Don’t give me all that ‘isn’t Christmas wonderful?’ stuff. OK, if you aren’t surrounded by unwanted relatives nor, even worse, by tragedy which seems to like this month to drag you down, then it can bring happiness, but for me it has often been a grim time, and it starts dead on December 1st.
This early December Sunday was typical of so many others. Dark by 4 pm, and with a cold dankness which reaches right to your bones. At such times surely best to stay in, reach for whatever booze might be available, and fix your eyes on some dreadful TV programme; but not on this particular day.
At 5 pm, with an unvarying determination, I decided on the number of layers I needed, dressed, opened the front door, and launched myself into the darkness.
Just a few hundred yards down the road was my venue. It was a hospital, which had seen better days in its history, but which still catered for some special medical needs, and also provided a school for children who were not yet well enough to be catapulted into the challenging life of regular education. This hospital also had a secret which only a few of us were very well aware of.
I had become initiated into that secrecy not many months before in some other hospitals. Such as at the Mildmay in the East End where, before you visited, stringent checks were made on your identity and a clear mandate from the patient was needed. Or at St. Bartholomews in Smithfield, where no one seemed to know of a ward with the name I was visiting and where, once I had found it, I was intensely questioned as soon as I entered it. And, at a more local hospital where the staff nurse insisted I scrub up before entering. This secret shared with other places was the reason why I was there on this evening.
Adjacent to this hospital courtyard was a grossly oversized church. More high than wide, mostly unused, and rapidly becoming disused, I found my way in and looked around. Others had already arrived and some I recognised. We did not greet each other warmly, there was just a nod of awareness and all resumed their silent steadfast gaze towards the altar. Others were there also though not known to me. There was almost a sense of feeling brave for being there; a sense that in some situations we would not like it known that we were there or had been there; and even a feeling of danger present.
However we were clearly there to worship God and before long, a priest, well known to me and seemingly to all the others present, stood and began a service which guided our thoughts and, more especially, focused on a loss, which for many present, was acute.
The priest seemed to share our need for secrecy. It was obvious that many in the congregation were gay and his identification with us, though complete, harboured a shared secret for him too. We knew that he was doing this service officially, but gladly, because his bishop had given him the role to serve us, but for him, as for everyone involved it was clear that it had been best not to advertise the event.
We prayed, mumbled a hymn and then lit a candle for each other. Silently we named a person or people who were the reason for our presence. They were mostly men but some were women too, and all had been beautiful people, who had done nothing wrong. They had loved, and known the joy of sex, some had been drug takers, and, desperately, some had simply followed medical advice and had received a transfusion of blood, which should have had a huge skull and crossbones printed on its packaging, because it was infected.
Some of our named people were currently being cared for in the adjacent hospital, not known to the population at large why they were there, but most were now dead and others, like those in the hospital, would be sure to follow them.
The condition we were acknowledging was, of course, called AIDS and, in the west, it had become mostly associated with a person’s sexuality. Some newspapers had disgracefully called it ‘the gay plague’ and so, by implication, society had begun to be suspicious of all of us who shared this sexuality – all gay people, it was assumed, would become likely victims because of our common nature.
What had previously been a time of feeling safer about acknowledging our sexuality was now terminated because of this disease, and suspicion had taken its place. ‘Don’t even touch them’, was a maxim felt by many. Someone I know, who was gay, had a niece’s new born child abruptly taken from his arms by another relative – you never knew if there was a danger, even by touching!
And so we were forced back into ourselves. We had become more careful, more insecure, and also more suspicious of others. It was back into the closet time. But, there was an upside, we also organised; we buddied our wounded right up to the time of their departure; we fed those whose strength had sapped and could not feed themselves; we were not afraid to be numbered with them; and we made our beautiful memorial quilts as a testimony to them and as a sign of our wonderful innate creativity.
And there were also the unique victims who simply by their need for blood had been given a death sentence because their transfusion consisted of infected blood. The haemophiliacs, and those with other serious conditions now shared a common fate with those in the gay community and who, with their families, shared much of the prejudice which the media and the ignorant had stirred up. Some also developed AIDS and had to keep secret about the fate that dared not speak its name.
It is only now, too long since, that the iniquity of those times and the failures of some authorities are being exposed. They have blood on their hands and, like Lady Macbeth, cannot wash themselves clean.
So, back to our December church evening, we completed our worship and went our ways, returning to our grieving and to serving those in such dire need. It would be many years before our confidence was restored.
Times have since changed and medicine has advanced but all too many still bear the scars of others failures and behaviour.
It is time again to remember and learn and act.