Within the short space of 18 months, three of Will St Leger‘s friends had been diagnosed with HIV.
Only when the street artist and campaigner checked the statistics did he become aware of the alarming spike in new HIV diagnoses among men who have sex with men (MSM) in Ireland, of late – from 60 in 2005 to 247 in 2015.
Since last July, St Leger and others have campaigned for the government and the Health Service Executive to offer PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) pills, to those who are at risk of exposure to HIV.
One study published in The Lancet found that PrEP reduced the risk of HIV infection by 86 percent.
On Irish Aids Day on 15 June, St Leger and others from ACT UP Dublin will host an art exhibition to further raise awareness of the need for PrEP advocacy.
It’s also a chance to revive an occasion that St Leger says has fallen largely by the wayside.
“I remember back ten years ago, when I first came back to Ireland, Irish Aids Day used to be a march, it used to be an event,” he says. “This was when the numbers were low, way lower than they are now.”
ACT UP activist Robbie Lawlor was diagnosed with HIV when he was 21 years old.
Dublin’s branch of the worldwide advocacy group is as much about helping along conversations around HIV as it is about campaigning for PrEP, he says.
The group recently protested outside HSE headquarters on Poolbeg Street. It also tries to engage on the ground with both young and old gay and bisexual men, to steer the conversation away from statistics towards the human, he says.
The older generation of gay men in Ireland might know about HIV, says Lawlor.
But through activism and public speaking he’s noticed how some of the younger generation are unaware of the spike in HIV diagnoses and how you can’t get PrEP here.
“People come up and ask, ‘Why don’t we know this?’ They’re actually angry,” he says.
Ahead of June’s exhibition, ACT UP has launched a zine. “The great thing about this zine is that we get to tell our experience of people who have HIV. Or people who’ve had PrEP. Or people who just like sex and just having an open discussion,” says Lawlor.
A Rallying Call
This open discussion is also a push-back of sorts.
As Lawlor sees it, the Irish government is failing on the HIV front. “We feel that all the messaging out there is very restrictive. The [HSE] still does not have a position on PrEP,” he says.
St Leger says that PrEP, which is available in the UK, the US and Australia, should be available here too. He hopes that June’s art exhibition will help that along, too.
He booked the show’s artists before they even knew they were exhibiting. “I went home and did up the poster, wrote up a list of the people I wanted to be in the show on the poster without even asking them,” says St Leger.
Luckily, they all agreed to exhibit, and there will be 15 original art works on display in Filmbase in Temple Bar on Irish Aids Day. Each work will be for sale through a silent auction.
Many of those involved are well-known street artists, but St Leger wants the names to be a surprise for the public.
There will also be a photo exhibition of Dubliners, each holding a sign with the word “human” written on it, in an attempt to bring the conversation around HIV down to earth. “We all know this; HIV doesn’t discriminate,” says St Leger.
Proceeds will go towards ACT UP’s PrEP campaign. “I wanted to make Irish Aids Day a thing again,” says St Leger. “I think one thing is that it’ll put it back on the map.”