How Di brought hope to gays

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The Independent Online
One picture of Diana, Princess of Wales did more to change attitudes to homosexuality and Aids than any single event in the past decade, campaigners said yesterday.

The picture, showing the Princess shaking hands with a gay man infected with HIV, sent shock waves around the world when it was published in April, 1987. There was widespread fear at the time that the disease was contagious and there were calls for gay men to be quarantined. One far right religious group proposed confining all HIV-positive people on the Isle of Wight.

A survey published tomorrow, World Aids Day, shows that despite the outpouring of homophobia 10 years ago, tolerance of gays has dramatically increased in the past decade. In 1987, 74 per cent of people thought homosexual relations were "always or mostly wrong" compared with 44 per cent today.

Aids groups admitted yesterday that the growth of tolerance was paradoxical given the fear engendered by the disease. Ten years ago, Aids was widely seen as God's revenge for unnatural sexual practices and those at risk were accused - by James Anderton, then chief constable of Greater Manchester - of "swirling around in a cesspit of their own making". Gays were sacked from their jobs, refused dental treatment and barred from swimming pools. One company made its gay employees sit in a corner of the canteen and use disposable cups.

Today, campaigners attribute the softening of hostility to the support of celebrities, the number who have come out, and the work of the gay movement.

Angela Mason of the pressure group Stonewall said: "That first handshake of Princess Diana's was very important. It was a reaching out to a community that had been reviled. She was very explicitly a gay-friendly figure."

Aids forced a greater openness about relationships and sexuality and, as the disease struck the fashion and entertainment worlds, it triggered a defiant coming out which was then emulated by ordinary people.

Rodney Amiss of the Health Education Authority, which commissioned the survey, said: "The Di picture was definitely a turning point. She would be out there on Monday doing the same thing had she lived."

Nick Partridge of the Terrence Higgins Trust said there was a significant change in the way gay life was portrayed, switching from subterranean discos to people's homes. "Aids showed gay people as caring and compassionate, acting in ordinary ways in response to an extraordinary health crisis."

There is still a way to go, he said. The window of the trust's London office was smashed with a brick last week - the fourth time it has happened this year.