Drag Race UK praised for ‘important’ HIV discussion: ‘Education is vital’

Drag Race UK has been applauded after Cheddar Gorgeous, Dakota Schiffer and Pixie Polite unpacked the stigma surrounding HIV and educated viewers on PrEP and U=U.

This week’s “Tickled Pink” runway theme led to a moving werk room conversation as frontrunner Cheddar Gorgeous explained her history-inspired look.

Cheddar chose to embellish a black bodysuit with the striking pink triangles that were adopted by the ACT UP movement – a grassroots political organisation striving to end the AIDS epidemic – alongside their slogan, “Silence = Death”

They explained the significance of the look to Dakota.

“During the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 80s, the ACT UP movement took those symbols that were used against us and turned that into a symbol of queer resistance.”

Pixie Polite also commented on the inaction of the government during the crisis, calling it the “wilful genocide of queer people”.

“I know so many people … who are in their 50s, and I’m like: ‘Why don’t you have friends of your own age, why do you hang out with all young people?’ and they’re like: ‘Everyone I know died.’ And if we had been born slightly earlier, we would be dead too.”

Cheddar recalled being born into an era when homophobia and fear of HIV were “intertwined”:

“I grew up watching adverts on television of gravestones dropping. I live with that legacy. The idea that sex for me was linked to contagion and death.”

Cheddar’s bodysuit reads ‘Silence = Death’ and is embellished with pink triangles (BBC)

The queens discussed PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis), a breakthrough drug which when taken properly, means a person cannot acquire HIV

Cheddar explained: “When I started PrEP, the feeling of realising that my sex life was not a death sentence, it had a profound psychological impact on me”.

Cheddar finished by explaining that if a person has contracted the virus, they can take medication to reduce their viral load and become ‘undetectable’, as well as living a long, healthy life.

“A HIV positive undetectable person cannot transmit the virus. When you are undetectable, you are untransmissable. We genuinely can eradicate HIV, and with it the stigma of being positive,” they said.

Drag Race UK ‘honours those we lost’

Speaking to PinkNews, Matthew Hodson, Executive Director of NAM aidsmap, emphasised the importance of these conversations being broadcast on such a mainstream platform like the BBC.

“I cheered when Cheddar Gorgeous used the platform of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK to talk about PrEP and the fact that when we are on treatment there is no risk of HIV transmission – undetectable means untransmittable – U=U.

“And when Cheddar stood on the runway, covered with pink triangles and bearing the motto ‘Silence = Death’ I thought once again about all those members of our communities that we have lost and how we carry them with us still.

“We honour those we lost by fighting to end all AIDS deaths everywhere. We honour them by equipping and empowering all communities to end new infections. We honour them by ending HIV stigma.”

He also echoed Pixie Polite’s statement that during the epidemic, those in power did not care that masses of (primarily) gay men were dying from an unknown disease.

“The media and many politicians did not seem to care that we were dying. As the community newspaper Capital Gay observed at the time, ‘So long as AIDS remained merely ‘a bug that kills f****ts’ it was of no interest.

“Death and grief and anger were bound up in my experience of being young and gay. And it didn’t even feel odd – a community dealing with fear and loss was the only one I knew.”

Effective treatment and education – as explained by the queens of Drag Race UK – have changed everything, Hodson added.

“Now, with access to medication, we can expect to live as long as those who do not have HIV.”

“For many of us who live with HIV, it is the stigma we still face that creates the greatest challenge.”

Greg Owen, the founder of iwantprepnow.co.uk – which became a flagship distributor of PrEP in the UK before it was rolled out by the NHS – also reinforced the importance of having these discussions on a platform as far-reaching as Drag Race UK.

Speaking to PinkNews, he said: “Gay and bisexual men tend to be really good with talking about sex and our sex lives and we’ve seen huge advancements in the deconstruction of stigma.”

“It’s really important that this is on mainstream media because our community has done a lot of heavy lifting, we’ve done a lot of great work trying to combat stigma, but when you’re a minority community of any identity … you are relying on the masses to help deconstruct that stigma with you.”

“This is 40 years of trauma, death, pain and fear – we’re waiting for that to dissipate”.

He also stated that while, historically, HIV has affected gay and bisexual men, numbers among heterosexuals are rising too, so education for all demographics is incredibly important.

“It’s really important to double down on the efforts to get prevention and health messages to people outside of our community”.

Elsewhere this week on Drag Race UK, the queens played Snatch Game – to disappointing results.