Whilst delivering my annual lecture on the social construction of HIV and AIDS to pre-university students I was struck by how much of the information I was imparting was entirely new to the students. Blank faces greeted the image of Rock Hudson, and utter shock and horror to the ravages that HIV and AIDS created during the 1980s and 1990s (and continues to do so to this day). The shock and horror was genuine, and coupled with surprise that HIV and AIDS went through a process of construction in Western society during this period; from a disease of mystery, to one commonly associated with stigmatised groups within society.
Using a number of newspaper headlines and commentaries from the 1980s and 1990s offers an understanding of the ugly prejudice commonly demonstrated by sections of the fourth estate, and national government. I also brought into play, the ‘de-gaying’ of AIDS, a process undertaken in an attempt to increase funding and support for HIV and AIDS education and support projects. The de-gaying of AIDS was something that appealed to both the left and right, for different objectives of course. This appeared to have been a slightly controversial point to a number of students.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that a generation of 18-22 year olds had never heard of Rock Hudson, Section 28, Ryan White, and in some cases Benetton (the David Kirby photograph), and in one or two cases that male homosexual acts had ever been illegal. Most certainly had heard of ‘equal marriage’, and were fully supportive of this. But it was surprising that many did not know how this point in time had been achieved; how many sacrifices had been made; how many battles had been undertaken.
I have occasionally been accused in the blogosphere of painting a rather bleak picture of the struggles for LGBT liberation and spending too much time discussing the wrongs of the past, rather than the rights of the present (come on, I’m an historian). Now, I am not going to use THAT quote – you know the one, about the past, mistakes, repeating, but it does have some currency. It’s reassuring that organisations such as Our Story Scotland are recording the past in an effort to educate in the present, but I do feel that, for some, the past is another country. In Scotland, for generations, we have had limited public platforms through which to engage with concepts of sexuality, and to a degree, I think this still exists.
There also does appear to exist a feeling that LGBT history has been exhausted (and some within academia have voiced this misinformation), but within a Scottish perspective, nothing is further from the truth. It is also vitally important that the men and women who engage in the struggle for liberation are appropriately acknowledged and appreciated. One common theme that emerged from my research with gay and bisexual men born in the interwar and immediate post-era was that they had been left behind, almost forgotten (this is not unique to LGBT communities, of course) and that their stories of struggle, loss, and turmoil no longer fitted with modern, cultural agendas.
Copyright © Jeff Meek 2013
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