How Terry Higgins' death from AIDS started a gay fight back
As we mark the 30th anniversary of the death of Terry Higgins, the first person killed by AIDS in the UK, Will Harris says it was also the moment the gay community united and started to fight back
On the day I was born, London free-sheet Capital Gay ran a front page article under the headline ‘US disease hits London’. It announced that four gay men, one of them Terry Higgins, had died of a mysterious new illness, rumors of which had been circulating since the previous year.
Terry, who died on 4 July 1982, aged 37, had become the first person in the UK to be publicly identified as dying with what was then referred to as GRID (gay-related immune deficiency) but what we now know as AIDS.
He wasn’t the last. Over the years that followed, AIDS would claim the lives of 20,000 people in this country, the majority of them gay and bisexual men. In those early days, according to those who remember, the epidemic tore through the village like a brush fire, cruel and indiscriminate, dragging lovers from each other’s arms, robbing parents of their sons.
The devastating impact those years had on the gay scene cannot be overstated, can scarcely be believed by those of us who didn’t experience them, and yet – without the gay scene – it might have been so much worse.
That’s because the emergence of HIV motivated our community into action in ways that, looking back now, seem little short of miraculous. In London, Terry’s friends and partner – aged just 19, 26 and 28 – found an outlet for their grief by telling others what Terry had been through and warning gay men about the risks they faced. With the medical establishment baffled, and a government slow to respond, it was left to small community outfits like Body Positive, London Lighthouse and the Terrence Higgins Trust to fill the void.
In almost every major city, it was these small bands of volunteers, almost always unpaid, who organized meetings, printed pamphlets, manned phone lines, stuck up posters, lobbied politicians, and did everything within their power to slow the spread of HIV, and to help those already living with the virus. By taking ownership of the issue, they would send a powerful message to the less sympathetic quarters of a still hostile society; a message of unity, strength, tolerance, and basic human goodness. To many, this was the moment the gay community came of age.
Earlier this year, researchers at University College London modelled a number of ‘what if’ scenarios concerning the HIV epidemic among gay men. They projected that – had all gay men stopped using condoms in 2000 – HIV rates would be 400% higher than they are today. To put it in simpler terms, had it not been for the awareness-raising work set in motion by those early community groups, an extra 80,000 men across the country might have contracted HIV in the last 12 years, almost double the current epidemic.
Today, on the 30th anniversary of Terry’s death, we’re launching a new campaign called Thanks Terry. It’s our way of expressing our gratitude to him, to his friends and to the thousands like them all over the country who started the fight back against the epidemic, and who continue to fight today. Because of them, none of us should have to go through what Terry went through. And that’s something we can all be thankful for.
Will Harris is head of media for Terrence Higgins Trust, the UK’s most famous HIV and sexual health organization.