Alan Palmer is the Chair of LGBT HERO, the parent organisation of GMFA - the gay men’s health project and OutLife. Alan is a keen supporter of the fight to end HIV and stop HIV stigma.


To end HIV stigma we need to break free, be honest and to be inclusive.

By Alan Palmer | @PalmerAlan

2020 has given all of us more time to ourselves than expected. It has prompted space to think and reflect on the shape and structure of our lives, and to consider our own individual journeys. For members of the LGBTQ+ community this has benefits and drawbacks. Memories can be painful, but from them comes revelation and truth.

I would like to talk with you about HIV stigma, shame and fear. I know this has been talked about many times before, and probably in many ways I, as an HIV-negative man, can ever relate to, but as a passionate ally to those living with HIV, I want to talk to you as someone who grew up, and struggled through, Section 28. I lived for many years with the impact of the toxic Tory legacy of anti-LGBT policies and attitudes in the 1980s and 1990s, and so belonged to a generation that ‘learnt’ about being gay through moralising, prejudiced newspaper headlines.  I’m someone who went on to fight for the rights of gay and bisexual men to live through the battle against HIV and AIDS and who became a firm ally to those living with HIV in the modern world. Today I chair a world-renowned organisation passionate about ending HIV and stopping HIV stigma.

I turned thirteen a couple of months before Section 28 was enacted. For those of you fortunate enough to not recognise that name, it was the time when the government introduced legislation that prevented the public sector, including schools, libraries and youth groups, from ‘promoting homosexuality’. For me, this meant that as a teen knowing I was different, though unsure how or why, there was absolutely zero information or advice available.

My sex education at school was purely about the biological functions of baby-making, with no  information that related to how I was feeling. For sure, I knew how to avoid pregnancy, but I had a pretty good idea that I could manage that one quite easily. My knowledge about same-sex attraction back then amounted to two things.

First, it was weird and wrong and bad. It would upset people. I had to try to stop it. Second, I might get AIDS and die. The tentacles of stigma from Section 28 and the Don’t Die of Ignorance campaign held tight in the early 90s. And with nothing to combat them, I stayed silently scared for a long time.

I didn’t really have words for what was going on, but I knew that how I felt about girls and boys was different from how my classmates talked about them. I wanted to be friends with the girls and be closer to (some of the) boys, but I couldn’t express this out loud.

I had no role models and no positive examples of what life could be like. I had a sense it would be tough, that I would need to be strong, and that I would have to move away from my small town.

The tentacles of stigma, shame and fear from that time held me tight, keeping me silent, denying me role models that could show me the way. I maintained that silence for a long time.

Relatively speaking, I made it through those early years OK. But I was in a glass closet for most of my 20s, too worried about others’ reactions to say anything or to be my authentic self. I didn’t test for HIV for the first time until I was nearly 30 years old, so nervous about the possible results. But it could have been easier. It should have been easier.

When people are afraid or don’t understand something they are less likely to engage with an issue. Although the impact of lockdown has led to some fantastic successes in preventing transmission, we are still seeing large numbers of men being late-diagnosed with HIV and the stats show that for every late diagnosis we prevent we stop a further three people being infected. And this is what stigma does, it stops some people testing.

Stigma, shame and fear have created a society that too often thinks twice about accepting us, embracing us, giving us equal health.

But stigma, shame and fear don’t just happen to us. We create them. We see it in bars, we see it on apps, we see it on social media;  “Clean only”, “No fats, no femmes”, “BBC”, “Not being rude, just my preference”, “Where are you from? No, where are you REALLY from?”. We can demand equality from society all we like, but we must also treat our own communities with respect, with compassion and with love. We have to be the first step in making things better.

LGBT HERO’s ‘Me. Him. Us.’ campaign was established to reach beyond the typical media messages. Designed by Black gay and bi men in its first two years, and now by South Asian gay and bi men, it provides positive representation of people not often seen in sexual health campaigns. The impact of these have been incredible and we’re right to be proud of them. However, they were necessary because of stigma, shame and fear created by our communities. Black and South Asian gay and bi men did not see themselves in campaigns. They saw white gays talking to and about white gays.

And our Undetectables campaign, now in its 4th year, is about spreading message that someone living with HIV on successful treatment will have an undetectable viral load and cannot pass on the virus. This is a message that needs to be heard as many people within our communities as it does wider society. U=U is safer sex.

We need to break free. We need to be honest. We need to be inclusive.

Be upfront about what works for you regarding the kind of sex you want to have, of course, but don’t judge anyone else’s choices about what works for them.

We’ve come a long way. Decades of medical research about transmission, treatment and prevention have given us vast reservoirs of knowledge that equip us in this fight. But they are not enough. I recommend you let go of everything you were told in the past about HIV and instead equip yourself with the new information we have. Help us win this fight.

If we end stigma, shame and fear, we end HIV.


For information about sex, sexual health and U=U or to find support visit, www.gmfa.org.uk/hiv-undetectable