Fear, Shame and Hope: AIDS in 80s and 90s Scotland

In a recent blogpost John D’Emilio argued that AIDS and its impact upon LGBT individuals and organisations, the militancy it provoked, and the heightened attention it drew to LGBT causes needs to be more fully documented and appreciated. This is certainly applicable to Scotland, and its responses, both social and medical, to the significant challenges that HIV/AIDS brought.

My research engaged with the impact that HIV/AIDS had upon gay and bisexual men in Scotland, many of whom were relatively young when their lives were touched or influenced by this new and sinister threat to life. Scotland had only decriminalised consensual gay sex between male adults in 1980, and the drive for equality was realistically still in its infancy. This blog post is not an attempt to document Scottish responses to HIV and AIDS but to reflect the experiences of gay and bisexual men during the 1980s and 1990s.

Chris was in his early 20s when the HIV/AIDS ‘dark cloud’ settled over Scotland:

It was horrendous, absolutely horrendous. Fear, fear of something you had taken for granted that was a big part of your identity and how you find joy and happiness and intimacy with other people that could suddenly wipe you out and do it horribly, you know, horribly…it was specifically, gay men who were isolated at that time, so there was another bit of ammunition for people who had a big grudge against gay men or didn’t like homosexuality for whatever reason, there was another huge big bit of ammunition.

Although the majority of early HIV/AIDS cases in Scotland affected another marginalised group – intravenous drug users, especially in Edinburgh – it was not long before the illnesses began to affect Chris much more directly. The impact was felt on a personal and emotional level, but also in the way that gay men saw themselves and were seen by wider society:

JM – Would you say that it impacted on people’s attitudes towards gay men?

Chris – [And] gay men’s attitudes towards themselves, yeah, definitely, and quite negatively, you know. [There was] the condom issue and the campaign with the tombstones and everything else and a leaflet going through every door in Britain, you couldn’t escape it, you really couldn’t escape it, and very quickly from ’80, ’81 people were actually being diagnosed and the first gay man who was diagnosed that I knew, was a friend, and of course then you think, ‘Oh my God!’. He was ill when he was diagnosed so he already had liver complications with diagnosis and deteriorated within a year and a half, two years, and died. His then long-term partner was positive and other really close friends that had been in that circle and had been intimate, one by one were being diagnosed positive.

Chris saw the impact that the disease was having on individuals he cared about but also the impact that it was having on attitudes to homosexuality. Yet, despite increased opprobrium directed at gay men, responses from LGBT organisations were not tempered by hostile attitudes:

JM – How did that impact on a political level in your life?

Chris – Yeah, I think that was just another injustice really. It all goes back to London, the sort of Stonewall era and Terrence Higgins Trust and a lot of the things that came up then I don’t think would have surfaced in such a strong, such a political way had it not been for HIV.   HIV and the reaction or the backlash against, particularly, gay men at the time meant [that in a way] those organisations gained incredibly in power and status. [That happened in] Scotland as well because Scottish Aids Monitor were seen as coming and doing something for a community and were put there and funded because they were there to prevent or limit this outbreak within a community but I don’t think even at that stage there was the acknowledgment that the gay scene is not the only the ‘scene’… there’s a far larger percentage of men who have sex with men who don’t and will not put that tag on themselves or be put in that box.

For Ed, who spent time in Australia as well as Scotland, the emergence of HIV/AIDS had a cataclysmic impact upon his life and the lives of his partner, friends and family. Ed was not out to his closest family members and an HIV+ diagnosis prompted him to attempt to tackle issues relating to his sexuality and his health:

Well, it was a double whammy actually: my partner had died of AIDS and I got tested and [the test result] came back positive and I thought, ‘Right! I’ve got to tell them all’, so with my mother it was a double whammy, with her letter I wrote, ‘Dear Mum blah, blah, blah, not only am I gay but I’m HIV positive’ and she wrote back saying that ‘the main thing is that you keep healthy but I think it’s against nature that you’re gay’, just a short reply…

Ed has now been living with HIV for over 20 years, something that was unthinkable at the time:

Well, I was thinking about that a few weeks ago and thinking that it now all seems like a dream…you were going to so many funerals from that period, the late 80s right through to 2000, 2001, so many friends that had died. Well, you knew it was there and you were going from week to week to see who the next one was going to be and so you just had to get on with your life and basically, em, accept and deal with what was happening….and I look at it this way: you either accept what is happening or you just turn your back on it and go off and end it all…

Duncan recalled how the appearance of HIV/AIDS in Scotland impacted upon the attitudes and behaviour of many gay men:

I went doon to see a pal in London recently who had moved down from Glasgow and….he says, “Duncan, do you remember the days in Glasgow when it was just like a chocolate box and you could pick and choose any flavour or any variety you wanted, hard, soft?” and it was true, it was a very carefree…no awareness of AIDS and HIV and anything like that, you know, in these days and everybody was…I cannae say promiscuous, because that isn’t the right word for it, but there was a lot of people who were very active…But then, quite quickly, all of my friends were talkin’ about they’ve maybe knew somebody who actually had contracted HIV an’ once ye knew maybe one person or maybe two it really shoots it home to you and you just started to change your behavior.

Other gay men were overwhelmed by the power of AIDS, not just relating to illness, but the way in which terms such as HIV and AIDS had the potential to obscure the individual, their personalities, who they were:

Greg – I had a friend, who was quite ill herself, who volunteered at a hospice, and one afternoon she brought two guys with AIDS to a café near where I worked. I had met them both before, and my friend invited me to join them for a coffee. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t really want to face them. I went and I felt so powerless, so impotent. One of the guys was really very poorly and had mild dementia, and being frank, I couldn’t handle it. I’m ashamed of that, as gay man, I am ashamed of that.

HIV and AIDS also had an impact upon the LGBT rights movement in Scotland during the 1980s and 1990s. As mentioned, decriminalization had only occurred in 1980 and just as LGBT organisations were beginning to find their feet, and their voices, the hysteria amongst sections of British society and the British press had implications for non-heterosexual Scots.

Ed – Oh the nonsense, the sensationalism, the terrible way they treated children who were positive and they weren’t allowed to go to schools, and people were terrified to touch, you know. How they treated [them] in hospital at the beginning was terrible, sliding paper trays through the door to the patients, that sort of stuff, thank God that’s all gone.

Ken too lamented the emergence of further stigmatising discourses concerning the ‘gay plague’ just as confidence amongst sexual minorities was growing.

I think that was a sad thing and a difficult thing…there was parity in 1980 but things don’t change overnight, Joe Public was [still largely homophobic]…so maybe by ’82 we were starting to get somewhere but then [there was] the ‘gay plague’ in America, by ’86 it was here, so there was only that little window [of hope].

These recollections of the 1980s and 1990s are not peculiar to Scotland, but it is notable that the threat of HIV and AIDS emerged in Scotland so soon over after decriminalisation. This had implications for the development of LGBT movements, but despite considerable hostility and homophobia the pressing need for directed health services, and advocacy groups meant that voices silent for so long still demanded to be heard.


Copyright © Jeff Meek 2014

All Rights Reserved.

Please do not reproduce  content from this blog in print or any other media without the express permission of the author.


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