Interview: Jean-Luc Romero talks on the fight against AIDS, social media, and equal marriage in France

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Jean-Luc Romero, a French politician, author, and active campaigner against HIV/AIDS, after having been the first French politician to be openly HIV-positive back in 2002, he has focussed his career on “the human”, and human rights. He is the President of the Elected Leadership Against AIDS, the founder of the progressive political party, Aujourd’hui Autrement.

With World AIDS Day coming up on 1 December, Jean-Luc talks to about being diagnosed with HIV 25-years ago, how far we still have to go in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and the problematic issue of equal marriage in France.

Why is World AIDS Day so important?

World AIDS Day is a day for information, a day for mobilization, a day for action, a day for memory… that is 1 December. It is a very important day for all those active in this fight; it is a day to remember that the fight against AIDS should be every day of the year. For me World AIDS Day will have a particular taste this year. On 1 December 1987 I received AZT, the first treatment for AIDS. That was 25 years ago. I am a survivor.

Do you think French governments of the past decade have done enough to tackle HIV infection rates among gay men?

The answer is clear: No. For many reasons, one especially. Gays have been considered second-rate citizens in France for years. They do not have the same rights as straight people and we all know that a prevention policy will only be efficient if there is respect and recognition instead of legalized homophobia. I hope that the situation will have changed in a few weeks. The outlook is good.

Does the European Commission need to play a greater role in the issue – or is it best left to individual EU states?

I think the European Commission could do a lot more concerning certain issues, especially access to treatments, risk reduction policy. Yes, definitely, the European Commission could be more present in the big debates.

In your book, Homopoliticus, you talk about the caution exercised by politicians when discussing homosexuality in politics. Do you think there is a similar caution when talking about HIV/AIDS?

You know, in France things have become very complicated when one raises the issue of sex. I travel to the different provinces every week to lead debates on AIDS with the locally elected politicians and the different societies, and I can tell you there is still a lot of prejudice because AIDS remains a socially stigmatizing disease. We have to fight against those stigmas. Only 4 members of parliament have ever admitted being gay, and HIV-infected.

From your experience, what are the biggest obstacles to overcome when talking about HIV/AIDS, and the prejudice faced by those living with it?

The lack of understanding of the disease. Today people are more afraid of the infected people than of the infection itself. Why? Because of a lack of information which brings about false ideas and prejudice. Information and understanding of the disease and its consequences, I think, are the solution, as well for the prevention policy, as for the promoting of the rights of infected people.

How is the support network for people living with HIV, is the balance between tackling social issues and treatment right?

Today, in western Europe one hardly talks about AIDS anymore. Twenty or twenty-five years ago, when I got infected, there was real solidarity. Today HIV-infected people are being discriminated against and reduced to poverty. It is serious but doesn’t seem to shock anyone. Not enough anyway. Did we choose to get infected? Is it our fault? No, it isn’t. All we ask for is dignity.

Have you yourself experienced the social stigma, or prejudice since coming out as HIV positive?

I must admit that I stopped counting the number of emails and letters full of insults which I receive. I don’t care any more. Yes of course I have been discriminated for being infected with HIV, which is the case of most positive people in France, according to recent surveys.

What would you say to the ongoing religious opposition to the preventative use of condoms, particularly in the third-world?

I would just like to tell them that it is their duty to defend life, not to destroy it. Religious people must live according to their ideology; it is perfectly normal but even though I am not a specialist on religion, I think I am right to assume that they should place life before anything else! To accept that people should protect themselves from a deadly disease is the most beautiful token of love, isn’t it?

What advice would you give to anyone who may have just been diagnosed with HIV, and how to deal with the situation?

This question is complicated because every person is different and each one has a different approach to being infected. One has to understand what means in everyday life. Because of it, one is lonely and therefore one should go to the different societies and talk about the disease. But I would say that one can live, work and above all, love, with AIDS.

A poignant image in the fight against AIDS in the UK was that of Princess Diana opening one of the first HIV clinics. Does the fight against HIV need more of a response from popular figures? Celebrities, public figures and politicians?

Of course! I remember that a few years ago celebrities were very present in this fight with many artists who called for action. I really believe that celebrities, thanks to their image, can help in such a fight. We need them for this fight for life.

Interview: Jean-Luc Romero talks on the fight against AIDS, social media, and equal marriage in France

How can politicians, and public figures such as yourself do more to tackle the problem of HIV.

I will answer for the politicians. Many things can be done. If I should only quote a few of them, I would say support innovation in matters of prevention, reinforce education, and develop different sources of development. These are only examples, and there are many other ideas. I think that the most important is to publicly talk about AIDS, and that it should become an important issue for society again. AIDS can be helped by politics. Yes, we need money, but also, we need strong words.

How has Social Media changed the game, in terms of raising awareness and fundraising?

The social networks allow us to be in contact with younger people, it is a way to inform. Sadly, it is also a way to misinform because anything can be found on them. I think activists in the fight against AIDS should use them more and use them better. It is a real challenge because the social networks are present and will only become more so in the future.

In the media, how have you seen the perception, and representation of HIV change over the past 20 years?

There is a great evolution and not necessarily in the good sense of the word. After the epidemics started with a lot of ignorance and a lot of stigma (remember, AIDS was called the cancer of the gays) came a period during which the media spoke a lot about AIDS with compassion. Today, apart from the international AIDS day, the media hardly mention AIDS anymore. The subject is not fashionable anymore…and so nobody feels very concerned.

Were you surprised that so many people protested against the equal marriage bill in France?

Yes and no. Marriage for everybody was one of the campaign promises by François Hollande. François Hollande was elected democratically. Furthermore the French are in favour of this change of law which ensures the same rights for everybody.

And no because the French right wing has recently been more radical than ever and made some declarations that were outrageous. I would like to remind politicians that their role is not to divide or to stir hatred, their duty is to unify society. Some politicians have obviously forgotten France’ s motto, which is, freedom, equality, fraternity.

Do you think President Hollande is failing on his promise to you and the French people on equal marriage?

In spite of the violence of the opponents, I trust François Hollande. He has been elected because of his commitments, and marriage for everyone is commitment 3, so I am convinced that it will happen. I want to remind that reforms have already been voted on, legalization of abortion and abolition of the death penalty. It is simply a matter of political courage.

Where you surprised by President Hollande’s remarks about mayors being allowed to opt-out of conducting gay marriages, and what do you think it means that he changed his mind today?

Yes, I was surprised. Freedom of conscience can be dangerous. I am not convinced that it is juridically correct and it can also turn out to be discriminatory. Let us wait for the debates in parliament to pronounce ourselves definitely.

Were you disappointed by the election of Jean-François Copé as UMP president?

I have no opinion about the UMP elections. The most important is not the fight between people but the fight over ideas. That is what the French want. Instead of showing continuously the struggles in the conservative party, the media should talk about 1 December. I am afraid though that it will not be the case.

World AIDS Day takes place on 1 December, and details of how to get a red ribbon can be found on the charity’s website.

A newly updated edition of Jean-Luc’s book, Homopoliticus, is now available.