Last night’s opening ceremony for the 22nd International AIDS Conference was as it usually is.
Activists, politicians, scientists, celebrities and even royalty from around the world welcoming participants to the conference, congratulating each other on goals met and laws passed, and talking about current crises in HIV/AIDS treatment and education.
It has been that way since I attended my first International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. in 1987. It will be that way in another 30-odd years, if HIV is still the public health threat it is today.
Conchita’s keynote speech at the 22nd International AIDS Conference
The highlight of the International AIDS Conference opening ceremony for me, however, was Austrian singer Conchita, who gave a 6-minute keynote speech.
A speech, I imagine, was something that made Conchita more nervous than she has been since she announced she herself was HIV positive.
After all, it is only three months since the 29-year-old artist was forced to reveal her HIV status after an ex-boyfriend threatened to go public. Something she must have been frightened about doing at the time.
Because, even in 2018, something like that can be both a career destroyer, and an invitation for the bigots and bullies of the world to do their worst.
Yet, it was something Conchita did with dignity, courage, strength and a refusal to ever be put in a position where she was bullied, threatened or made to feel unsafe. No matter what the consequences to herself might be.
It was also something that earned her universal praise, admiration and support.
Primarily because of how she did it, and who she is.
Respectful, kind, the consummate professional, and someone who treats everyone she meets with the kindness she herself has not always been afforded in the past.
So, when Conchita began her keynote speech last night with the words,
“Talking about it. That was my greatest fear. That people would talk about it behind my back if I ever share my secret. Because still today, people talk about this disease in a way that is not fair”.
I was not surprised.
Because, as much as she had her team behind her before she announced her HIV status, and as much as she must have hoped her fans would continue to support her, no matter what, I am sure she still had that niggling thought that this one revelation could not only destroy everything she has worked for since she was a small child, but it could make people treat her differently.
And that, it would be worse than anything.
As her speech continued, Conchita went on to point out,
“When I first posted my story, it was shared across the globe. I received nothing but support, but still I would like to underline that I do not define myself through my HIV status. It is just a fraction of who I am”.
Which brings me to something I have noticed about Conchita’s announcement of her status, compared to that of other celebrities who announced their HIV positive status in the past.
Yes, there was a media frenzy for a week or two after her statement, but then things pretty much went back to normal where this talented Austrian artist was concerned.
With being HIV positive just another thing the media, people that worked with her, and fans added to the long list of things they associate with this phenomenal person who is quite unlike anyone else you will ever meet. But a thing that was really no more important than the rest.
In other words, from what I have seen, Conchita is still treated just the way she has been treated since she won Eurovision in 2014. And just the way she was treated before she made her announcement.
With huge respect, and with a devotion from fans and other artists you do not see too often.
Conchita’s refusal to discuss her own personal story
My sense of why this has happened is due to Conchita’s own refusal to discuss much about her own personal story. A story she must feel is nobody else’s business but her own. Frankly, she is right.
After all, she no more owes people details about her HIV status than you owe anyone details if you are diagnosed with any other illness or disease.
That refusal also meant the news media and the general public, both of whom often thrive on gory details, didn’t get their fuel to feed their particularly nasty little fires. So, after a while, they got bored and moved on to someone else that may not be as private.
Which is why, when last night’s speech didn’t touch on anything more personal than her opening couple of statements, it actually made the speech even more powerful.
Because, instead of talking about her own story, Conchita defended everyone on the planet who is HIV positive, by pointing out the thing that is important about being diagnosed with this disease is you should be treated like anyone else who was diagnosed with any other illness or disease.
And then intimating, without actually saying it, that it doesn’t reflect badly on the person with HIV, when they are attacked, shunned or treated differently because of their diagnosis. It instead reflects badly on the person treating them poorly because of it.
Conchita’s most important message during her speech, however, and one that, as a writer, I think was beautifully expressed was her statement:
“People living with HIV and getting treatment can live just as long of a life as those that are negative. You can touch us. You can kiss us. You can love us. Just as you would anyone else.”
It was a statement that will be associated with her persona, and spread on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter posts for months if not years to come.
A statement that boiled down what it means to be HIV positive into less than a paragraph. And tells people what they can do to show anyone they know who has been diagnosed with the disease that they care. Even if they don’t know what to say.
Love them. Support them. Take care of them. Just like you should with every human being. No matter what the circumstance.
The power that is Conchita
Finally, although Conchita gave a superb speech last night, I was still left wondering if she truly understands the immense power she has to impact the world for good, or if she sees how many lives she can change. Simply because of her core values, her strength and courage, and who she is and how she behaves.
Because I watched her walk on stage, saw the initial nervousness in her eyes and that humbleness she always seems to have with her, and all I could think was “More than anyone I have ever met, you are going to move mountains. And I don’t think you’ve figured that out yet”.
My guess, though? I think she eventually will.
Watch Conchita’s keynote speech at the 22nd International AIDS Conference below. It is powerful, goes directly to what is important about being HIV positive, and shows yet again just how strong and magnificent of a person this tiny Austrian powerhouse is.