Bad Gays: Issues with HIV activism in gay historiography

The dignified homosexual feels ashamed of every queer who flaunts his faggotry, making the dignified homosexual’s stigma more justifiable in the eyes of straights… Pin it on those who deserve it: sex addicts, people with HIV, anyone who magnetises the stigma you can’t shake.

Michael Warner (1999)

Before the release of It’s a Sin, writer Russell T Davies was interviewed in the Sunday Times about the show and his thoughts on HIV, both now and in the 1980s. Although described as “the happiest man [the journalist] had ever met”, his tone gains an “edge” when contemplating men his age contracting the virus in 2021: he is “furious” with them, “staggered” as to how they could do such a thing and harshly underlines that there is “no excuse” to have “unsafe sex” in this day and age. This makes sense under Davies’ logic. Later in the interview he pays homage to antiretroviral drugs (used to treat HIV) and how he believes they ”transformed public attitudes to homosexuality” because HIV had “legitimated” homophobia: “Everything people said about you became true in the shape of a virus. We became a disease, we became ugly, we became wrong. Dangerous and dirty.” This language overarches; “we” as an entire community became diseased, “we” as gay men were all seen as dangerous and dirty. There is no individual, only a vector of disease. From this perspective, gay unity against HIV transmission was necessary for survival: the mainstream population indiscriminately persecuted all gay men regardless of their individual status, so eliminating the virus was viewed as a step towards delegitimising homophobia.

Davies’ anger towards those having “unsafe” sex in 2021 stems from his belief in self-policing against HIV transmission. Those who don’t partake in such policing threaten all gay men and lay open the entire community to attacks that gay men are inherently promiscuous, hedonistic airheads who infect all they touch. Their presence destabilizes an equilibrium built on shared fears of transmission. This narrative of the “good” versus the “bad” homosexual needs questioning, especially during LGBT history month when narratives of heteronormative integration are pushed as the peak of gay equality. This narrative obfuscates the humanity of the gay movement, the splintering and infighting, and most of all the radicalism. Michael Warner’s “dignified” homosexual is thus overrepresented in recent gay history, while HIV-positive activists of the 1980s and 1990s have been used to “magnetise” homophobia away from the assimilated, healthy gay history everyone is taught. Unfortunately, this history was not as simple as some would like it to be. Early HIV treatments such as azidothymidine (AZT) were contentious and often fatal – it was not a narrative of steady improvement with universal support, and the medicalisation of HIV was not universally accepted by a homogenous gay community.

AZT on trial poster.
AZT on trial : an all day conference exposing the practices in the development, licensing and prescription of AZT / SCAM (Wellcome Collection).

It’s important to briefly outline the contentious beginnings of AZT. Originally an abandoned cancer treatment, AZT was proposed as a potential HIV treatment by Wellcome – a larger American company with a UK-based trust dedicated to medical research – in 1984. After being fast-tracked through FDA approval in a record 20 months, AZT was presented in 1987 as an effective HIV treatment, claiming to reduce mortality. Wellcome benefited enormously from this breakthrough. In 1987, the company’s share price jumped from 73.5p to 374.5p upon news that AZT would be priced extremely high, at about $188 per 100 capsules for American patients. By 1992 sales of the drug topped $1.4 billion with around 180,000 on the treatment worldwide. However, it slowly began to leak that Wellcome’s 1987 study used to prove AZT’s efficacy was unbased: patients had pooled tablets, the trials became unblinded halfway through, and patients on AZT had received more medical treatments than those on the placebo. It was insufficient evidence for what they were claiming to be  the golden ticket of HIV medication. This belief was further shattered by the French Concorde study, the largest study of AZT to date with 1749 patients. In 1993 they reported that across three years 79 individuals died in the AZT group compared to 67 in the placebo group, with those on AZT having far worse side effects. The drug is extremely toxic, causing cell depletion in bone marrow meaning patients could need frequent blood transfusions to survive, and the general side effects greatly mimicked symptoms of advancing AIDS. Whilst a small difference in deaths, the Concorde study showed that at best AZT had no positive effect, and at worst it was accelerating mortality rates. It proved to many that AZT was doing far more harm than good to HIV-positive individuals, yet Wellcome maintained it was still effective as an AIDS treatment. A spokesperson stated “We agreed to disagree [with the study]. There are a lot of HIV-positive patients who are being told the drug now doesn’t work. That isn’t acceptable.” Whilst this can be interpreted as not wanting to let HIV-positive patients down, AZT’s profitability for Wellcome cannot be ignored. They wanted to protect their biggest revenue. 

