Decriminalisation of homosexuality, 50 years on
TWO weeks before the Rev Simon Bailey took up his first post as a rector in the sleepy south Yorkshire mining village of Dinnington in 1985, aged 30, he learnt he had HIV.
At that time, the disease was a death sentence, his sister and writer Rosemary Bailey says, 20 years after she first published his biography Scarlet Ribbons: A Priest with Aids. And being a gay man – like the Rev Bailey – was tolerated, not accepted, by many in society.
For years, Bailey continued his work without being bothered by symptoms as the virus silently attacked his body. Eventually, the virus developed into Aids. He kept quiet until 1992, when he became the first priest in the UK to openly work while suffering from Aids. He continued to officiate marriages, preach sermons, and perform holy communions and funerals. By the summer of 1993 he weighed 42.5kg. In January 1995, Bailey was the focus of the BBC1 documentary Simon’s Cross. Ten months later, he was dead.
To mark the anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality and the release of the new edition of the book, Rosemary Bailey spoke about watching her brother die and his legacy.
When I republished the book it wasn’t just for the story, experiences and courage that my brother showed to be better known, but to show the incredible support he got from the community 20 years ago. It made me realise that when he was 11 or 12, I didn’t know he was gay. I had never heard of homosexuality unless my father preached against it from the pulpit. At the time we were a very strict Baptist family and it would have been seen as a sin, and it was also a crime. That wasn’t something I fully appreciated when I wrote that book and this anniversary has made me realise that.
Most of all, those people in a tough mining village had a choice about how to respond when they discovered he had Aids. They chose to be sympathetic. They chose to respond with the love that they had been working on together as a parish.
Absolutely. Not only because of the anniversary but also in terms of the current political climate of division. The very fact that people have responded to this story the second time around, 20 years since it first came out, is precisely because it’s a positive, human interest story that isn’t about people getting more and more difficult and nationalist and defensive and so on. It’s more relevant now than then, actually.
There was a tremendous response. We watched it in the rectory. The phone started ringing before the programme had even finished. This is before the internet. The letters poured in.
At the time it was a death sentence. Simon was taking experimental medication which later become AZT, which is still used. I remember going to the hospital with him and hearing about this new drug combination. And he was as thin as a rake and they said: “Simon, it’s too late for you.” It was still something you had to come to terms with.
When you revisited the book, what was it like going back over what happened 20 years later?
Even though it’s desperately sad it’s such a powerful story. I felt so privileged to have been able to write it.
I can only speak through Simon because that is my only real knowledge, but I would say what he said about his own work – that it was possibly an advantage being homosexual. That sense of alienation might have helped him to be a priest and help give him a sense of understanding of other people. It’s a positive thing.
He managed to do something positive with his sexuality and to show that it’s possible to do things differently. – The Independent
HALLMARK: The red ribbon is the universal symbol of awareness and support for people living with HIV/Aids.