HIV, rainbows and LGBT History Month 2016

This LGBT History Month, Toby Sharpe explains the importance of acknowledging the whole story – beyond Caitlyn Jenner and glittery weddings.

Feature by Toby Sharpe | 05 Feb 2016

Walking through a gallery in New York this summer – a pastime from which most of my anecdotes seem to spring – I had the uncanny experience of art seeming more like a mirror than anything else. From the walls of an exhibition on gay life in the 80s, a horde of young, gangly men stared out at me. Awkward guys at parties, smiling nervously as they danced in and out of shot. They had so much to live for.

Most of these men are dead now. They did not live for long. The AIDS epidemic, which burst into the West in the early 1980s, ravaged these fledgling communities of queer life. It grew exponentially, fed by a climate of fear and homophobia that likely seems alien to the contemporary mainstream. Despite that sense of separation from the past, it was only in 1987 that Princess Diana controversially shook hands with an HIV-positive man on camera, and it was only in 2006 that HIV-positive people were allowed to travel into the US on standard visas. We like to think that so much has changed.

Recently, we’ve encountered a momentous period for LGBT rights, yet we seem to be erasing our history. The American Supreme Court decision on gay marriage meant people who had never cared about LGBT liberation suddenly got a cute rainbow profile picture. LGBT history has always been a curiously amorphous narrative in the eyes of the mainstream. One could be forgiven for thinking that LGBT people leapt straight from the Stonewall riots into gloriously pink weddings with Caitlyn Jenner as the officiant. These narratives prioritise images of wealthy, white gay men and ignore the people of colour, women, and non-binary and trans individuals who suffered hugely to achieve rights for all. These groups were and are also some of the most likely to suffer from the virus, due to systemic cultures of distrust which painted the epidemic as somehow deserved.

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Many LGBT people born in the 80s and 90s feel worlds away from the AIDS epidemic. This is especially problematic in a heteronormative modern Britain, where sex education in school fails to acknowledge the sex lives of queer couples. Even successful attempts to combat the virus, like PrEP (the drug cocktail which provides possibly up to 96% protection against HIV infection) are not available to the British public outside of research programmes. Instead, PrEP is painted as a party pill for bacchanalian homosexuals by the media; we are building a narrative of HIV/AIDS as a tale of the past, not the danger that it remains.

As LGBT History month rolls around once more, it concerns me that we are being encouraged to champion gay marriage as the watershed moment for gay rights, as if to somehow replace the dark parts of our collective history. We are not taught about the Stonewall riots. Historical figures, from da Vinci to Billie Holliday, have had their gender and sexual identities erased or normalised. We have to fight against the notion that gay marriage is somehow the end of the movement, and that it was asked for and freely given.

Modern gay life was built on the blood, sweat, and tears of past generations. Even as Pride events become increasingly corporate, we have to remember that, as Cheryl Strayed says in her Dear Sugar columns, these events are "an explosion of love that has its roots in hate."

We cannot forget homophobia. We cannot forget the paranoia of the AIDS epidemic. We cannot forget that the 35 million people estimated to be with living with HIV worldwide are a historically recent phenomenon, not a necessary fact. Our history lives on, and it’s not just rainbows. We must continue to fight – for us, and for all those who lost their lives.