Mourning and Militancy: HIV/AIDs in the UK 40 Years On

There are around 160,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in the UK today. No longer a death sentence, with treatment, those living with the illness can enjoy regular life expectancy, and those with undetectable levels of the virus cannot pass it on.

2021 marks 40 years since the discovery of HIV/AIDs in the UK, and as Russel T Davies ‘It’s A Sin’ has shown, HIV/AIDs had a devastating impact on the LGBTQA+ community during the early years of the crisis.

Contrary to popular belief, HIV/AIDS first began infecting humans in the 1920s, in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. However, it was the first clinical reports of the virus in June 1981 that triggered what we now think of as the AIDs crisis.

Following the outbreak of various immune deficiency related disorders in a cluster of gay/bisexual men and IV drug users in the United States, the disease thought to be causing this immune deficiency was labelled ‘GRID’ by the medical literature and the press; an acronym of ‘gay related immune deficiency’.

By December 1981, the disease claimed its first victim in Britain, an unidentified 49-year-old in Brompton, kickstarting the AIDs crisis in the UK.

By 1988, there were approximately 2500 HIV positive individuals living in the UK, 70% of which were gay or bisexual men. In the US, health inequalities and access to treatment for HIV/AIDs and its associated illnesses became a huge issue, but this was less acute in the UK due to the role of the NHS. Community activism therefore tended to focus on Section 28, the infamous law banning the ‘promotion of homosexuality’.

Instead of recounting the history of the AIDs crisis in the UK, I want to focus more on the impact of the disease, and the reaction to it, on the LGBTQA+ community, both at the time and today. How did political and cultural reaction to the illness impact LGBTQA+ identities, and what can we learn in relation to the current struggles facing the queer community?

When AIDs emerged into popular consciousness in the early 1980s, the media was quick to designate two kinds of patient. There were the innocent victims; haemophiliacs and children infected in the womb. Then there were the IV drug users and gay/bisexual men. Instead of innocent, these groups were seen as willing participants who ‘deserved’ their fate due to their own moral failings. We need only look to the tabloid press to see this implication overtly. Headlines proclaiming that HIV/AIDs was a ‘gay plague’ were common, while jokes such as

‘What do you call five homosexuals in a van? The AIDs team.’

captured the prevailing public sentiment that gay men were simply facing the consequences of their ‘lifestyle choices’.

This designation of AIDs as a ‘gay plague’ had devastating implications for public health policy. Because the disease was thought to be a problem of immorality, and not a problem for the Christian, heterosexual majority, there was no concerted public health information campaign for a full five years after the disease was first discovered in the UK.

‘Monolith’, broadcast nationally in 1987 and narrated by John Hurt, told the public that the disease had ‘so far been confined to small groups, but is spreading’. Those ‘small groups’ were the expendable minority of gay and bisexual men, not even deserving of lip service in the government’s national health campaign messaging.

Following the ‘monolith’ public information film, every single household in the UK received a leaflet warning of the dangers of AIDs. The document takes great pains to mention homosexuality only when absolutely necessary and warns the reader that ‘because (AIDs) has to deal with matters of health and sex, you may find some of the information disturbing’.

It is telling that Secretary of State for Social Security, Norman Fowler, had to fight to even get such a leaflet published. Thatcher disagreed with this tactic, warning that it may introduce children to the concept of homosexuality, and they may therefore decide to give it a go. Cue pearl clutching.

The perceived liberalism of the NHS, in so much as it would, at the very least, care for patients living with AIDs (regardless of the actual reality of this treatment, and whether it preserved any sense of dignity or self-determination) was met with outrage in the tabloid press. It was reported that ‘left wing local councils’ were ‘complicit’ in preserving the rights of a ‘dubious and irresponsible minority at the expense of everyone else’. In other words, outrage that gays were receiving publicly funded treatment when they seemingly brought their plight on themselves.

The positioning of gay men as ‘guilty’ forced the LGBTQA+ community to adopt safer sexual practises, but there was no such moral imperative for heterosexual couples. The five years it took for a coordinated, government-led public health campaign, and the rampant misinformation pedalled in the right-wing press, caused numerous conspiracy theories and widespread misunderstanding about transmission of the disease. Many, especially in the early 1980s, simply assumed heterosexuals could not catch the disease. Therefore, there was no significant increase in safer sexual practises amongst heterosexuals in the same way as in the LGBTQA+ community.

Additionally, prevailing attitudes about homosexuality caused by the AIDs crisis actively contributed to the implementation of the aforementioned Section 28. The 1987 British Social Attitudes Survey indicated that 75% of the population considered homosexuality to be ‘morally wrong’. Public attitudes of homophobia and the perceived risk posed to society by the queer community and its ‘participation’ in the spread of the disease allowed the Conservatives to implement Section 28, making it a crime to ‘promote homosexuality’. It is arguable that without the stigma faced by the LGBTQA+ community throughout the AIDs crisis, such legislation would not have enjoyed the popular support that it did.

British society, through Section 28 and general disgust at the promiscuity of some gay/bisexual men, forced LGBTQA+ individuals to hide their true identity. The ability to show grief was stifled by the need to hide any connection to the disease, for fear of being ostracised or discriminated against. This need for secrecy perpetuated the idea that homosexuals were ‘deceitful’ individuals who couldn’t be trusted, especially around children. This in turn denied the LGBTQA+ community at large the opportunity to mourn for the serial losses it faced.

Trauma suffered in the past is reflected in actions and opinions today, and for a generation living with collective trauma as a result of mass death and discrimination, there is bound to be consequences. Rates of drug and alcohol abuse are higher in the LGBTQA+ community than the average population, with LGBTQA+ adults who lived through the HIV/AIDs crisis reporting more frequent alcohol misuse; 33% of those over 65 report long-term alcohol dependency.

A crude observation, perhaps, but one that remains largely unexplored, and undoubtedly deserves more attention.

If HIV/AIDs prompted safer sexual practises within the LGBTQA+ community, it also gave the community an imperative to act with newfound solidarity and cohesion. Prior to the 1980s, the accepted social contract awarded tolerance, in the form of decriminalisation, on the condition of discrete behaviour. HIV/AIDs cast homosexuality into the public imagination so much that it was impossible to maintain complete discretion. The cultural shaming, anger and grief faced by many had no means of expression other than pride.

And there was much to be proud of as a community. Underground condom distribution and the promotion of safer sexual practises, queer information networks distributing resources about the disease, the lesbian ‘blood sisters’ who volunteered on hospital wards when nurses were too scared to perform their duties, and who gave blood regularly to gay men suffering from anaemia as a result of frequent blood transfusions. Then there was the activism against Section 28: direct action against the BBC and in the House of Lords, organised mass demonstrations in London and Manchester, benefit concerts and mass leafleting. For the first time in the UK, the LGBTQA+ community had cause to unite, sharing a sense of pride despite (or perhaps because of) the collective injustices suffered by every single queer person during this time.

This is what we should take from the lessons of the AIDs crisis. As a community, there is power in solidarity, and pride in collective action. The challenges we face today, namely discrimination and rampant transphobia, require this same dedication to unity if we are going to successfully challenge them.

Just as Section 28 was a distraction from the real issues brought about by the AIDs crisis, so too is the ongoing ‘culture war’ a distraction from Conservative ineptitude, and the discomfort of challenging institutional bias and white supremacy. It is easier to demonise the ‘other’ than it is to challenge yourself. Solidarity, cohesion and intersectionality are the tools by which we will create a fairer, more equitable society, as they were the means by which the LGBTQA+ rebuilt itself in the face of mass death and discrimination.