Safety in Numbers

Chapter 5

History rewritten

Cindy Patton has described an "amnesia surrounding the history of activism between 1981 and 1985". (174) The events of those years were critical in the history of the epidemic: they encompassed the emergence of the epidemic, the invention of safer sex, the growth of community responses and the unprecedentedly successful behaviour changes among gay men. Yet according to Patton's analysis, the growing involvement of state agencies and the creeping professionalisation and bureaucratization of community-based organisations have resulted in a revised version of that history, in which the nature of early organising is forgotten and the significance of gay AIDS activism is consciously or unconsciously played down.

This is not simply a case of petulantly demanding acknowledgement, or fretting unduly about the historical record when there remain countless urgent tasks in the present. Rather, as Michael Helquist pointed out in the American gay monthly The Advocate in 1987:


We have been doing more than burying our dead these last five years; the gay community has learned important lessons that are crucial to AIDS prevention in this country and elsewhere. Our experience includes confronting denial and dealing with its many manifestations; facing the societal taboos and fears about illness, death and dying; and recognising the importance of making changes in sexual behavior B since sex is too important to avoid altogether. The issue here is not so much one of giving credit where credit is due, but rather one of taking advantage of all the skills, knowledge and information available to prevent more people - whether gay or straight - from becoming infected with a lethal virus. (175)

De-gayed accounts of the history of HIV prevention are being presented in books and articles all the time, and at each repetition of the myths, reality becomes harder to assert. In the newly invented 'history', the relatively small size of the British epidemic is usually attributed to government interventions of some kind. In some cases the credit is given to state health education activities: a good example is the Health Education Authority's description of STD/HIV Prevention in the United Kingdom which was contributed to the papers of the Second International Workshop on Preventing the Transmission of HIV and other STDs, of which one of the aims was "to share information and experience, and review progress in [HIV] prevention...". (176) Here, the Department of Health and the Health Education Authority's activities since 1986, whose success has been at best dubious, take up a full page, while the pioneering campaigns organised by gay men and the organisations which they established are barely alluded to in just three short sentences - and even then they are only vaguely credited to "local community organisations". It was left to Peter Davies of Project SIGMA to point out that:


Today, at the start of the second decade of AIDS, these [lesbian and gay community] efforts are being systematically excluded from official histories of AIDS. Histories typically begin with a description of state responses, while in the memory of many of us who were involved in the early years of AIDS such responses were the "end of the beginning" of AIDS. Throughout northern Europe, certainly, cases of AIDS began to appear in the very early 1980s, typically 1981-2, gay community organisations emerge soon afterwards and state responses do not begin until about 1985/86. It is not only an offence against history that such a distortion should be allowed, but an insult to the memories of those who fought against and, in many cases died because of state indifference in the early years. (177)

Yet the changes within those gay community organisations since the 1980s have been such that even groups such as the Terrence Higgins Trust now endorse false histories, such as the bizarre notion that the government's policy on HIV antibody testing had a significant role in controlling the epidemic. Antibody testing only became widely available in 1985, long after the widespread adoption of safer sex among gay men; moreover, testing has not been shown to increase the likelihood of an individual subsequently practising safer sex. (178) Nevertheless, according to the Terrence Higgins Trust:


The Governments (sic) approach to HIV testing during the first ten years of this epidemic has been helpful and appropriate. The scale of the epidemic in the United Kingdom is far less than in similar European countries such as France because of this measured approach which has been developed in conjunction with experts in the field. (179)

There can be little doubt that the main reason why the HIV epidemic in Britain is so much smaller than that in other European countries such as France was the rapid organising among British gay men which lead to the widespread adoption of safer sex, long before a state response emerged. Indeed, in a speech at a conference on prevention work for gay men in Birmingham in March 1992, John Thompson of the Department of Health's AIDS Unit himself pointed out that:


From 1982 to 1986 any HIV prevention work that occurred was largely done by individuals, voluntary organisations and the gay community itself. It had a fair measure of success, however. This can be seen in the plummeting rates of sexually transmitted diseases and in reported changes in behaviour. This, together with the development of needle exchange schemes, is probably why the overall infection rates are as relatively low in comparison with other countries as they are today. (180)

In France before the epidemic there was relatively little sense of gay identity among homosexuals, relatively few homosexual organisations and only one regular news publication with a relatively small circulation. Keith Alcorn has described Paris as


a city where sex is such a private matter, people with Aids are left to suffer in silence by a gay community that apart from a few dedicated activists and volunteers, doesn't care. 'C'est la vie' is the slogan, fucking without condoms is the practice. The 'community' doesn't care because the French have always sneered at the idea of a gay identity as something to shout about or organize a political movement around.(181)

The gay political instinct described by Tony Whitehead, which inspired the foundation of community-based AIDS organisations in the UK and elsewhere, and which both presupposed and strengthened a sense of shared interest in combatting the epidemic, has been largely absent in France. Worse still, gay organisations in France actually discouraged the development of targeted campaigns for gay men for fear that they would be "stigmatizing". (182) In the event, while stigmatism may or may not have been avoided, up to a quarter of a million people in France are now estimated to be HIV positive, the majority being homosexuals. As Cindy Patton has argued, the successes in controlling the epidemic "are derived from gay activists, not from the professionals who came late and reluctantly to the health crisis. If we embrace a revised history in which professionals imagine they conjured safe sex out of formulas and studies, we will become even more dependent on the medical establishment that is so callous towards women's and gay health concerns". (183)



The de-gaying of AIDS was a specific response to a number of distinct factors in the late 1980s. First and foremost, it was generally believed that there was a very real potential for the epidemic to spread rapidly among non-drug-using heterosexuals. This triggered a vast over-reaction in which the present realities of the epidemic were deliberately played down. Rather than maintaining a balance between educational campaigns for the general population and for those currently most at risk, resources were diverted entirely towards heterosexuals. This approach was uncritically embraced by voluntary and statutory bodies throughout the country.

Secondly, gay men were with good reason concerned about the potential for a homophobic backlash, due to perceptions of AIDS as being directly caused by homosexuality or perversion. There were genuine fears that that the epidemic would not be taken seriously for as long as it was thought only to affect gay men. With the benefit of hindsight, however, it is now clear that in practice the de-gaying of the epidemic worked to gay men's disadvantage, in that it marginalised their concerns and obstructed the provision of ongoing safer sex campaigns.

This critique of the de-gaying process should not be confused with the contradictory attacks on the heterosexualisation of AIDS from the moral right and the fundamentalist left. The next chapter discusses how these factions ignore gay men's interests during the AIDS epidemic, and in themselves collude in the de-gaying of the epidemic.