Look­ing back through his­tory at a time where liv­ing as a gay man was a death sen­tence for many.

Gay Times Magazine - - PRIDE IN LONDON - Im­ages cour­tesy of Ash Ko­tak Words Ash Ko­tak

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 bu‹er, 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.

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