travel, at a tangent

Red ribbons

Many of you, going about their daily business on December 1st, will notice the occasional red ribbon fluttering against someone's lapel and wonder what that means. Some will think it's because the wearer wants to say s/he's gay, but doesn't want to wear a pink triangle (or an entire outfit of Diesel clothing).

Others will think that there's something politically correct about wearing a red ribbon; that showing support for the deprived and disaffected of the Third World and the diseased and depraved of the West is something to be tolerated but not encouraged.

And others, most of whom will have a ribbon fluttering against their own lapel, will know exactly why.

Here's an email I sent last year to the buildings manager of my last long-term employer, who relayed to me a message that suggested, subtely, that it was a less worthy cause than the Poppy Appeal. So for those of you who've come across these rather ill-considered arguments, I'm delighted to share with you my thoughts on the subject.

Dear [buildings management employee]

I understand that the reasoning behind the policy [not to provide red ribbons at reception] is that, at Transport for London, "we have no historical or special connection with HIV/AIDS, as we do with the Royal British Legion", and that there are many 'good causes' that would also like to have their ribbons and armbands displayed and distributed at reception.

However - raising awareness of HIV and AIDS is different from any other good cause, and our connection with HIV and AIDS does differ from that we have with the RBL and Poppy Appeal.

According to the government's Healthcare Protection Agency site, of the 58,000 people carrying the HIV virus in the UK, 19,700 are entirely unaware that they are doing so. They go about their daily business, - eating their lunch, taking the tube, getting on the bus, sleeping with their wives/partners, checking out your shopping at the supermarket, - not
knowing, as those who share their lives do not know, that they carry a life-threatening and transmissible disease.

That figure of 19,700 is just slightly more than the population of the entire TfL workforce.

What makes the issue of AIDS different from that of other 'good causes' is that HIV is entirely preventable. The one thing that people affected by AIDS in the developed world have in common - whether they're black, white, gay, straight, old or young - is that before it touched their own lives, they thought AIDS was something that had a connection with someone else, and that it wouldn't happen to them, or those they cared for.

Of the 19,000+ employees at TfL, it may be that none has to work with HIV or AIDS, or that no-one here has a son, daughter, brother, sister or friend who has to do so. This is highly unlikely.

In my case, I am unlucky to know as many people who have died of HIV as there are employees in my entire department; obviously, from this perspective, I am keen to do whatever I can to ensure that none of my colleagues needs to.

What makes raising awareness of AIDS different is that it's something you definitely help with. If, by wearing a red ribbon, and /or encouraging others to do so, you create the cause for one single child to ask what that ribbon means, or for a parent to be honest and straightforward with their son or daughter about taking responsibility for their sexual health, then you will have saved one life, or more.


  • There is still no cure and no vaccine for HIV
  • Statistics show that the incidences of drug-resistant cases of HIV are rising and that more HIV+ people will die as a result
  • Since 1982, more than 6,000 children have been born in the UK to HIV-positive mothers

Buying a poppy is unlikely to stop anyone's son, husband, father, brother or friend getting injured or killed in a war, although it will help alleviate the financial loss of those who survive, and help us grieve for those we have lost.

Distributing red ribbons at reception will not, in any way, detract from the respect we give the Poppy Campaign, or lessen our recognition for those who have died or been injured serving their countries. Distributing red ribbons may well save lives.

In the five or so minutes it's taken you to read this email, five people have died of HIV. Three of those were children. Of those children, none will ever grow up to be able to read an email.

Please reconsider the policy to distribute red ribbons at reception.

Thank you,


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