The following is extracted and abridged from Alwyn W Turner’s Rejoice! Rejoice! Britain in the 1980s.
1988 saw a greater number of convictions and cautions for indecency and soliciting by gay men than there had been since the mid-1950s, when male homosexuality was illegal. In the same year Section 28 of the Local Government Act enshrined in law the principle that local authorities ‘shall not intentionally promote homosexuality’, nor ‘promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. It was the first anti-gay law to be passed in twentieth-century Britain, and came as a result of growing pressure from Conservative backbenchers who regarded homosexuality as being unnatural and immoral, and who wanted decisive action: ‘I think Clause 28 will help outlaw it and the rest will be done by AIDS, with a substantial number of homosexuals dying of AIDS,’ said the Leicester MP Peter Bruinvels. ‘I think that’s the best way.’
Section 28 was perhaps the high-tide mark in the resurgence of the moralist right, the moment when it seemed that the rise of liberalism might yet be decisively reversed. The British Social Attitudes survey conducted that year revealed that public opinion was drifting strongly in favour of the right’s agenda, so that the proportion saying that homosexual relationships were always or mostly wrong had risen in five years from 62 per cent to 74 per cent. But there was a marked discrepancy between the capital and the rest of the country; half of Londoners said there was nothing wrong with homosexuality and that gay men should be allowed to teach in schools – only 10 per cent in Scotland agreed with the former proposition, only 28 per cent in Wales with the latter. The pendulum was swinging back in favour of conservative, traditional morality.
This stumble in the growing liberalization of the nation had already been noted. In 1987 EastEnders had become the first British soap opera to depict two out gay men in a stable relationship – Colin Russell (played by the future Labour MEP, Michael Cashman) and Barry Clark (Gary Hailes) – and had even shown them kissing. The ensuing media outrage demonstrated how far homosexuality still had to go towards acceptability: ‘The tabloids were screaming,’ remembered Cashman; ‘they outed my partner, we had bricks through the window, and there were questions in parliament about whether it was appropriate to have a gay man in a family show when AIDS was sweeping the country.’
In the same year Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick were invited to appear on television to revive one of their outrageously camp sketches from the 1960s radio comedy series Round the Horne, and Williams was full of trepidation: ‘the subject of homosexuality is now in great disfavour. When we were performing the Jule & Sand stuff in the ’60s the atmosphere was utterly different, and of course, nobody knew about AIDS.’ It was an opinion supported by that British Social Attitudes survey: two-thirds of the population said that government warnings about AIDS should tell people that some sexual practices were morally reprehensible, and just under a third said that the condition was ‘a punishment to the world for its decline in moral standards’.
The sexually transmitted condition known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, in which the immune system is progressively weakened, leaving the sufferer vulnerable to infections, had first been noted in Los Angeles in 1981, with a cluster of deaths – mostly amongst gay men – from PCP, an otherwise rare form of pneumonia. That, it soon transpired, was just one of many conditions that could result from being infected with HIV, the virus that was established as the cause of AIDS; the consequences were invariably fatal.
The syndrome received early coverage in specialist publications (‘we must endure the publicity which sensationalizes another “gay disease”,’ noted Gay News in November 1981), but first attracted mainstream attention in Britain in 1983 with a BBC Horizon programme ‘Killer in the Village’, primarily set in Greenwich Village, New York. By that stage there had been around 450 deaths in America from AIDS-related illnesses and Terrence Higgins, in whose name the leading British campaigning group was to be established, had already died in London.
The Horizon documentary also drew attention to the possibility of Factor VIII blood products having been contaminated, with the consequent risk that haemophiliacs, who depended on Factor VIII, might become infected. Some seven months later, however, the government was still in denial about this possibility, health minister Kenneth Clarke announcing that, ‘There is no conclusive evidence that Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome is transmitted by blood products.’ By the end of the decade there were 1,200 haemophiliacs known to have been infected with HIV, with forty-nine having already died.
