This article originally appeared on VICE Alps
For its May edition, Austrian gay mag Vangardist took blood donations from three HIV-positive people and mixed it with ink that was then used on its pages. Apparently, the sterilised blood carrying the virus was only used on 3,000 of 18,000 copies but that was enough to get the attention of international media and drive many of us to reconsider our boundaries. I got in touch with Vangardist's publisher, Julian Wiehl, to talk about the campaign, Conchita Wurst and his HIV Heroes initiative, which fights the stigmatisation of HIV patients around the globe.
VICE: What did you hope to achieve with the current issue of Vangardist?
Julian Wiehl: We wanted to raise awareness for HIV – but also point out that people who carry the virus are still extremely stigmatised in our society. The problem is not that HIV never hit the headlines. The problem is that HIV doesn't make headlines any longer. Everybody seems to think we've heard enough about it. But the reaction to our print magazine shows that there's obviously still lots of work to do. Unfortunately, reporting on the topic in a matter-of-fact way is not enough.
What do you tell people who are afraid of coming into contact with the HIV blood in your ink?
First of all, that it's absolutely safe to handle our magazine – in the same way that it's safe to come into contact with HIV patients. These days, you can even have safe sex with a person who carries the virus, if you are careful. Today, the burden created by the illness itself is far less heavy than the one created by social stigmatisation.
What were the reactions you got?
Those involved with the issue reacted positively. We received encouragement from HIV patients from California to Singapore – all around the globe, really.
How about negative feedback?
Yeah, we had that too. But to a far lesser extent. Negative reactions were divided in two categories: There are those who are afraid that a campaign such as ours could create a backlash and lead to even bigger stigmatisation for HIV patients. And then there are those who really say stuff like "Put those assholes in jail for attempted murder." But overall, people reacted well and I'm incredibly happy about that.
As a gay magazine, have you or your staff ever experienced discrimination?
Actually none whatsoever. In our five year history, we at Vangardist never got any negative comments. And that's quite something, considering that we take on pretty controversial topics. Even now, I don't see the criticism as threatening. It's more an expression of anxiety. I mean "put them in jail" tells me that somebody's worried and calls for authorities to check that everything's in order. It's coming from a place of misinformation, but it's not really a bad thing that they think about it. It may be surprising, but I actually think our society's extremely tolerant.
You were saying before that we needed extreme campaigns like this one to raise awareness for topics such as HIV.
It's a little sad that you don't get people's attention without campaigns like that, yeah. But then again, it did work, so I guess I shouldn't get angry but be thankful for that. The most important thing is that we managed to reach lots of people this way. The illness itself is bad enough – people with HIV have to make the virus the centre of their lives. Everything revolves around HIV, you are plagued by guilt, regret, drugs, everything. They really don't need the social pressure added to all that. If you spread fear towards the virus, you also spread fear towards the carriers of the virus. It doesn't help anyone.
Related: Getting High on HIV Medication
Did you have supporters before your new magazine came out?
Not really. Nobody wanted to be part of it. You could tell that people were afraid. That's one of the reasons why we called this issue 'HIV Heroes' – its not about the people living with HIV, but people like you and me who overcome their fear and help spread information about the virus. In a way, we want to change the world and get a more liberal spirit out there. Just like Conchita Wurst did last year at Eurovision.
So you believe Conchita Wurst changed the world – or at least Austria?
Absolutely. Conchita – or Tom – pointed out what was wrong in our society and changed it in an entertaining way. Conchita showed us that society could be a bit more liberal, open and free and there's nothing to be afraid of in that direction. Usually, society and politics take the line of the least resistance. If you think that liberal thought could cost you the election, you'd probably not want to go there. But I actually never thought Austria was as reactionary a country as some like to think.
What are your future plans?
I want to turn our website – HIV Heroes – into a big thing and then give it to an NGO. But it's too early to tell. We are just starting.