Wellcome’s controversial promotion of AZT is what caused some in the UK to question their links with the Terrence Higgins Trust. The Trust is often posited as a hero in recent gay history. Being Britain’s most prominent HIV/AIDS charity, it provided information on HIV transmission for schools and individuals, it sat on AIDS research panels and met with government health departments. Its CEO Nick Partridge cemented links with Wellcome, in 1993 securing £5000 annual donations, use of Wellcome’s printing presses and access to their research labs. In particular, Wellcome funded several HIV education pamphlets, including one with over 9 pages about the benefits of AZT and only one page on alternative treatments. These leaflets were branded by Wellcome and stated “Wellcome is a pharmaceutical company with over 40 years of experience in developing antiviral drugs. They produce and develop AZT – the first drug known to be effective against HIV.” In the wake of the Concorde study, several of these pamphlets were withdrawn but both trusts maintained the effectiveness of AZT in AIDS patients, despite Partridge admitting the “limited” nature of the treatment and stating that adequate treatments could be “many, many years” away.

Introducing: Gays Against Genocide. The name stemming from their belief that Terrence Higgins’ association with Wellcome “sacrificed” gay men for profit, GaG was a grassroots movement of HIV-positive men who in 1993 undertook a mass flyposter campaign around London denouncing Nick Partridge and the Trust’s connection to Wellcome. Their posters across London revealed a fissure within the capital’s gay community: the Trust was denounced as an “AIDS Gestapo” coercing vulnerable and scared people into taking AZT. They claimed responsibility for a paint bomb attack on the Terrence Higgins Trust building, they picketed the Great Ormond Street Hospital over their use of AZT on HIV-positive babies, and after the Concorde study was released in April 1993 they protested outside the Trust’s headquarters for weeks demanding Nick Partridge’s resignation. Partridge was their main target, accused of “pimping a poison” and being personally responsible for the avoidable deaths of hundreds of people. After being accused of sending Partridge a guillotine in the post, they stated “it was in fact a novelty penis-chopping gimmick from an Amsterdam porn shop, and not a sinister threat.”

THT: the AIDS 'gestapo' as labelled by Gays Against Genocide, an HIV activist group.
THT : the AIDS gestapo / Gays Against Genocide (Wellcome Collection).

One of their posters details a moment of police intervention: on 28th April 1993 the police were called by the Trust’s Head of Personnel over “GAG displaying a blow up doll with a necklace of AZT capsules, wearing a sash that says ‘Miss AZT’”. Three protestors were arrested, later stating that police officers “threatened to ‘knock [them] out’”. Whilst this is only one side of the story, the clash exposes the divergence between radical and mainstream gay activism:  the overt campiness of a blow-up doll with an AZT necklace diametrically opposes an institution that feels secure enough to use the police against other gay men. The good homosexual feels secure in using an aggressive police force against disruptive members of their own community; the bad homosexual is justifiably punished. Radical versus assimilationist, mainstream versus fringe, queer versus homosexual.

