This feature is by James Waygood of GrumpyGayCritic.co.uk
On Monday 15 June 2015, I went to the ACT UP London rally. What I discovered is gay men living with HIV is only a part of a much wider discussion.
Caveat: As I run Grumpy Gay Critic purely as a solo effort I do not have the luxury of an editor. Therefore, please be aware that these views are purely my own. If there is anything that you feel is factually incorrect or misconstrued, please contact me to discuss these. I am more than happy to continue my education on the subject in a constructive and humble manner.
ACT UP London Rally Ho!
On the cool and bright evening of Monday 15 June 2015, I attended a rally on Trafalgar Square. It was organised by Dan Glass of ACT UP London, alongside Artists Project London, as a response to Nigel Farage’s bogus and hateful comments on HIV+ immigrants in the run up to general election, and against current HIV and immigration policy in UK. I went and joined the ACT UP London rally because I have more than a handful of friends who live with HIV, some of them, like myself, are either first, second, or third generation immigrants. Furthermore, Andrew Keates, director of As Is, which is transferring to the Trafalgar Studios, was also a guest speaker and was bringing the cast with them. Being the stagey person that I am, it was yet another draw to see what context and importance theatre and William M. Hoffman’s play has within the modern debate.
But what transpired at the ACT UP London rally wasn’t quite what I expected. Whilst I had considered myself fairly clued up on the HIV and immigration debates, the ACT UP London rally demonstrated that its no longer just an LGBT community issue. The HIV/AIDs debate and its impact is far more wide reaching then you could imagine.
Be Our Guest
Just how diverse and far reaching issues surrounding HIV can be was demonstrated in the line-up of guest speakers for the ACT UP London rally. Whilst Keates was there to readily talk about As Is – the first play about HIV, focusing on gay men – and the importance of getting tested, there was also Green Party leader Natalie Bennett, and representatives from organisations such as NAZ Project, Positive Catholics, the Sofia Forum, and Bloomsbury Patient Network.
This meant that the ACT UP London rally was an occasion where the debate about HIV in the LGBT community, specifically among gay men, was heard directly alongside numerous other organisations who approach the subject within the context of yet another community. The NAZ Project specialises in providing specified language support services and advice, even working within specific faith circles too. Positive Catholics, although a faith-based organisation, offers support to all sexualities and beliefs as part of their Christian remit. The Sophia Forum is a network of women in the UK which explores and campaigns for the impact of HIV among women. And Docs Not Cops is an organisation who campaign against and raise awareness of NHS personnel being used a lay immigration officers when it comes to providing treatment through the health service.
The breadth across a relatively small handful of guests at the ACT UP London rally goes to show that the HIV debate is no longer just a gay male issue, and whilst the LGBT community still form a significant part of the overall argument, it is by no means now a solitary cause.
Different Voices, One Goal
Whilst all participants and guest speakers had attended the ACT UP London rally off the back of showing a strong response of solidarity against Farage’s stance on HIV immigrants, standing-up to how wrong and prejudice their opinion is, it was difficult to keep the speeches on point per se. Indeed Bennett and the NAZ project talked a lot about immigration and the HIV debate, but other guests certainly talked about issues beyond that.
For example, Vincent Manning from Positive Catholics highlighted that its not just those with HIV that are affected by policy drawn-up off the back of the HIV amd immigration debates. Manning mentioned that the policy that you have to been living in the UK for a certain amount of time before becoming eligible for free treatment, even if you were born a UK citizen, has caused great difficulty for supporting the wellbeing for UK Catholic missionaries who spend most of their lives abroad, not just those coming to live in the UK who live with the disease or other health issues. Sophie Strachan from the Sophia Forum spoke about how violence towards women is greatly affected by a woman’s HIV status, and how the spread of the virus is through this violence.
Despite all the varied facets of myriad important conversations that were voices at the ACT UP London rally, one message rang clear among all: to stop the spread of HIV and end the pandemic, people need accessible treatment and proper information about the disease and its impact on people. What all the guest speakers attending the ACT UP London rally do within their circles of influence is to push for fair inclusivity to ensure people get the treatment they need regardless of their origins or circumstances. By continuing to implement policy off the back of economic scape-goating or social xenophobia we continue to spread the virus because we prevent people from getting the treatment they need, and stymie open and factual conversations. To stop HIV/AIDs we need to treat everyone and talk about the virus openly and without lies and scaremongering.
Asking Glass about their post-ACT UP London rally thoughts, they mentioned:
“For so many years my heart has been heavy dealing with the daily lived realities of HIV: the stigma, self-stigmatisation, loss of confidence, sexual prowess, identity, and inability to separate who I am from the HIV within my system. Compounded by the fact that so many amazing loving people I know are discriminated by the political-economic government policies which imprisons people and refuses to treat people with the treatment they need, my young heart has had to grow old before it’s time.
Standing in front of the most iconic war memorial in London that is Nelson’s Column, we all demanded that the UK recognises those fallen on the HIV battlefield with a statue of our own. A specific attack on already vulnerable communities, such as those living with HIV, through stigma provoked by UKIP and cuts to HIV education and prevention services by the Conservative Government, needs to be recognised as the war that it is, not some accidental sad coincidence.”
As Is in Context
As mentioned, one of the draws to the ACT UP London rally was the involvement of Keates as a speaker and the presence of the cast of As Is, which opens in a couple of weeks literally across the road from where we stood. Written by Hoffman in 1985, it was the first play to actually look at the lives and personalities of those who fell to the 1980s epidemic, portraying the victims as human beings, and nothing less. This sentiment was echoed by Keates in his speech at the rally, using the now absent pigeons of Trafalgar Square as a analogy: we’re humans, not vermin. We shouldn’t be gotten rid of.
As Is, being the first HIV play, was a response to the issue at the time, where gay men where grossly stigmatised which only exacerbated the epidemic. As research, treatment, and attitudes change, we see the debate, as demonstrated at the ACT UP London rally, becoming so much wider than merely a gay male issue. But that’s not to say As Is has at all become out dated or irrelevant. LGBT people living with HIV still face a ridiculous amount of stigma and is still an issue within the community: the issue has far from weakened over the past 30 years. But it is now no longer an isolated one, forming part of a much bigger discussion.
Therefore, by all means go and see As Is out of respect for the play’s importance or even to challenge your perceptions of the people who live with the disease. But don’t stop there. Bennett, in their speech, overtly drew attention to the fact that the HIV debate is so intricately linked with so many causes that are linked by proxy or variations on a theme, urging people to go out and support these after attending the ACT UP London rally. This is salient advice indeed. Keates and the cast of As Is’ presence at the ACT UP London rally demonstrated that they too recognise this tight community of campaigners and volunteers, fighting varying symptoms of the same cause. Therefore, after seeing As Is, donate your time or your money to anything related that might crop up along the crumb-trail of issues and organisations. Or even just look at their information. With education, awareness, and solidarity, we can stop the spread of HIV: together.
As Is plays at Trafalgar Studios, London, SW1A 2DY from 1 July – 1 August 2015. Tickets are £17.50 – £27.50. To book, visit www.atgtickets.com/trafalgarstudios.
For more information about ACT UP London, visit https://actuplondon.wordpress.com.
For more information about the organisations represented at the ACT UP London rally, please visit:
This story was originally published here: http://grumpygaycritic.co.uk/2015/06/act-up-london-rally/