Of Condoms and Counseling - Remembering London's AIDs response in the late 80s and early 90s
April 5, 2018
The French film - 120 Beats Per Minute - has set me thinking of my own exposure to the AIDS response in London’s 1989. There have been a few trips down memory, so please excuse my own faltering sojourn.
I left Cambridge University in 1989, and landed a job with Reaching Out, an Anglican charity, a drop-in center for refugees and the homeless in London’s Earls Court. It was run by a true saint, Father Bill Kirkpatrick. I was introduced to him and the stunning Tony Whitehead by the lovely Neil Whitehouse. Our clientele included a significant number of Eastern African refugees - women and children escaping from the atrocities of the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda. And, as it turned out, many of them - mothers and their kids - were HIV positive. Reaching Out was located next to Body Positive, and after my morning work which culminated in making lunch for thirty to forty hungry mouths, I would spend my afternoons at BP, helping to wash up and to learn cooking tips. It is also true that I had a heavy crush on BP’s chef, Keith.
So my introduction or exposure was to two different kinds of people living with HIV: East African HIV positive families - And on the other hand, beautiful, confident gay men (and I was neither beautiful nor confident), facing an uncertain future - something we all shared, negative or positive.
And it struck me then, in the autumn on 1989, that AIDS was not threatening to become a global epidemic. It already was one. And that changed the emotional and spiritual direction of my life fundamentally.
In the autumn of 1989, I also met John Campbell, one of Britain’s most extraordinary and influential activists. He was a mentor and friend to me. We came from the most opposite of backgrounds - but that is for another cocktail. He was making a “royal” visit to Body Positive, inspecting services - and we bonded over his choice of music: Talk Talk’s Its My Life.
He invited me to join him at an upcoming Act Up meeting - which I think was still at the LGBT Centre. John had assured me that Chris Lowe from the Pet Shop Boys had attended a previous meeting, and not one to turn down any opportunity to meet a heartthrob, that sealed the deal for me. Sadly he wasn’t there. John was pulling my leg. Much more importantly, though, I first was introduced to Lisa Power, although, of course she doesn’t remember me from then. I simply recall her rolling her eyes very expressively whenever a certain activist and wannabe Labour MP spoke. Which he did. A lot. Which meant her eyes did a lot of rolling too.
I found the meeting sweaty, smelly, unbearably noisy and disorganized. I felt physically nauseous around such direct personal explosions of fear and rage at having to die pointless, painful deaths. And seemingly having no control over that.
And the cruising: My god, I thought everyone was cutting each other to pieces with intense sexually charged stares.
I am also very afraid of crowds, which is one of the reasons you don’t find me marching so often (Women’s March excepted).
I’m also someone who likes to get on with things. Partly because I like to “do” and partly because I cant express my emotions as well as others. So, for me, emotions, even if raw, are like the trailers before the main attraction. I mean no offense to anyone, it’s just how I’m wired.
John - not entirely helpfully - suggested I might like to sit at the back of the next Act Up meeting, and listen to ABBA on my Walkman. I remember he was very worked up about something - though I’m blocking on what it was - Terry White might remember. So he wanted to the "bums on seats" for support. Not sure me humming along to Gimme Gimme would have been all that helpful.
I found my home soon after at the Terrence Higgins Trust firstly in buddying, a bit of other volunteering, and back finally to buddying for a six year period.
During this time I got meet some incredible European activists who became friends, soulmates, yes even the occasional lover (no Im not saying a word) and a gripping exciting emerging field of East African activist leaders who I imagined would go on to run the movement - which they have of course.
I was oblivious entirely - and I don't know quite why- to what was happening in the US. With grand two exceptions: Armistead Maupin who’s killing off of John prior to the second book of Tales of the City (which I had just discovered). The anger I felt at Maupin for not letting his readers experience John's death mirrored something I had just gone through - a good friend who just vanished, and, it turned out, died (quickly, in his sleep - what a blessing). The second exception was the New York Act Up activist Peter Staley who’s passionate and beautiful personal heroism was caught in iconic photos of the era. And after Chris Lowe, became a heartthrob.
During my time with THT, two things happened. I found myself in need of the very counseling and support services that I had been a part of providing. I was tested for HIV. Back in those days, confirmatory HIV tests took nearly a month to come back, and taking into account context of my possible exposure, best practice was to assume I had seroconverted (particularly after a particularly unshakeable bout of shingles - Crohns related as it turned out). I am probably not the only person in their mid forties to mid fifties who finds lavender oil and CDs playing whale singing somewhat angst-inducing, and not at all the comfort they were designed to be. Gus Cairns who I got to know about this time, has somewhere written about the thin membrane between being positive and negative. It’s not for this post, but one day, I want to tell my story about how heartbroken and gutted I was to discover I was HIV negative. The bonds connecting to my partner of the time were irrevocably broken apart. It’s a time I am ashamed of and do not, to this day, understand at all.
The other thing that happened was walking, one evening, into the offices of THT and having to cross a “die in” organized by Gays Against Genocide. They denied that HIV caused AIDS, and that AZT actually caused the deaths of gay men (the doses of course were horribly high in those days). GAG also aggressively argued that THT was aligned with the Welcome Foundation (the drug’s developer) to create genocide amongst gay men. This pissed me off. It was so absurd, such a pointless of waste of anger and activism. And so - a little while later - I applied to Wellcome to become the first Coordinator of Positive Action. Better to be inside, trying to understand what was going on, and seeing how some Good could be done. A journey that I continue to be stumble along to this day.
People have commented on how important dance music was to us in the 90s. That was certainly true for me. Like many, dance clubs and discos enabled me to escape myself, forget for a little while the trauma, the deaths, the fear around us. Sometime in the 90s, Trade opened in Farringdon. It played the hardest of nose-bleed House. Frankly, the club’s guests would have have been perfectly happy shaking about to a diesel generator, as to a DJ. Such was the musical diversity of Trade's House. This was more Andy Seale and David Supeljack scene.
I’m a bit more pop. So for me, with the iconic Simon Copeland the Phoenix would be our haunt, hidden away under a straight bar off Oxford Street. I would terrify other dancers around me, as I lost myself in the clouds of Stock Aitken and Waterman. It’s easy to dance to Kylie when you have two left feet. And it was here - and at the Jumbo center of Gran Canaria that I discovered the Army of Lovers and the maverick musician, philosopher and sex work advocate Alexander Bard
We look for connections. Yet, the nascent AIDS responses around the world were profoundly unique - with huge cultural and political differences. There was no one narrative. But one common thread - uniting us all, iss the power of disciplined anger when targeted effectively, and the extraordinary humanity that it leads to, which has brought us all together. And that is the beauty of it all, which I need reminding of every day.