An epidemic of erasure

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With the fiftieth anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 decriminalising homosexuality (according to most of the media) / partially decriminalising some sexual acts between men in England and Wales (the reality), the BBC and Ch4 are both having seasons of 'gay' (sic) programmes.

One of the most recent was Ch4's Epidemic: when Britain fought Aids.

On the one hand, there's a limit to what you can include in an hour long programme including ads.* It was good to see both the appalling epidemic amongst IV drug users, especially in Edinburgh, and the effects on people reliant on blood products mentioned. And it was very good to see people like Tony Whitehead – gay activist, first chair of the Terrence Higgins Trust, and (not mentioned) made an MBE for his work – and some of the then junior doctors like Michael Adler (now CBE) and Ian Weller (now a knight) again.

(Hmm, do you notice the difference in honours given to one of the stars of community activism and the doctors?)

On the other hand, the bi erasure was strong in this one.

So early on, there's a 'fourteen years after homosexuality became legal' (i.e. 1981) line in the commentary. Again, no.

I wonder if it is because it was a Ch4 programme that there was nothing on Killer in the Village, first broadcast as part of the BBC's Horizon science series in the spring of 1983, that had a huge impact on everyone I know who saw it. This was big, and it would definitely affect us.

It was this and community action (why those honours were the wrong way around), rather than anything the government did, that meant the big shift in behaviour amongst men who have sex with men happened around summer 1983, over three years before the tombstone leaflet and the iceberg ads. It's only because the Americans managed to be, appallingly, even worse that 'Britain' as a whole can even pretend to have been any good.

What the government did do, it often did badly. I've said elsewhere that every single word of the Health Education Authority's campaigns had to be approved by a minister. Hence the awful 'hands' ad, the only bisexual ad they did, ended up saying 'if a married man has an affair' rather than the original 'when..' – a minister objected to any implication that affairs were normal.

And off the record, they weren't much better. At one point, a clipping is shown from a 17 November 86 paper – it looks very much like The Sun's typography:

Gays Face AIDS Backlash

THE AIDS scare could start a backlash of violence against gays, Government ministers believe.

And they fear a wave of "queer-bashing" could lead to bisexuals passing on the killer virus to women in revenge.

Is there a single word about how bisexual men – there's been even more erasure about bisexual women – were used, deliberately, as a way to get government action, at this point four years into the epidemic? No.

"We were now known to actually be a real threat" says one of the gay men though…

It was necessary, but it also meant bisexuals – specifically bisexual men – would lose whatever happened. If there was an epidemic in the wider white straight world, it'd be their fault. If there wasn't, it would prove that there weren't (m)any bisexual men.

There was also nothing in the programme on re-gaying, which was both an important shift and behind some more awful bi-erasure. Nothing on the effective re-degaying in the past few years either. When cuts are made, it's usually the work with men having sex with men that gets got rid of first, even though sex between men is still the most common route of new infections in the UK.

Without those it went straight from 1987 to now in pretending that all was well. I can even read the way the programme was topped and tailed with Elton John's two marriages as the final bit of bi erasure.

Other 'oh dears' included the way that for some reason, the only seconds on the discovery of the cause of Aids was Robert Gallo calling it HTLV-III. Luc Montagnier and his team, who are they then?

There's also a bit of lesbian erasure – it was 'London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard' not 'Gay Switchboard' (it's since become 'Switchboard') for example** – and because this was the white gay season, there was only 'thin people dying in Africa' on the impact within BME communities. You'd never know that health promotion work with people with links to sub-Saharan Africa is one of the bits of HIV health promotion you can get money for.

Two final things it didn't take the opportunity to mention were Fowler's famous question about how many people had oral sex at one meeting that included some of the others in the programme. How could you have him on and not ask him on camera about that?!? It's still unclear whether he'd never heard of it or was worried he and his wife were the only ones…

The Chief Rabbi in some of the archive footage was the one quoted in the Daily Mail's infamous "Abortion hope after 'gay genes' finding" headline.

It was outside the timeline the programme wanted to talk about, but the few lines on 'innocent' (i.e. non-gay, non-IV drug using) 'victims' didn't include the section of Ch4's Brass Eye on 'good Aids'

For all the programme tried to pretend everything has changed for the LGBT+ communities, that's still horribly accurate…

* Interestingly, the only ads were for other Ch4 programmes and the ones Pride in London paid for.

** Oh, looking at the pictures of her working there then and now, Lisa Power has a picture of her looking very old somewhere in her attic…

2 thoughts on “An epidemic of erasure

  1. Emily

    Thank you for this post. I am too young to have been aware of most of this history but it is really important to me to learn about it, especially the bi specific aspects. However, I am struggling to follow some of it.

    Could you expand a bit on the 'Hands' advert? I don't know what that said, I've only heard of the tombstone ones.
    What does regaying / re-degaying mean in this context?
    Who was Fowler and what was the question about oral sex?

  2. Ian

    * Hands ad *

    In the early 90s, the Health Education Authority (the bit of government responsible for health promotion) put out an ad showing two men – white, middle aged, middle/upper class – holding hands. The strapline was 'If a married man has an affair, it may not be with a woman'. It appeared in a handful of places like the Radio Times.

    The HEA loved it, their bisexual advisory group hated it. As I say, it was the only 'bisexual' ad the HEA ever did.

    * Regaying *

    Since the start of the epidemic, it's always been the case that the majority of HIV transmissions in the UK have been through men having sex with other men. However this has not been reflected in the resources put into health promotion.

    Again in the early 90s, this came to a head when three activists did a report that showed that of the c100 people in charge of HIV in their district, only a handful had commissioned ANY work for gay and bisexual men. The HEA's gay men's advisory group resigned en masse after being shown a particularly awful proposed campaign for young gay men (it had the face of a very old man and a strapline something like 'If you have safer sex, you could look like this' – again, the HEA loved it!)

    The men involved with both the research and the group went off to form an organisation called 'Gay Men Fighting Aids' (GMFA) that would put gay men first: Aids would be 'regayed'. Rather than spread the work across everywhere on the grounds that Aids was everyone's problem, with material that didn't appeal to gay men, it would be done by gay men for gay men.

    They went on to do the best work for gay men in the UK. Unfortunately, they were also wilfully and deliberately clueless when it came to bisexual men.

    In the book that's effectively their manifesto, one quotes approvingly nearly all of a presentation by Tony Whitehead on the start of the Terrence Higgins Trust… except the bit that says as a bunch of white gay men, they failed to do much for bisexuals or black men.

    Another would write – in 1995, fourteen years after the foundation of the London Bisexual Group, in the year of the thirteenth UK BiCon, and in the middle of the bi community's peer education project doing HIV work with bisexual groups around the country – that there was basically no sign of a bisexual community ever developing.

    (They did know to put 'and bisexual' on the funding applications though!)

    With the underfunding of health over the past decade, health promotion work with gay men has again dropped significantly: Aids is being 'degayed' again. Because many fewer people are dying, thanks to the effectiveness of combination therapy, less fuss is being made about this, but it will lead to more people becoming HIV+.

    * Fowler *

    Norman Fowler was Secretary of State for Health and Social Services between 1981 and 1987, i.e. the person in political control of the NHS in England amongst other things.

    In a meeting discussing Aids and what should be the government's response, various sexual acts were mentioned – not telling people what you're warning them about isn't very effective. People at the meeting reported that Fowler asked 'How many people do that sort of thing?!?' when told what oral sex was.


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