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‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’: Remembering the AIDS Crisis

In the 1980s, a virus epidemic ripped through Britain – with Tory government neglect leading to countless unnecessary deaths. To mark LGBT History Month, we remember the AIDS Crisis.

Storytelling has long been part of the fight for LGBT rights around the world. The horrors endured by previous generations serve as a powerful reminder of how hard-fought these wins have been – none more so than the struggle against HIV.

Russell T Davies’ beautifully written and emotionally challenging drama It’s a Sin, aired this month, captures the lives of a group of young men caught up in the AIDS epidemic in 1980s and ’90s London. Alongside the protagonists’ stories, though, it shows a disinterested political class, a hostile media, and a public keen to look the other way while hundreds of people are dying – many having been forced to believe that the suffering is of their own making.

In the show’s most affecting scenes, we see frightened men locked up in hospital wards, left to die alone because of the fear that they could pass the virus to others through touch or air transmission. We see police wearing gloves ahead of beating up protestors – protestors demanding that pharmaceutical companies stop sitting on data that could speed up work towards HIV treatment. And we see public hysteria fuelled by misinformation in the press.

Don’t Die of Ignorance

This epidemic took place at the height of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, which was rooted in the importance of the heterosexual nuclear family. That meant the rising numbers of people infected with HIV and subsequently dying of AIDS resulted in a collision between scientific advice and the Prime Minister’s own political ambitions.

Norman Fowler, serving as health secretary at the time, spearheaded the ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ campaign, featuring now infamous tombstone TV ads, billboard posters, and a leaflet posted to homes. The adverts have since been condemned for their fearmongering tone, but it’s undeniable that they shocked Britain into realising the risk posed by the virus.

In a documentary on Channel 4 in 2017 about the AIDS epidemic, Fowler said that Margaret Thatcher had wanted to avoid the campaign and urged him to focus on something else instead: ‘Norman,’ he recalled her saying, ‘you mustn’t be known just as the Minister of AIDS.’ She also vetoed plans for a Ministerial broadcast, telling Fowler that if she didn’t have one on the Falklands War she ‘certainly wasn’t going to have one on AIDS.’

Following mounting pressure from leading medical practitioners and campaigners and a rising death toll, Thatcher finally agreed to create a sub-committee within government to investigate steps to curb the rising infections. Despite that concession, files released in 2015 reveal that she fought to limit the precise explanations of which sexual practices posed a higher risk of HIV transmission. In her annotations on Fowler’s plans, she wrote: ‘Do we have to do the section on risky sex? I should have thought it could do immense harm if young teenagers were to read it.’

An Inalienable Right

In 1987, a year after the ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ adverts had aired, Thatcher doubled down on her war on gay rights in a way that took a wrecking ball to previous public health messages.

During her speech to Tory conference that year, she said: ‘Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay. […] All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life – yes, cheated.’ As gay men died in hospital beds across the country, the country’s leader set her sights on a suppression tactic that legitimised the vicious homophobic misinformation being printed in Britain’s press.

What came to be known as Section 28 legally gagged teachers and schools from sharing information about gay relationships. It inflicted serious damage on generations of LGBT kids, even long after Thatcher was toppled from power.

The political tone gave Fleet Street editors ammunition in their attacks against LGBT people. Even before Section 28, the Sun described gay men as ‘walking time bombs’ with ‘killer diseases’; a ‘menace to all society’. One editorial asked: ‘Why do homosexuals continue to share each other’s beds? […] Their defiling the act of love is not only unnatural but in today’s Aids-hit world it is LETHAL.’ Gay public figures were reported to have died of AIDS even when it was untrue. Other papers ran editorials calling for gay men to be quarantined and describing the virus as a ‘gay plague’.

The end goal here among both the media and some politicians was evident. Peter Bruinvels, a Tory MP at the time, put it succinctly: ‘I do not agree with homosexuality. I think that Clause 28 will help outlaw it, and the rest will be done by AIDS, with a substantial number of homosexuals dying of AIDS. I think that’s probably the best way.’

Modern Parallels

But the struggle against AIDS was not only affected by policy concerning LGBT people directly. In England’s largest cities, where the highest rates of HIV were reported, Thatcher’s efforts to strip local authorities of power also reduced their capacity to fight the epidemic.

The Greater London Council (GLC), which in 1984 published a pioneering charter setting out the city’s commitment to advancing lesbian and gay rights, funded the London Lesbian and Gay Centre to the tune of £750,000. The centre wasn’t without its problems, but it was the biggest single project any public body had funded for the lesbian and gay community. London’s Strategic Policy Unit—managed by the GLC—published a pan-London framework to tackle AIDS, and crucially, to tackle the stigma associated with HIV, by explaining that it could impact anyone; Labour-run Haringey Council, meanwhile, launched the Lesbian and Gay Unit—the first of its kind in the country—to advocate the rights of LGBT people to council staff.

The GLC was shut down by Thatcher, along with the Greater Manchester Council and five other larger metropolitan council areas, in her war against Labour-controlled councils. We will never know how much sooner the tide could have been turned in the fight against HIV and for wider LGBT equality if the lights in those town halls hadn’t been switched off.

It wouldn’t be until 1996 that effective HIV treatment eventually started to be rolled out. Tory governments have cut funding for HIV charities, and public health information campaigns have largely gone quiet.

Eventually real progress in LGBT rights took place, and some of the worst damage inflicted by the Thatcher administration was undone. Section 28 was scrapped in 2003, and people living with HIV were given legal protection through the 2010 Equality Act – but those advances don’t change the fact that more lives could have been saved, or undo the trauma inflicted on thousands.

We should heed this warning from the past as we start to consider what our society might look like after the current coronavirus pandemic. Structural inequalities, including racism and poverty, have exacerbated existing health inequalities, resulting in higher rates of Covid infections among minority groups; local authority funding cuts driven by austerity have hamstrung communities’ ability to deal with a crisis once again.

Despite the temptation to draw on these similarities, though, the truth is that the discourse around Covid and AIDS has been very different. In the ’80s, no-one came out into the street to applaud the medical staff caring for dying patients. Politicians rarely publicly praised health interventions. Rather, the parallels exist most fundamentally in the urgent need for a more equal society.

30 years ago, a Tory government turned the clock back on equality in the midst of a public health crisis. It cannot be allowed to repeat that history this time around.