In the rare instances that GaG are mentioned by their contemporaries or historians they are condemned as fringe extremists who risked compromising all progress in gay rights; Nick Partridge described them as “New Age flat earther[s] who have a naive hope that Holland and Barrett will produce a herbal tea that is effective against HIV.” A recent post on Dean Street Aids Chronicles stated anti-maskers had “the same violent paranoia of Gays Against Genocide.” Their reputation is one of aggressive anti-science akin to COVID deniers. Whilst I do not endorse all their actions, it’s my contention that this reputation stems not so much from their rejection of AZT but their open critique of HIV treatment and policing. The toxicity of AZT is now widely accepted, yet the actions of GaG are still seen as unacceptable and their reputation is still one of fringe subversives. It is the same energy that fuelled Russell T. Davies’ anger towards unsafe sex that drives this reputation: they are seen as threats to the continued liberation of the gay community, a nasty underbelly that threatened to expose the entire community to homophobic attacks. The gay community was necessarily homogenous, and heterogenous elements such as GaG were potential threats to the community’s integrity.

Gays Against Genocide - HIV activism outside the Terence Higgins Trust HQ.
Time Out, May 5-12 1993 (Wellcome Collection).

The critics of GaG and similar groups tend to overlook the human element of their concerns. Listening to the testimony of those affected reintroduces complexity to this narrative; the Wellcome open forum on AZT in 1993 is particularly insightful. Despite one of the panel denouncing critics as “crazy people”, many stood up to critique their continued prescription of AZT; one man screamed “this is my life and I have waited ten years”; another was “screamed at for being rude” after “hoping to see Wellcome at the Nuremberg trials” for their “scam” drug. Most poignantly, an anonymous individual wrote on a question card: “I have been HIV positive for six years, taking no treatment. All my friends who took AZT are dead. How do you explain that?” The panel had no explanation. Similarly, GaG founder Michael Cottrell stated how upon walking into the Trust “the first thing they did was hand us booklets saying arrange your affairs and make a will.” He describes their actions as feeling “spat” on, as “lighted cigarettes” being thrown at HIV patients telling them to “go fucking die.” This is why painting GaG as simply the actions of unscientific conspiracy theorists troubles me. It was the anger of gay men who felt unrepresented, who held legitimate fears for their own mortality and felt visceral frustration towards healthcare providers who seemed to flippantly change their advice. Not acknowledging this fails both them as individuals and gay history as a whole.

The climate GaG worked in perpetuated HIV as a death sentence, and the Don’t Die of Ignorance (1987) government advertising campaign constantly reinforced this belief. John Hurt’s foreboding voiceover states how HIV spreads through sex with an “infected person” and footage pans to “AIDS” chiselled onto a tombstone. Public attitudes towards the disease sentenced the HIV-positive to death upon diagnosis. In this climate of fear AZT was posited as the cure – a cure soon snatched away and labelled as more toxic than the disease itself. Likening GaG’s anger to that of “new age flat-earthers” does incredible injustice to the complexities of their beliefs, and they have as much right to fair historiographical inclusion as those they opposed. For this to occur historians must distance themselves from narratives of good and bad homosexuals. There are none. In this instance, GaG was scared, belittled, reactionary and unapologetically loud; the Trust followed current science and promoted treatment through corporate sponsors in Wellcome. Elevating one above another does not do justice to the complexities of modern gay history, and creating dichotomous narratives of good triumphing against bad in the battle against HIV benefits no one. 

This is not an attack on Russell T. Davies, or those who hold similar views. It’s an observation that modern gay culture must move beyond viewing HIV-positive activism as an inherently threatening act. Unquestioned statements such as “[AZT] transformed public attitudes to homosexuality” define gay history in terms of heterosexual acceptance. Narratives of unity were created out of fear of heterosexual rejection, and remain because they present uniform narratives of steadily increasing assimilation into heterosexual culture. We deserve more than a history defined in these terms. 

Further reading:

M. B. Sycamore (ed) Why Are Faggots So Afraid Of Faggots? (2013) 

P. Treichler, How to Have Theory in an Epidemic: Cultural Chronicles of AIDS (1999)

M. Warner, The Trouble with Normal (1999)

C. Woods, State of the Queer Nation (1995)