Know The Story Of ‘Red Ribbon’ As A Symbol For AIDS Awareness

Bhubaneswar: World AIDS Day and the Red Cross Week starts today, December 1, marking its 30th anniversary. Every year, a theme is chosen on the basis of which discussions and awareness programmes are conducted. This year, ‘Know Your Status’, has been taken up as the theme to create an awareness about the importance of knowing one’s status and removing all barriers to access HIV testing.

The AIDS Day has its own symbol which is a ‘Red Ribbon’. It is quite interesting to understand why a red ribbon was chosen for the same. While some believe it is used to emote love for everyone with HIV positive results, some say it is to express the helplessness of those in pain and since it is transmitted mostly through blood, red fits the best.

The latter proved truer than the former. In the late 1980’s AIDS had reached several countries in the United States, becoming the number one killer of young men in the New York City. Despite all the hullabaloo caused by the disease, there was barely any acknowledgement of AIDS.

However, as every story goes, there came a group of artists to change the same. One of them, Patrick O’Connel, spent days visiting friends in the hospital, attending funerals and taking calls of others detected with the disease. He, along with other artists, started making art in response to AIDS, which came to be known as ‘Visual AIDS’ in 1988.

Several public events and gallery shows were organized to raise awareness against AIDS. The one thing that had the greatest impact, however, was the little symbol they made – The AIDS Awareness Ribbon.

In the spring of 1991, a costume designer Marc Happel heard about the group’s search for a symbol for Visual AIDS. He happened to had been invited to a meeting with those artists. He had an idea, inspired from the yellow ribbons tied around trees in honor of servicemen who died in the Persian Gulf War.

Happel suggested something similar could be done to acknowledge the war at home, the war against AIDS. Since the tree was not a right option, they decided to fold a ribbon and pin it on their lapels. The colour of the ribbon ought to be red decided the group as that was the colour of blood.

Spools of red grosgrain ribbon were donated by a local ribbon supplier which the Visual AIDS began cutting, folding and pinning. The group held a work-together meeting called ‘ribbon bees’, where people, like a quilting bee, were working with the ribbons. After numerous trials, they came up with the present style – looped and inverted-V.

Visual AIDS started their ribbon distribution spree and gave it out for free along with pamphlets. It went global and popular after winners and attendees of ‘Tony Awards’ wore a red ribbon on their request.

Celebrity dressers were coaxed and pleaded, who pinned the ribbons on Broadway stars before the ceremony. It was on June 7, 1991, and the artists were not sure if any one would actually wear a ribbon. Much to their surprise, first award winner of the night, Daisey Eagen, (star of The Secret Garden), wore that ribbon. Kevin Spacey follow the style, Penn and Teller pinned it too. Little was known about the ribbons to them though. Next day in press, everyone spoke about the mysterious red ribbon.

All mega award shows including Grammy, Emmy and Oscars followed the suite. Not only the known personalities, but school groups and local churches started contacting Visual AIDS for the ribbons too.

You would be surprised to know the kind of fad it had become by 1992. There were not only red ribbon t-shirts but also diamond necklaces, Christmas ornaments and almost every product one could think of. The spirit of O’Connel’s project was to let everyone use the symbol and spread the word.

Like every story’s element of backlash, this too, had one. Activists and other AIDS advocates started calling them out for having made it a fashion. They said it seemed as if people cared about people with AIDS without doing anything for them. Happel, however, said it was okay. “What we wanted to do was create something that a mother in Michigan could wear on the lapel of her blouse and you know maybe her son was living in New York and living with AIDS, and she wanted to do something. I think it was just, it was also a symbol that we created what somebody could wear. And somebody might go up to them and ask about it and they would hopefully say the reason,” he had said in an interview.

The year 1992 was even declared the ‘The Year of the Ribbon’ by The New York Times. Then began a widespread movement fighting AIDS. From local groups to the government, everyone started forming policies and organized meeting, programmes and events.

Ribbon, for that matter, is now used to spread awareness about various diseases. For breast cancer, we use pink ribbon, and teal ribbon for ovarian cancer. It is also used for tsunami victim awareness.

Even though the origin of the idea is not India, it is from an individual somewhere on this globe who cared to care and the relevance of the same shall always remain.

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