The Tyranny of Petty Things

Really interesting short documentary on James Bushe, who fought for and won the right to become the first HIV positive commercial pilot.

When I saw the synopsis, I was thinking, so this will be looking back at his case in the 90s, right? 2020 this fucking happened. What?!

What the fuck would even be the justification for excluding HIV positive folk from being pilots? This is not a job where you would be regularly bleeding directly into other people’s open wounds or some crazy shit like that. You’re sitting in a chair, flying a plane. It obviously must predate the advent of medication that suppresses the virus, which basically means there is now absolutely no excuse for any of this bullshit.

The ludicrous reason, clearly put in place when HIV was discovered to be a thing but not yet understood as a condition at all, was that you might become unwell mid-flight. Like, what?! Anyone can become unwell mid-flight. Also, being HIV positive is not the same as having AIDS. The whole thing is madness.

James is about ages with me, we grew up with the AIDS adverts of the 80s and early 90s. That shit was biblical. It literally had a guy chiselling a headstone with AIDS written across it. At the time, the message was ‘this is a fatal disease, don’t catch it or it will be a death sentence’. And looking back, I get that, I understand why they did it, but it ingrained such a level of fear in our generation that if you actually became HIV positive, it made you feel like you were some kind of living cancer. As James himself puts it, “I thought that I was this sort of walking grenade that was gonna go off”.

The stigma meant that people were frightened of HIV positive people, that employers had this disproportionate sense of risk in hiring folk, and also HIV positive folk themselves had internalised this sense of shame. And there have been many battles fought between then and now to undo that damage. Which is why you can’t believe that almost 40 years later, hangovers from that era are still in place, and these fights are still being fought.

The Tyranny of Petty Things looks at the stigma others placed on his condition, but also the internalised stigma that made him initially want to remain anonymous at the start of his campaign. A really interesting short documentary about the living legacy of AIDS discrimination in our society.