Old fears revive as Aids is 're-gayed'

Activists see eye-to-eye with 'moral majority' writes Decca Aitkenhead
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The Independent Online
"I'll never forget the first thing my mum said when I finally told her I was gay. She didn't cry, not straight away. She just said she couldn't bear knowing she'd lose her son to Aids. I was so angry with her for being that ignorant.

"And now I am HIV positive. She doesn't know yet - hardly anyone does. I suppose when I tell her, she'll think all that gay plague stuff was true after all. She'll never believe one of my sisters could get it. And yeah, they probably won't. But it was people going around saying all gay men got Aids, that it was all their fault - that's what caused the most shit for me when I came out."

James, 31, from Brighton, was diagnosed HIV positive in 1994, six years after coming out. "I've been called an Aids-carrying bastard who deserved to die. That was long before I was HIV positive. People just saw a poof, and that's what they thought.

"Now it's all starting again. Only this time it's not the Sun or whatever. It's us. And I can't believe it."

More than a decade after "gay plague" headlines were denounced, the threat of Aids to non drug-using heterosexuals in Britain is being called back into question. Only 162 of the 12,565 known cases of Aids have been contracted through heterosexual sex, prompting claims that vast Aids prevention resources are being wasted on people at minuscule risk. In contrast, new figures say a gay or bisexual man contracts HIV every eight hours. But the subsequent call for the "re-gaying"of Aids is coming not only from Middle England's moral majority, but from many gay activists themselves.

The success of Aids prevention work to date, and the true threat to heterosexuals, remain fiercely contested. "The Sunday Times may say I told you so," comments the Terrence Higgins Trust, "but they also told us HIV didn't cause Aids." But even if the heterosexual risk can be proved to be tiny, many gays fear that publicly reclaiming the illness will revive homophobic prejudices against HIV sufferers and gays at large. As thousands marched through London for Gay Pride this weekend, the issue was threatening to split the community.

"Of course prejudice is a worry," admits James Taylor, of Gay Men Fighting Aids, whose plea last month to re-gay Aids precipitated the debate. "But our priority has to be that the infection rate among young gay men is rising, yet gay men's HIV work is not getting funded accordingly.

"I'm sorry if that sounds horrible, but when a quarter of the gay men you meet are dying, it is pretty horrible. Re-gaying Aids is nothing to be ashamed of."

Stonewall, the gay rights group, agrees. "Sweeping the facts under the carpet won't help anyone. If experts say this is what's to be done, then so be it. You could never say a possible backlash was more important than people's lives."

It is easy, today, to forget the ferocity of loathing when Aids was first linked to homosexual sex. HIV-positive gays, some suggested, should be dispatched to concentration camps or held on off-shore Aids ships, and there were calls to close down every gay club in the country. Some said Aids was a just desert for nasty, immoral practices. The defeat of Aids- based homophobia can be credited largely to gay campaigners; many of them believe that there is no danger of it reviving.

"Things have changed a great deal since the Eighties," says Anya Palmer of Stonewall. "We are stronger as a community now, and better equipped to fight prejudice. Look at the reaction to John Major's remarks about gays and lottery money - three of the four broadsheets ran editorials criticising him."

Others, like Claire Hurst, chief executive of the Aids organisation Body Positive North West, are not so sure.

"Last year we booked a swimming pool once a week for our service users. The same pool was used by a local school. When news got out that 'Aids victims' were using it, they called a big public meeting and it all kicked off. Grandparents were up in arms - even a GP said he didn't want his children in the same pool as them." Homophobic insults, she points out, are still commonly couched in terms like "Aids Killer".

The divide over re-gaying Aids appears to fall between those in London's strong gay community, operating in a broad-minded metropolitan society, and those outside who feel isolated and fearful of fortifying local prejudice. "Gay plague sensationalism," worries David Hierons of Manchester's Village Charity, "was very frightening."

"We get letters all the time reminding us what it's like outside London," says Roger Goode, managing editor of The Pink Paper. "There was an attempt to set up an Aids hospice in a small town recently. The local paper was inundated with letters from little old ladies saying they didn't want their town swamped with disease and homosexuals."

The case for re-gaying Aids has been presented in strict cash terms. As David Smith, editor of Gay Times, says: "We are most at risk. We've got the ideas. We know how to fight this. Give us the money." Steve Unsworth, a straight HIV sufferer, is cynical: "Aids has just become an industry for them." But could a jealous, almost martyr-like urge to claim the cause for their own also be a motivation? There was a sad case in Manchester in recent years of a lesbian - one of the categories least at risk of all - announcing herself HIV positive and setting up a support group for positive lesbians. It emerged she was not HIV positive; she had simply been unable to cope with being excluded from the cause.

"Re-gaying is, in one respect, a kind of ownership - a case of 'We set all this up, and you're taking it away, or taking advantage of what we did for you'. It is very important that we remember where the services came from," believes Ms Hurst. "But it doesn't justify stepping back in time."

The re-gaying of Aids has been under way, in practical terms, for some time. The Department of Health has been quietly refocusing on high-risk groups for at least a year. Now it has entered public consciousness, though, more gay plague headlines may only be a matter of time.