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The events of 2020 introduced the global community to the experience of a pandemic. Before COVID-19, the word seemed relatively confined to biology textbooks; ‘lockdowns’ were some kind of surreal, Black Mirror-esque scenario, and we were blissfully unaware of the term ‘social distancing.’

The WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic on the 11 March 2020, a watershed moment for the world. Naturally, COVID-19’s newly declared pandemic status encouraged comparisons to previous pandemics: Bloomberg labelled COVID-19 the first pandemic since H1N1 in 2009, citing SARS (2003) and Spanish Flu (1918) as its predecessors. The Sun published an article on the ‘worst pandemics to sweep the world.’ And yet, these interpretations erase one of the most prolific pandemics in history: AIDS. 

When it comes to AIDS, mainstream society appears to have some kind of historical amnesia. British Gen Xs will certainly remember the ‘Don’t Die Of Ignorance’ campaign of the 1980s which put an entire generation off having sex, but the general sentiment at the time was that AIDS was a ‘gay cancer.’ The first cases arose in 1981 amongst gay men in Los Angeles, initially interpreted as a rare lung infection, and by the end of the 1980s, 145 countries had reported 142,000 cases of AIDS. 

Watch the 1987 UK TV public information film here, narrated by John Hurt with music by Hans Zimmer.

Today, 19.5 million people are living with HIV, and AIDS is no longer a death sentence: antiretrovirals ensure that HIV cannot be passed on, and drugs such as PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, protect those who suspect they might have been exposed to HIV from developing it. Discussions around HIV are much more positive, and charities such as the Terrence Higgins Trust, Positively, and the National AIDS Trust exist to provide support for those living with HIV, and education around it. The reality of the 1980s and 1990s couldn’t have been more different. 

The post-AIDS LGBTQ+ community is not the same as the one that came before it. The onset of the AIDS pandemic facilitated AIDS-related activism amongst the LGBTQ+ community, who felt that political administrations were ignoring their cause and pharmaceutical companies were profiting from their pain. ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, was formed in New York City in March 1987 by gay playwright Larry Kramer. The ACT UP movement quickly became global: factions later emerged in Paris and London and remain committed to the cause of AIDS-related activism to this day. Notably, ACT UP London reformed in 2014 after a brief period of disbandment. 

Known for radical actions from ‘Die-Ins’, encompassing activists lying on the floor with placards reading ‘Silence = Death’ to disrupt public activity, to the ‘Ashes Action’ of 1992, where the ashes of lives lost to AIDS were thrown over the White House lawn in a display of protest, ACT UP activism facilitated an engaged discourse between the LGBTQ+ community, pharmaceutical companies, and political administrations. 

Fighting AIDS wasn’t solely about fighting for medical rights: it also necessitated fighting widespread societal homophobia. During the AIDS pandemic, the LGBTQ+ community in the UK faced a tirade of homophobic headlines from national newspapers in the 1980s. One of the biggest actions in British memory took place in June 1989, as ACT UP London staged an infamous ‘Die-In’ against The Sunday Telegraph, which had run a headline spreading misinformation about the proliferation of AIDS within the LGBTQ+ community. Furthermore, The Mail on Sunday ran the notorious headline ‘Britain threatened by gay virus plague’, and The Sun ‘I’d shoot my son if he has AIDS, says Vicar!’ next to an article about funeral expenses. Half of the fight was about convincing society that AIDS patients weren’t dangerous, as depicted in Russell T. Davies’ seminal new drama It’s A Sin, as both Henry and Colin are quarantined in a hospital room owing to lack of knowledge about AIDS. This is why Diana, Princess of Wales, shaking hands with patients in the Middlesex Hospital meant so much in 1987.  

Diana, Princess of Wales, shakes hands with an AIDS patient (1987).

The fear of AIDS was felt across community spaces. In the beginning, so much uncertainty surrounded this mysterious ‘gay cancer’ that many continued with their lives in disbelief: by 1995, as scientists recognised what AIDS was and how to test for it, one in nine gay men in the US had been diagnosed with AIDS. The lack of knowledge of this disease at the beginning cost thousands their lives, with Dr. Gainty of King’s College London noting in The Guardian that ‘HIV/AIDS is not really on our pandemic radar…this invisibility was the result of the well-known prejudices that crept in very early on regarding who contracted – and how they contracted – HIV/AIDS.’

In schools, sex and relationship education has come a long way: students are now taught to protect themselves from STIs, HIV included, which seems a million miles away from the sex education in the 1980s and its stiff upper lip, as the AIDS crisis was decimating the LGBTQ+ community. Despite all these positive steps forward, students remain completely in the dark about the history of the AIDS crisis: It’s A Sin tells the story of the AIDS crisis, filling in the gaps where the British curriculum, arguably, fails. Almost an entire generation of gay men are missing from our society: that deserves to be taught in the classroom. 

All pandemics wreak their own tragedies, COVID-19 included. Reaching the 100,000 death toll mark in the UK was a bleak moment. However, in discussing the history of pandemics that came before now, we cannot erase AIDS. Today, the global death count stands at 32 million. We must remember the premature lives that were lost, and we must tell the stories that never got to be told. As the infamous chant goes, we must act up, fight back, and fight AIDS.  

Read Rob Harkavy’s review of It’s A Sin here.

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Eleanor Noyce

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