As a gay man over the age of 50, I have only ever known life with the NHS in existence.
For most of my life, I have never had an issue being ‘out’ with health professionals. The fact that conversion therapy was offered as a treatment to ‘cure’ homosexuality on the NHS until 1980 wasn’t in my consciousness when I was younger.
Now I understand for many gay people that this shameful practice has affected their whole life, not just their experiences of health services.
Fear, paranoia and AIDS hysteria
What raised my awareness about the importance of good healthcare was coming to terms with my sexual orientation at the time of the AIDS crisis in the mid-1980’s.
As a quite effeminate gay man, people used to think it was highly amusing to point at me in the streets and shout ‘AIDS’.
In 1987, I was working for the Post Office and having to deliver the ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ leaflets to every household on my round. This terrified me as society’s attitude towards gay men at the time was incredibly hostile and led to much insecurity. I was unaware of what was actually happening to gay men like me until much later.
‘What do you people do then?’
After finally coming to terms with my sexuality, I had regular HIV checks that were all negative. The only issue I had was with one NHS consultant who was absolutely fascinated that I was gay. He felt it was ok to ask me ‘what do you people do then?’ and I did tell him I thought his over-enthusiastic interest in my sex life was highly inappropriate.
It wasn’t until 1998 that I really needed the NHS. I began to get really ill, stayed in a hospital, but no-one knew what was wrong with me.
It couldn’t be HIV positive because I had tested negative the previous year. I was kept in a private room at my local hospital and encouraged to have another HIV test, which ended up being positive.
The NHS saved my life
Like many people who have to deal with a life-changing diagnosis, it was more upsetting for those around me. As for me, I knew I had to take advantage of all the opportunities I had to look after my health.
Combination therapy was available and I was very fortunate that the meds I was given worked pretty much straight away. I cannot fault the treatment I have received and over the last 20 years for me as an HIV positive patient, they really have been brilliant.
Receiving the diagnosis did make me change my career, however. When I was well enough to work, I saw an advert for a gay men’s sexual health outreach worker in Manchester. I immediately thought: ‘Hey, I can do that, at least I knew the subject!’
LGBTI inclusion in the NHS
Despite many challenges, there are people in the NHS who really want to support their LGBT patients. The problem is that too often they don’t know how to do this.
Not enough of our NHS colleagues receive support and training on LGBTI issues. Many professionals join the NHS from countries where the state still punishes those belonging to the LGBTI community. How can we get the best service from the NHS if our doctors and nurses don’t understand who we are?
We need to be confident to come out to NHS staff
Through my work, I hear many stories of people who are still not getting the level of care they need. Moreover, the attitudes towards their sexual orientation, gender, and trans status make things incredibly difficult for them.
We have to focus on being confident to discuss our experiences as LGBT people within NHS services.
I am currently working as part of a team at LGBT Foundation on a project called Pride in Practice. It aims to strengthen and develop primary care services relationship with their LGBT patients within the local community. This has really helped me to get to know what life is really like for our communities.
Looking to the future
One area of concern I have is the lack of widespread support for our trans communities. As I get older, I am also aware that social care provision is a concern for many LGBT people where loneliness and isolation are a very real worry.
The news this week that the government is to appoint a national LGBT health advisor is to be welcomed. There are still many areas where LGBT people are facing health inequities.
However, I am grateful to the NHS because without it I would not be here today. It can be frustrating and it isn’t perfect, but to make sure we get the NHS that we want we all have to play a part in helping it to deliver great care for the people who need it most. As LGBT people we should expect to receive the right care that works for us.