It's thirteen years since my debut on the London gay scene. In 1988 I was 17, single and resentful. My generation had missed the glory days of 70s gay male promiscuity - by all accounts a bacchanal fuelled by disco, poppers and unprotected sex. The scene in London was still hedonistic but HIV and AIDS were the uninvited guests at the party. The feeling was not dissimilar to bursting out of a cake singing "I Am What I Am" only to realise you're at a wake, not a birthday party.

It's thirteen years since my debut on the London gay scene. In 1988 I was 17, single and resentful. My generation had missed the glory days of 70s gay male promiscuity - by all accounts a bacchanal fuelled by disco, poppers and unprotected sex. The scene in London was still hedonistic but HIV and AIDS were the uninvited guests at the party. The feeling was not dissimilar to bursting out of a cake singing "I Am What I Am" only to realise you're at a wake, not a birthday party.

Most of my peers translated the "ignorance equals death" slogans as "sex equals death". Cruising was a game of Russian roulette. We didn't know the facts about transmission of HIV - can you contract HIV from deep kissing? - so even protected sex was a dance with the devil.

And yet none of my gay friends either had HIV or knew anyone who had contracted it. In a classic catch-22, gay men were stymied by HIV. We read the reports from San Francisco and New York about the "gay plague". The only victims that we knew were public figures: Rock Hudson, Halston, Liberace and Nureyev. But the London gay scene was under siege.

The British moral majority hadn't been as rabidly homophobic since the Oscar Wilde trials. The tabloid hysteria over HIV only supported the "valid victim" theory: they brought it on themselves. Outside Soho's gay ghetto, homosexuals were treated like plague rats. The now infamous "don't die of ignorance" television campaign played Iago to the tabloid press's Othello. Sinister images of monolithic rocks and icebergs accompanied a deep-throat voice-over calculated to hammer home the "gay sex equals death" message. God only knows what an iceberg had to do with a potentially lethal STD. But treating Aids as a disease of gays and drug addicts made the victims, not the virus, public enemy number one.

It's hard to pinpoint the moment when the fear subsided. While New York and San Francisco saw a generation of gay men wiped out by HIV, London didn't seem to suffer. The free condoms behind every gay bar counter started to disappear. The red Aids ribbon was worn, like the coloured handkerchiefs of old, as a sign that you were gay and available. The only mention HIV and Aids got in the national press was when Princess Diana visited the London Lighthouse or Liz Taylor hosted another glitzy LA benefit for her Aids foundation. Even the gay boys were more interested in Liz's frock than the mounting body count.

Fast forward to the London scene in 2001. AIDS is an urban myth, a bogeyman your parents invented to frighten you into compliance. In the 80s we felt cheated of sex by the threat of HIV. Young gay men today think the gay plague was a 24-hour cold. Like Judy Garland and the Stonewall Riot, it's ancient history. The dark rooms, sex clubs and saunas are back in business. Bareback riding (unprotected anal sex) is back in London. And if you do happen to be unlucky, combination drug therapies mean HIV is not necessarily a death penalty. Young guys, including myself, don't really see drug cocktails as any more toxic than a hand-full of Smarties.

Thank God the era of being frightened into celibacy is over. It's heartening to see fearless young gay men enjoying a collective coming-out party. In the current political and social climate, we've truly never had it so good. But it's also simple to protect yourself and still have great sex and suicide to ignore HIV.

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