The first couple of years of the syndrome’s progress in Britain were characterized by some hysterical reporting, with a particular emphasis on the fact that it was primarily gay men who were showing up as being infected. The expression ‘gay plague’ became accepted media shorthand, with the Daily Telegraph one of many to indulge in Biblical language: ‘California and New York, the happy stamping grounds of homosexuals in America, are the original homes of these “wages of sin”.’ Meanwhile, the Sun’s coverage tended towards the extremes, most notoriously when it reported an anonymous psychologist as saying in 1985: ‘All homosexuals should be exterminated to stop the spread of AIDS. It’s time we stopped pussyfooting around.’
As late as November 1989 the paper was publishing a headline claiming that ‘Straight sex cannot give you AIDS – official,’ although it was later forced to back down and to admit: ‘The Sun was wrong to state that it was impossible to catch AIDS from heterosexual sex. We apologize.’ The same year, columnist George Gale in the Daily Mail was making his own position clear: ‘active homosexuals are potentially murderers,’ he wrote; ‘the act of buggery kills.’
In an attempt to combat the media-induced mix of complacency and ignorance, medical bodies repeatedly warned of its potential severity, though they sometimes tended to add to the hysteria, most notably when the Royal College of Nursing suggested that there might be up to a million cases of AIDS in Britain by 1991. That proved to be a huge overestimation; the figures for 1989 showed 2,296 cases of full-blown AIDS in the country, of which 95 per cent fell into the three highest risk groups of gay men, heroin users and haemophiliacs, though the numbers infected with HIV were unknown. There was at the time no treatment for the condition and no expectation of survival.
A disproportionate number of these sufferers was to found in London, not merely because the capital had the largest gay community in the country, but because – as the British Social Attitudes showed – it was less judgemental than other parts of the country, and therefore provided the promise of refuge for the infected. Even in London there were stories of, for example, ambulance workers refusing to deal with AIDS patients, but these were as nothing to the paranoid treatment reported by the Independent to have been accorded to the corpse of an AIDS victim in a Yorkshire hospital: ‘His parents are not allowed to see his body. He is put into two sealed bags, one inside the other. He is taken away to be buried in a special steel coffin. Over the place where he is buried, heavy flagstones are laid.’ Such were the fears of the time.
And those fears were being stoked up by the moral crusaders, seizing on AIDS as a weapon to be deployed against society’s growing tolerance since the 1960s towards homosexuality. Mary Whitehouse called for the Channel 4 gay series Six of Hearts to be banned ‘in view of the rising incidence of AIDS’, but it was Manchester police chief James Anderton who made the issue his own with a speech in December 1986. ‘As the years go by I see ever-increasing numbers of them swirling around in a human cesspit of their own making,’ he said of homosexuals. ‘Why do these people freely engage in sodomy and other obnoxious practices, knowing the dangers involved? These are the questions we should ask instead of publicizing the wearing of condoms.’ The Sun greeted his contribution with enthusiasm, and though the official government position was the studied neutrality expressed by health minister Tony Newton – ‘It is for people to make their own moral judgements’ – Margaret Thatcher was more ambivalent: ‘Some people have made their position very clear. Thank goodness they have.’
Once Anderton had given establishment legitimacy to an anti-gay argument, others soon joined. Typical of many was Lady Saltoun of Abernethy, an obscure member of the royal family by marriage and a hereditary member of the House of Lords: ‘I think it is fairly safe to assume that homosexuality, and very often promiscuity, are against the natural order of things,’ she opined. ‘I do not think it is possible to get away from the wrath of God altogether.’ Thatcher’s favourite religious leader, the Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, was also clear on his message: ‘Say plainly: AIDS is the consequence of marital infidelity, premarital adventures, sexual deviation and social irresponsibility – putting pleasure before duty and discipline.’ More perceptive perhaps was the conclusion of Edwina Currie two decades later: ‘Anderton was a prize ass, but his antics were no joke. He was a cruel and wicked man.’
Anderton’s intervention came at a time when the government, somewhat belatedly, was embarking upon a massive information campaign. Television adverts featuring the portentous voice of actor John Hurt were being broadcast with the slogan ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’, in preparation for the delivery of leaflets to the 23 million households in the country. Immediately after that, Aids Week in February 1987 saw a coordinated season of programmes on both BBC and ITV, including First Aids which featured pop stars, Spitting Image puppets and comedians such as Rik Mayall, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.
