Aids Day. I think I'd go ballistic if anybody had a go at me for wearing it. People need to be aware of the HIV problem, even though a lot of the original interest in World Aids Day has wound down. It should never be a fashion thing."

Pinder Chaggar, 35, Project Worker

"I work for Centrepoint, the homeless organisation. Because I work in the Berwick Street site [near London's gay Old Compton Street district] I often come into contact with people who are HIV positive, either through sexual contact, or through drugs.

"People at college assume I'm gay because I wear the ribbon. I'm not but it doesn't bother me that they think I am. I always wear a ribbon on this jacket and I wear this jacket every day. I used to wear the same ribbon every year but it got very tatty so I bought an enamel one, which fell off. It upset me when I lost it, but now I'm wearing this new one."

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