The early 1980s were a lovely time for my partner and me. We bought houses, decorated them, saw things we liked on our Saturday shopping sprees and avidly searched the holiday brochures for where the next trip might take us. We travelled far and wide at will and were having a great time.
However in the mid 1980s reports started to appear in some newspapers about a new illness which was sweeping parts of the USA. At first we took no notice, perhaps it was another kind of flu, but this one started to mention that drug addicts seemed to be especially vulnerable and so were gay men! No surely not we thought. Probably it was just gay men who were also drug addicts; we were safe then.
‘Got AIDS Yet?’
However the news just didn’t want to go away, or rather the newspapers didn’t want it to go away, and a feeling of anxiety started to sweep through each gay community. What was it about us, we wondered, which made us susceptible to such an illness? Whatever it was it clearly unnerved us. The daily papers were starting to pick the issue up further with the Sun leading in a headline which said ‘Got AIDS yet?’. Tailor made language for a straight environment, not under threat, but much more threatening for us gays who individually were feeling automatically under suspicion. Even worse was to come when one or two famous gay people died unexpectedly, and before you knew it the world had come to the conclusion that a plague was happening and all gay men were the perpetrators.
Our government now decided it needed to issue its own warnings using literature and TV adverts which only served to heighten the panic. Don’t share toothbrushes, don’t exchange bodily fluids we were told and this, in turn, was taken further as people also decided not to kiss, not to shake hands, avoid using the same toilets as gays, and so on. It was gradually becoming a nightmare and more so since there appeared to be no treatment available for the condition; it was clearly terminal and speedily so.
News travelled fast within the gay community and outside and some, who were HIV positive, were outed and some ostracised by almost everyone, including their fellow gays. Families became uncertain about how to treat their own members who were gay and now feared they might be a risk to themselves. My partner’s niece had given birth to a baby, he was invited to the christening, but his sister made sure that he didn’t hold the baby for longer than a very few seconds. We got to know of a few who had been diagnosed as positive and we were now just too scared to be in contact with them not least because now we were hearing of some being forced out of their homes by prejudice and some even having their homes set on fire. Knowing that more famous people like Rock Hudson and Kenny Everett had the condition didn’t seem to help because the feeling was being engendered that all gay people automatically would have the AIDS virus.
In the 1990s the pandemic continued remorselessly. In spite of the fact that in some parts of the world it was essentially a heterosexual disease, most people in the West had made up their minds that it was a gay disease and gays had only themselves to blame for their behaviour. However our community, to its eternal credit, did not dig itself deeper into its burrows for safety sake and, bit by bit, organisations emerged to meet the desperate needs of those diagnosed with the virus and those with the full blown condition.
A Time for Buddying
At this time, I was dealing with the unexpected but not entirely unwelcome experience of early retirement, and on my list of things to do with my time, the needs of those with AIDS figured highly. I just felt that I needed to be there with them, whatever that might involve.
It was not easy to find even a phone number of the local Buddy group who were working, secretively, to serve the needs of those with AIDS but I found it and rang to express an interest in helping out.
I was understandably vetted and then introduced to the group, men and women, straight and gay, some HIV positive and others not – one, to my shock was a neighbour who lived only a few hundred yards from me. All were committed to the cause and all sworn to confidentiality, if not secrecy, about the work they were doing. We knew that there was a handful of people in the area who had AIDS and I learned that the ward where they were treated was only just down the road from my house. Significantly I was glad to discover that the priest of the church I had been attending was the one appointed by the diocese to provide support to those with the disease and their families. Thus in a remarkable way it was all coming together. However I was yet to be confronted with the deep awful reality of the disease.
The Kairos House
I decided that San Francisco was the place I needed to revisit since that was where the disease was affecting literally hundreds of gay men, and others too, and that is where I went in 1993. Through a friend in the UK I was able to stay with two gay men, both of whom, it transpired, were HIV positive. They were the key to finding out about some of the services available in the city for both HIV positive people and those with full blown AIDS, and what I was discover was both totally inspiring and equally humbling.
Firstly I was introduced to the Kairos House, run by a Roman Catholic priest and who was HIV positive himself. I learned very quickly that in San Francisco it was stupid to assume anything about anyone in this experience of serving those with the disease and I soon learned too what an incredible group of people they were who were working in the field .
The house was a typical large Edwardian San Franciscan house, spacious and light. The lounge allowed for a fair number of people to gather in a group or for individuals simply to relax there in safety. A grand piano in front of the window fitted in perfectly but it wasn’t an ornament, people regularly came and played music adding to the calm atmosphere, and that was the point of the place. In a world where HIV and AIDS were regarded as a fearful ‘plague’, and where bigotry was only just round the corner, this haven was somewhere to feel safe, be accepted and receive all that the house could offer, whether it be the availability of medical advice, counselling, a place to cook, a lovely well tended garden or, significantly, a place to meet others socially.
A weekly tea party was held there for anyone who wanted to attend and it was there that I met a married couple. He was a retired naval man and she his Puerto Rican wife. They had come to San Francisco because their son lived there. On arrival they had discovered that not only was their son gay but that he was dying of AIDS too. I could only begin to imagine what this experience was doing to them and how much they needed the help which Kairos was providing them with. They had also to cope with their son’s partner who had drug problems and resented their presence. I soon discovered that there was no fudging about realities as far as AIDS was concerned – they knew and acknowledged that they were there to say ‘good bye’ to him and to build what links they could to enable him to leave this world surrounded by peace and love.
A couple of days later I was able to visit another organisation called Shanti which provided AIDS care from a different perspective. This was where the food distribution was organised; where tickets to concerts and shows were available; where holidays and day visits organised; in fact anything which might enable those with AIDS to enjoy what was left of their lives and where the experience of isolation could be combated. Shanti’s work was urgent and required immediately and its members in too much demand for proper public accountability to be in place; while I was there financial issues were starting to emerge largely because people were just too busy to do the books well.
All over the city I saw discreet but powerful evidence of how straight and gay people were not fleeing but were remaining so as to be involved in the totally demanding issue of being there for those beautiful, largely young, people whose lives were tragically coming quickly to an end. I learned never to take anything for granted especially where religion was concerned. The Metropolitan Community Church, founded by Troy Perry, was in the forefront of such support and visiting one of its branches in Eureka Street on a Sunday evening was an overwhelmingly emotional experience as gay and lesbian people sang and prayed together. Or visiting a gay Jewish synagogue on Shabbat where the President was HIV positive and where astoundingly, on this occasion, two lesbians took their wedding vows in front of their supportive families. Or at the huge St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church where there was an active, though discreet, ministry to the gay community and those with the condition.
“We Love You Roberta”
Before I left San Francisco, and already totally devoted to doing what I could for AIDS sufferers in Kent, there was one further experience. The USA President, Bill Clinton had, controversially appointed Roberta Achtenberg to be the Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Dept of Housing and Urban Development. She was the first openly lesbian or gay public official of the USA, and I was there to see her joyfully being sent on her way by the LGBT community of the Castro.
The police closed the roads around the Castro; streamers were thrown over the overhead tram lines; balcony windows were opened; a platform was built in the centre of the street; and LGBTs gathered in their hundreds for the valediction. She stood there with her partner and their children, and with city worthies behind her and she heard the applause and the shouts of ‘we love you, Roberta’. It was an awesome experience and more so because the next day all the local TV companies covered the event in full. I was doubly inspired by this brave new world that had such people in it.
My mission now was clear. It was back to Kent to serve those with AIDS.