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Carrying the Flame

On Sunday 30 July 2000, I was runner 111 down Hoddle Street, Abbotsford, in the Australian Olympic Torch Relay, carrying the flame on behalf of people living with HIV. Surprisingly and unbeknownst to me, I had been nominated by my mother because she was proud of the volunteer work I have done over the years as the Human Rights Convenor of the Asia-Pacific Network of People Living with HIV.

When I opened the mail in late December 1999 and read that I was to be a community runner in the relay I was filled with apprehension. I might be a forthright advocate for the rights of people living with HIV and I am always willingly to talk about our role within the global response at any forum but I was certainly not an expert runner. At that point I had also only just started triple combination therapy, and the concept of running half a kilometre, with or without the eyes of the media on me, was beyond comprehension. On the other hand, the drugs were working exceedingly well. I had no side effects, my T-cells had quadrupled within a month and I was awaking from a ten-year nightmare.

Until that point, I was open about my HIV status in schools or whilst doing education sessions with health workers and many other groups and I had spoken out at several international conferences but I had never been public in the local media and I led a double life. I was afraid that my son would face discrimination from his peers. I had always said to him that it was up to him to decide when I could go public and I left it at that. A few weeks before my nomination, my then 10-year-old listened to a talk I was giving based on my doctoral thesis, about the role of people living with HIV in AIDS education. I had found that people who speak out and give a human face to AIDS are rewarded by enormous benefits - particularly overwhelming feelings of relief at lifting the burden of secrecy. After the talk, my son suddenly said "Mum, I don't not mind how public you are any more" So, with his blessing, I took up the challenge to get fit enough to run with dignity and I started my thrice weekly trots around to the milk bar and back, carrying my litre of milk.

It was a lot of working out for my few minutes of flame, but it was well worth it. On the day, I was astounded at the number of people who came out onto the streets. There were scores of people from the general public who wanted to see, touch or photograph the torch and the relay; who wanted to be part of this symbolic event that, despite the enormous cynicism around the politics of the Games, somehow gave a sense of community. People were excited by it.
I was also astounded at the support from the HIV community. As I stepped out of the shuttle bus that dropped me in situ a few minutes before the run, I could see so many friendly faces. Staff and volunteers from local AIDS organisations, who give us so much of their physical and emotional energy, and support us through many of the bleak times one inevitably faces after an HIV-diagnosis.

Any cynicism I personally had about the torch run completely disappeared when I looked further and saw how many positive people had came out to support me. Several came up and actually thanked me for running and told me they were proud of what I was doing. With such a groundswell of people saying, "Go for it", I was ready to fly down the street. Perhaps I did. I remember being repeatedly told to slow down. I remember waving a lot and laughing a lot and I remember that it was altogether great fun. Mum was there beaming with pride. My siblings and their families were cheering loudly. And my son ran along beside me with many of his classmates and it was all okay. I thought how sad it is that some people who have been diagnosed HIV-positive have been shunned, ridiculed, abused, abandoned and even killed because of it.
I was so lucky to be able to come out publicly about living with HIV with amazing support from family and friends. I hope that by carrying the flame and by adding my face to the hundreds of others who have come out in public over the past two decades, I helped in some way to break down the stigma and discrimination faced by so many people diagnosed with HIV.

Story by Susan Paxton
Positive Women (Victoria), Australia. Story updated in 2002.

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