“We were doing a performance that day called Happy Virus Day, coincidentally,” said Birch. “So there was this performance piece going on in the middle of the street and me going around with a camera and a mic asking people if they knew anybody with HIV.
“Almost everybody said no, so I said, ‘Hi, my name is Robert, and you do now.’”
That was fifteen years ago.
Birch, an adjunct professor in the University of Victoria’s theatre department, who also works with AIDS Vancouver Island (AVI) as the men’s wellness co-ordinator, is now living on Salt Spring Island with his husband while continuing to spread awareness about HIV/AIDS to both his students and the Victoria community.
On Dec.1, Birch and representatives from various organizations around the city will be hosting a commemorative event in honour of World AIDS Day, marking the 30th anniversary of the disease’s discovery.
“It’s all about community engagement and hearing people’s stories,” he said. “That’s where the soul of the story is, in people’s experiences.”
The event will feature presentations on behalf of indigenous groups, the queer community, women, youth and a delegate from Zimbabwe, who are all invited to contribute a small, meaningful object to a time capsule built by Peggy Frank, a woman who has been living with the disease since 1987.
The time capsule itself is a symbolic work. Built from hundreds of empty pill bottles accumulated over the years by Frank, it will remain shut until a cure is discovered.
“I’ve been taking medication since 1996,” said Frank. “I was taking 49 pills a day [back then]. It’s a disease where the treatment is very involved and you have to take pills every day of your life.”
“It’s not a nice disease and it’s nothing I would wish on anyone, but at the same time some of my best lessons in life have come from living with it,” she said.
On Dec. 1, Frank will be representing women who have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS — a demographic that has battled for decades against stigmas surrounding the disease.
“Often, women have gone undiagnosed for a long period of time,” she said. “Fifteen years ago they wouldn’t even test women because they thought [AIDS] was a gay men’s disease.”
Frank is the executive director of Positively Africa, a grassroots organization that builds partnerships with individuals infected with HIV/AIDS both locally and overseas.
“It’s really hard work,” she said. “It’s working with communities of people in Africa with HIV who [are living in] poverty at a level we cannot begin to understand.”
According to a timeline compiled by AVI, of the 4.3 million new infections worldwide in 2006, 2.8 million were reported to be in sub-Saharan Africa.
“[Africa] has the greatest number of orphans on the planet associated with HIV, people in incredibly compromised conditions trying to live normal life,” she said. “We reach out to these communities and do some little thing to help them get a leg up.”
Alongside Frank, Nicole Baker, a first-year theatre student at UVic, will represent the mother of the upcoming generation at the World AIDS Day event.
“They’re going to be the ones who inherit the world we leave them,” said Baker, who has a five-year-old son. “People have gotten this impression that because we’ve made it so people who have HIV/AIDS can live a relatively normal life that it’s done, but it’s not.
“We owe it to people to try and find a cure,” she said.
In keeping with the event’s hands-on approach, Michael Yoder, who was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 1995, is organizing a flash mob at the Bay Centre.
Yoder, an outreach contractor for gay and bisexual men in Victoria, believes that the best way to contribute to the HIV/AIDS awareness campaign is through self-education.
“There’s been this shift in thought where people think HIV/AIDS is a manageable disease where you just get it and take pills,” he said, “but people need to remember that there’s no cure … young people need to educate themselves — if you’re going to be sexually active, then you need to be armed with information.”
Photo: Tess Forsyth/The Martlet