REMEMBERING THE FIGHT ISN’T OVER.
Looking back through history at a time where living as a gay man was a death sentence for many.
By the time I was 30 years old, I’d watched many of my friends die horrible deaths, including a boyfriend, Nigel, and also an ex, John, who left behind four children who needed support. Today, just 20 years later, we have a wide range of tools to effectively combat HIV, including condoms, PrEP, PEP, and U=U (Undetectable=Untransmittable), which means that anyone on successful HIV medication cannot pass on HIV. There’s a fast-track strategy set out by UNAIDS to end the AIDS pandemic by 2030. This is a moment to celebrate, to laugh and smile. We are beating the buer, but it’s also an opportunity to remember.
My mates, dead but certainly not forgotten, would be with you here on both counts. They didn’t want to die right up to their last breath, every one of them. They didn’t want anyone else to die either. By luck, we in the UK have done well; we had a relatively small epidemic here compared to France, the United States, Russia and parts of Africa. HIV & AIDS may seem so distant from you that it passes you by completely,
I was speaking to a barman in the Admiral Duncan the other night who hadn’t met anyone living with HIV and who didn’t know what U=U was. The younger barman told me it was maybe a generational thing, as he had mates who are in their 20s who are positive. He’s on PrEP, and said that HIV doesn’t worry him or most of his mates. How could two gay men in 2018 have such a different level of knowledge yet work in gay Soho together? Is it because HIV is no longer an issue that worries gay men?
We were holding a fundraiser and a soft launch of AIDS Memory UK, the campaign to establish a national tribute to HIV & AIDS in the UK, which has won the backing of the London Assembly. It aims to be a new commissioned piece of art in London – where most people died – and to connect to all the existing memorials around the UK such as Manchester, Edinburgh, Brighton and Oxford. It will pay homage to the past, celebrate our gains, and remind us that AIDS is not over and we must work together towards 2030. It was a night of drag to remember and celebrate; drag queens have historically been generals in the battle for equal rights, especially during that worst years of the AIDS epidemic.
Suddenly, another young man in his late 30s questioned, “Why AIDS and not cancer? Cancer kills more people than AIDS in the UK today.” It’s a question I’ve heard a lot, and he is correct. How can the multiple tragedies of so many deaths be so alive in me and my generation who experienced it – their faces, their smiles, their bodies, our conversations, the nights out, their funerals – yet be so quickly forgotten in such a short time?
“AIDS is the gay Holocaust,” Jewish gay activist Larry Kramer once declared. “We must never forget.” The atrocities of the Second World War must remain fresh in our minds, and a new Holocaust memorial and museum is under construction on Parliament Square. AIDS has killed 35 million people worldwide. By the time it is over this figure is likely to surpass 50 million. I don’t want this forgotten either. Those I loved – and there are many like me – must not die in vain.
The 1980s and early 1990s, before the meds came in, felt like a war. We were fighting
homophobia and racism. It was a time of the National Front, Margaret Thatcher, and the homophobic Section 28. LGBTQ people were considered to be blaspheming, perverted freaks. There was no ‘queer’ then. There were no apps, there was no internet, not even mobile phones.
In the early 1980s, I used to sneak out of middleclass suburbia to The Black Cap in Camden. At 15, I looked about 12, so the drag queens who made the pub famous adopted us young’uns. There were a few of us: Micky Trix, Ginger and me, the gay Indian nicknamed Gindian. Micky was cute with brown hair and blue eyes and he knew how to gab as he had worked on his dad’s market store. He earned the money for all of us, so we felt flush together. We all
were in love with him, even some of the drag queens I think.
I went home with an older man once. I was 16, he was 24 and a primary school teacher. I felt powerful but disgusted at the same time, but I went back a few times for more. Micky always gave me taxi money to get safely home afterwards. He was good like that. I miss him so much. I remember him saying he was ill one day and that he had to go away, and then he just disappeared. A lot of people did in those days. There was no way of finding him. The Black Cap was our only meeting place. Many of those I knew then are now dead, most didn’t make it to 25.
At 21, I was living first in Knightsbridge, then in Hampstead. Rents were cheap in those days and people were happy to help you out. I’d just graduated from film school and had won lots of awards with a short film that I had persuaded John Hurt to star in. I found my own London against the backdrop of prejudice. I was young, with just enough money and a career, and living with a boyfriend. I was cool, I was told. I never felt it though.
Everyone hated us gays in those days – from the cops to the government. It was lonely, but for those of us who were brave enough to look, it was an exciting time. I lived in secret parallel worlds, in dark parks and bars with their windows blacked out and exciting clubs that had been turned into magnificent worlds where I star-spotted: Heaven (Freddie Mercury, Boy George and George Michael), the Bell, Benji’s the Mudd Club, Bolts (George Michael), the Daisy Chain and legendary Kinky Gerlinky, Trade and Queer Nation (everyone who was anyone would go here). I was a star; exploring, learning, meeting people I’d never met before – hanging out at Boy George’s Gothic house in Hampstead.
We, as gay men, have all had our period of exploration and discovery; it’s our own university to get to know ourselves. But back then, there was AIDS, and it was everywhere. I noticed a sallow look in so many men, especially in Heaven, and the tiredness in the eyes. There seemed to be so many lonely men in those days, although I didn’t associate it with AIDS back then. I was beginning to fear ever becoming close to anyone again in case they too died, leaving me alone to cry once more. Some people had even given up crying. We aged too early.
We danced at Trade on a Saturday night, often after attending funerals on the same day. Who was going to be next? We worked and earned money and looked after our mates who needed it. Today I try to remember, but my mind gets sore and PTSD sets in. How could this have happened? How could it be that their lives have been so quickly forgotten? Yes, this is all in the past for many, but it’s my past and our collective history which helped define us today as gay men. When we were all dying and after we had lost so many friends, nothing mattered anymore. We all became fierce, and had a screw-the-uncaring-world attitude. Nothing in any movement towards equality comes easy, history has taught us that.
AIDS Memory UK is a creative project that brings together everyone, regardless of age, sexuality, gender, race, nationality, or anything else. It’s about being human. It’s about fighting stigma and prejudice, and it’s about what brings us together towards unity and greater understanding. It’s the bridge between the past, the present and the future. We are collating our own history, documenting it and preserving it, so we as gay men have a greater sense of who we are and how we got to where we are now. This is a necessity. Why an AIDS memorial and not cancer? Cancer is a condition, AIDS is – and has always been – a human rights issue.