Wearing the red ribbon
Most well known causes have a distinctive lapel pin, badge, wristband or ribbon for supporters to wear. A daffodil for Marie Curie, the green full-stop circle for the NSPCC and to support men’s health, the latest and most organic of all - moustaches in the month of Movember.
Despite supporting the aims of many causes, there are only two that I wear every year: the poppy and the aids ribbon.
Powerful brands are strong stories and likewise often have a great tension within. The poppy commemorates those who made the ultimate sacrifice to defend us from aggression and fascism. That’s its rightly celebrated ostensible aspect. But it’s also - for me - a reminder of the massive loss which comes from a failure of peace; the infantile futility of tribalism and war. I wear the poppy with both of these thoughts in mind. Lest we forget those who’ve suffered for our freedoms, but lest we also forget ourselves when we’re quick to anger or jingoism.
I often visit Northern Ireland to see friends and family with my other half. I’m always upset by the divisive and political way that the poppy has been co-opted by some unionists and loyalists. It is discomforting to see this symbol of solidarity and hopeful remembrance crudely daubed on walls in some parts of Belfast in order to reinforce tribal enmity toward fellow citizens. Many people from, what we can unfortunately still call, “the other side of the divide” won’t wear the poppy. Many Irish nationalists can’t see past its newer and quite tainted meaning. Men from all over Ireland fought with the allies to defend Europe against tyranny so this inability to commemorate together is a another small yet disappointing legacy of the troubles.
Today is World Aids Day. So for about a week I’ve been wearing the red ribbon. This well-known symbol is not without its own stigma and tension.
HIV/Aids is still sinking its insipid claws into men, women and children throughout the world. The poorest in Africa suffer the most. A cruel and debilitating brake on the blooming economic progress of the continent. Ignorance - often religiously motivated - still hampers efforts to educate and prevent infection. Even in what we smugly refer to as the “developed world” infection rates are still high, but the disease is less visible than at any point since it came to public attention in the early 1980s. Treatments have improved and the outlook for people living with HIV has been revolutionised from even ten years ago. But treatment is not cure. Lives are still cut short. Anxiety, shame, immune deficiencies. It’s no picnic and yet we’re talking about it and worrying about it less than ever.
So I wear the ribbon for two reasons. As with symbols of any other cause, the first is simply to remind people. A prompt to the mind however subtle. Don’t listen to the lobbyists who tell you that subtle branding and advertising doesn’t encourage people to smoke cigarettes. My industry knows that the smallest cue can help to build a brand world, a set of impressions and feelings which change behaviour. Seeing people around this time of year sporting the red ribbon brings HIV and Aids back into the minds - however briefly - of those who’d forgotten about it.
The second reason I wear the ribbon is because I’m not ashamed anymore. I once thought it might mark me out as gay or worse as actually having HIV or Aids. It is not and never has been a “gay disease” but our community did bear much of the initial brunt. Whether you call it freer love or greater promiscuity probably depends on your politics. But because the gay communities did so much to campaign for better awareness, support and medication ribbon wearers were for a time more likely to be gay. Support and information for HIV and Aids still feature prominently at Pride events.
It stands to reason that causes achieve more support in the communities they most affect. You will notice the mainly middle aged women who wear the yellow daffodil. Society’s gender inequality is cast in sharp relief as many women in their fifties and sixties are left to bear the burden of looking after their sick parents.
In Queer As Folk (Channel 4, 1999), the recklessly attractive Stuart reinforces the connection between cause and community by donning a red ribbon to clarify his sexuality to a guy he wants to pull at work. It is a gesture which is clear and yet subtle at the same time. It shows that the poppy isn’t the only symbol to have been mis-used.
I bought a coffee in City Centre Manchester yesterday wearing the ribbon. The talkative guy serving me gave me an extra loyalty stamp and told me it was because I was wearing the ribbon. “They won’t let me wear it on my uniform” he told me. Was he allowed to wear a poppy, I wondered aloud. Yes - a poppy is fine, but a red ribbon is not.
“Well isn’t that interesting” I mused sardonically.
“Yes, isn’t it.”
Now, I’m not sure whether this is official policy at Caffe Nero. I hope it isn’t. But the thought that it might be arrested me. Do some people find the red ribbon offensive in some way? Is the poppy the only acceptable charitable symbol to be worn? How does the brand decide which ones are OK and which ones are not? Wouldn’t a stronger position be to allow colleagues to choose their own causes to support, in recognition of the diversity of their staff?
I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but the episode did confirm my two reasons for wearing.
We still need to raise and maintain awareness and we still need to challenge the stigma of HIV and Aids.