By Matthew Hodson@matthew_hodson


A year ago I sat in a meeting with officials from Public Health England as they announced that someone with HIV, with prompt access to treatment, had the same life expectancy as someone who was uninfected.

We have been creeping towards this since 1996 and the introduction of combination therapy, which led to an immediate, sharp drop in AIDS deaths. All the same, when I heard this I couldn’t help the rush of emotions: joy that we had made such progress; grief that it had come too late for so many.

I think it’s hard now for people who didn’t live through it to understand what it felt like to experience such loss. AIDS cut a swathe through gay communities. At a time when being open about your sexuality was still unusual, many families had to deal with the dual shock of learning that their son or brother was gay and also that he was dying. Some families rallied but stories of men who were abandoned and left to die alone in hospital beds were all too common.

This was the gay community that I grew into. I was younger than the generation which suffered the greatest devastation but old enough to lose count of the friends I lost. Many of my generation never expected to live to be so old. As I mark my birthdays it’s sometimes hard to shake the residual feeling that I shouldn’t still be here. I know that there were smarter, kinder men than me who died.

This experience of death, and the expectation of an early death, marks a divide between the generations of gay men. I’m acutely aware that even talking about those who died of AIDS sets me and my contemporaries apart from many who are younger. Some feel uncomfortable, some just feel bored.

And I get that. In my generation our elders talked about the early days of the Gay Liberation Front, their elders talked about life before the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which partially decriminalised homosexuality. I found these stories fascinating but others of my age resented the distraction from their own fabulousness. Back then we had only just discovered that gay pubs could come with windows; we thought it could barely get any better.

I’m thrilled that there’s a whole new generation who’ve never known loss from AIDS. The progress we have made in the last two decades, both in our ability to manage HIV and in LGBT equality has been staggering. Each generation will surely be fabulous in its own way, facing new challenges.

The gains we have made as a community should not be taken for granted. We have seen a renewed vigour in the attacks on our trans sisters and brothers. Populist parties rumble about withdrawing marriage equality and other hard fought for rights. Homophobia is still at the root of violent crime against us.

Chemsex, takes an increasing toll and the similarities with the early days of HIV are all too apparent.

When the AIDS crisis hit, we didn’t just get angry, we got organised. Our communities realised that if we didn’t save ourselves there was a good chance that the homophobic government of the time might not care too much if there were a few less queers. That anger and organisation founded GMFA and NAM.

I urge all members of our communities to hold on to the lessons from the activists in our history: the suffragettes, the rioters at the Stonewall Inn, the Gay Liberation Front, Act-Up and Outrage, Stonewall and the National AIDS Trust. AIDS activists ensured access to treatment, we fought to ensure that the lives of gay men were accepted as being as valuable as the lives of others. Equal health and equal treatment under the law should not be taken for granted. Grasp that flame of activism tightly, there may yet be dark times ahead.  


Matthew Hodson is the Executive Director of NAM/aidsmap. Visit www.aidsmap.com. 


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