30 years ago the first reports of AIDS reached the UK. In his book, And the Band Played On, which has just been republished, Randy Shilts described the way in which the new disease swept the U.S.A. Now, on the occasion of World AIDS Day, David McGillivray remembers his experiences when AIDS reached the UK…
“In the early 80s life was good. We were enjoying ourselves…I didn’t know anyone personally affected by [AIDS]. It seemed to be in America, remote, and it didn’t seem like anything that was going to affect me very much” – Jonathan Grimshaw, one of the first people in the UK to be diagnosed HIV+
On 15th November, 1982, I went to review First Blood for the magazine Films & Filming. I met a friend, Geoff Simm, who was reviewing this first Rambo film for HIM, later to become Gay Times. Geoff mentioned that he’d read something about a female impersonator, who was under observation in a New York hospital because he’d come down with just about every disease going. Hepatitis. TB. Herpes. Plus a rare cancer. Then we talked about something else.
When I got home I had an argument on the phone with another friend, TV director Nigel Finch. Nobody knew at the time (the case wasn’t reported in the press) that Terry Higgins, a barman at Heaven, the most exciting disco in town, had already died of the same immune deficiency that had killed the New York drag queen, Brandy Alexander. By the end of 1982 London was buzzing with rumours.
On 6th December, 1982, I wrote in my diary, “A new form of virulent cancer is plaguing the gay community. It’s transmitted sexually. Sounds terrifying. Alan Jones says two of his friends have already died.” Geoff Simm died of AIDS in 1990. Alan Jones’ partner, Fernando dos Reis Prazeres, died of AIDS in 1993. Nigel Finch died of AIDS, while still working on his film Stonewall, in 1995.
“It was the beginning of cheap flights to New York and there was a lot of sexual tourism because there were some great dance clubs which were also sex clubs in New York. A lot of gay men were going to and fro” – Lisa Power, Head of Policy at Terrence Higgins Trust
“Before. It was to be the word that would define the permanent demarcation in the lives of millions of Americans”, Randy Shilts wrote in ‘And the Band Played On’. “The epidemic would cleave lives in two, the way a great war or depression presents a commonly understood point of reference around which an entire society defines itself.”
For Shilts the borderline between before and after was 29th June, 1980, the day of the Gay Freedom Day Parade in San Francisco. Most of the friends he partied with on that day were dead by 1985. In London, as Jonathan Grimshaw remembers, “before” lasted much longer. Even in 1983, when most of us knew that sex could be dangerous, virtually no gay man used a condom. Condoms were for preventing unwanted pregnancies. Or, as Julian Clary says, “In those pre-AIDS days using a condom was regarded as a kind of weird hygiene-related fetish.”
“A friend of mine in New York described what it was like there now. He said it was like being in a crowd with all your friends. You’d been enjoying a party for years and suddenly a mad sniper starts taking pot shots at you. First one friend, then another” – Terrence Higgins’ partner Tony Whitehead addressing Terrence Higgins Trust in 1984
“Early in 1984 an ex-partner of mine called me up and told me someone we’d both slept with had got this new disease. The doctor who was treating him suggested that all his sexual partners should attend the clinic just to be monitored…I kept going back and then, on one visit later on in 1984, they said they’d tested my blood for this new virus, which was thought to be the cause of AIDS, and the test had come back positive…The doctor said, ‘Will you be able to cope?’ I said, ‘Of course…!’ and left the clinic reeling” – Jonathan Grimshaw, later a co-founder of Body Positive and The Lighthouse
On 19th December, 1984, I went to give blood. But I decided against it. I wrote, “Since I went in August the AIDS scare has well and truly got a grip. Donors are asked to read a leaflet and are then on their honour to own up if they’re in a ‘high risk group.’ No. 1 in the list used to be ‘male homosexuals who have sex with a number of partners.’ But this has now been crossed out and replaced with ‘all practising homosexuals.’” Because of the AIDS scare – even paramedics were advised not to give the kiss of life to AIDS suspects, i.e. gay men – Chief Medical Officer Donald Acheson said in February, 1985, “I think the first thing to say is that we’re dealing with a very rare disease. There have been 120 cases in the United Kingdom, where we have 60 million people. The chance of an ambulance driver or fireman meeting someone with AIDS who requires resuscitation is really very remote.”
“We have a lower level of HIV amongst gay men to this day because of the work that the gay community did at that time” – Lisa Power
On 11th December, 1985, Julian Clary told me that his partner, Christopher, had AIDS. I wrote, with a callousness I now find hard to believe, “This is the first person I’ve known to develop the fashionable killer disease.” I joked about AIDS because it scared me. One day I overheard someone at the gym say, “They’ll never find a cure.” The certain knowledge flashed through my mind that we were all going to die.
In 1986 actor Doug Lambert became the first person I’d met to die of AIDS. In 1987 Alastair Bucknell was the first person I’d had sex with who admitted he’d got AIDS. There was nothing for it but to go for an HIV test. The week I spent waiting for the results (that was quick in those days) was the worst of my life. The results were negative. I haven’t had unsafe sex for well over twenty years. What more can I say? Condoms help prevent you picking up HIV and other STDs. Don’t even think about having sex without one.
“A new form of virulent cancer is plaguing the gay community. It’s transmitted sexually. Sounds terrifying.”
To date 19,000 people in the UK have died of AIDS, perhaps 25 million people in the world have died of this previously rare disease. Last week, Sir Nick Partridge, Chief Executive of Terrence Higgins Trust, said, “For many people, Freddie Mercury’s death was a defining moment in the early years of the HIV epidemic. It crystallised how much talent we lost during those years, and helped heighten awareness of HIV in a way that even the best public health campaigns would struggle to do. That was twenty years ago and, thanks to the introduction of effective drug treatments, someone diagnosed with HIV today has every chance of living well into old age.
“However, that doesn’t mean HIV has gone away. Next year, there will be more people with the condition in this country than ever before; that’s 100,000 individuals who face a lifetime of daily medication and – all too often – discrimination. In the run up to World AIDS Day on 1st December, it’s important to remember those we lost, and also reflect on where we are today.”
• Some material in this article is based on the research of Simon Garfield, author of the book The End of Innocence: Britain in the Time of AIDS (1995) and presenter of the BBC Radio 4 programme A Mystery in the Village (2011)