For months it became difficult to turn on a television set without seeing demonstration of how to put a condom onto a banana, while Durex became the first such product to advertise at a football ground, with signs appearing at Cardiff City’s stadium. 1987 also saw The Party, the first all-star AIDS benefit in Britain, staged at Wembley Arena with appearances by, amongst others, George Michael and Elton John, the latter finding new layers of poignancy in the Shirelles classic ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’.
There was, however, a slight downside to all this publicity, as the manufacturers of a board game titled Orgy found; the IBA banned it from advertising on television because ‘people would associate the word orgy with sex and it would counteract the campaign on AIDS’. And there was similar over-reaction in other quarters: a Welsh Community Health Council complained that a doctor in the soap Casualty revealed that she had two lovers before her current partner – this, it was claimed, sent out dangerous messages about the acceptability of promiscuity.
With the publicity offensive came a shift in media emphasis. Talk of a ‘gay plague’ gradually receded, though it was for a while replaced by the equally inappropriate imagery of the disaster movie, as though AIDS were a real-life remake of Terry Nation’s 1970s television series Survivors, in which a disease is accidentally released that kills most of humanity. (Nation himself saw plans for an American re-make of Survivors abandoned because of television sensitivities over AIDS.) Panics were reported about the dangers of becoming infected by everything from a mosquito-bite to communion wine to the communal baths in football changing-rooms. But the fact that a Conservative government was prepared to see the problem as being medical rather than moral – issuing guidelines that recommended the use of condoms, refusing to condemn sexual practices in the way demanded by Anderton – was in itself a remarkable development and far from the instincts of many in the party, including, according to Currie, the prime minister: ‘I remember her telling the Smoking Room loudly in June  that she disapproved of advertising condoms on TV.’
Thatcher’s objections were overcome, but many retained reservations about the tastefulness of the subsequent campaigns: the novelist A.N. Wilson described the advert for Mates condoms as plumbing ‘a new depth for vulgarity’. The correct tone to adopt for government literature was the subject of much debate, with Lord Hailsham, the Lord Chancellor, pedantically furious at the language used in the leaflet: ‘“Sex” means you are either male or female,’ he complained. ‘It does not mean the same as sexual practices. Nor does “having sex” mean anything at all.’ Meanwhile Frank Dobson, Labour health spokesperson, came to a more common-sense conclusion that ‘You won’t stop people shagging’, and that therefore the only option was to promote safe sex, rather than worry about morality. His main concern was that the word ‘condom’, seldom used up to that point, was too clinical and that ‘rubber johnny’ would be better. He also proposed a slogan for the campaign – ‘If you must have it off, put it on’ – that the government chose not to employ.
Other adverts in the campaign, however, were just as direct as his suggestion, including one that showed a blood-covered needle with the message: ‘It only takes one prick to give you AIDS.’ That, of course, was aimed at intravenous drug users, pointing out the dangers of sharing syringes with others. This was a particular problem in Edinburgh, where a police crackdown on drugs had seen the confiscation of all equipment from users; combined with a change in policy by the Pharmacist Society to stop the sale of needles, it was a move that proved disastrous. Needle exchange schemes were eventually set up, but by then hundreds had been infected.
Nonetheless, the essential message – use a condom, don’t share needles – was communicated with an efficiency that undoubtedly helped reduce the figures for future infection. Surveys showed an immediate change in behaviour, and gradually the worst excesses of reporting were curbed. Writing in 1989, Currie expressed her pride in what had been achieved: ‘The problems were not hushed up or ignored or denied. They were, and are, tackled with vigour and vision in this country. The leap in the dark was taken with a sure-footedness which augurs well for the future.’ Twenty years on, she held to the same view: ‘We nipped it in the bud.’
For those affected, however, it was a terrible time, when a simple blood test could turn into what was effectively a death sentence. The filmmaker Derek Jarman learnt that he was HIV-positive in 1986 and commented: ‘No metropolitan gay man can be sure he will be alive in six years’ time.’ He died in 1994.