It’s A Sin, the record breaking TV show on Channel Four, takes us back to London in the 1980s and the emergence of the AIDS crisis. Like many others, at The Food Chain we’re reflecting on how far we’ve come. For our Fundraising and Events Coordinator Clifford McManus it has particular resonance.
“Watching the show has brought up many emotions for me and, I’m sure, lots of others. I moved to London in October 1979 and came out in 1981, so the series resonates with me a great deal.
The first Pride event I attended was in 1985 at Jubilee Gardens, and remember seeing Divine sailing by on a boat, singing Walk like a Man. During this time Pride was a relatively small march through the streets of central London, usually attracting no more than 5000 people. But in 1986/7 when the Conservative Government proposed Clause 28, preventing local councils and schools ‘promoting’ homosexuality, people were galvanised. Stop the clause marches in London and Manchester attracted 20-25,000 people. This surge of solidarity as a community had lasting effects – Pride is now a huge parade, attracting widespread media coverage and more than a million people to the streets to watch and wave.
I remember reading a small report in Capitol Gay, a free weekly news sheet, about a strange new virus killing gay men in the US, mostly in New York and San Francisco. Before long, London was added to that list.
As the cases began to rise, the fear and hysteria began. The Sun would constantly refer to ‘The Gay Plague’ and I remember one particularly offensive headline; ‘What Does GAY stand for? Got AIDS Yet’. People were dying… and they made jokes.
The late 1980s was a particular hostile time. I remember police raids on gay clubs, and I remember Manchester police chief James Anderton saying that people with HIV/AIDS were “swirling around in a cesspit of their own making”.
With all of this as a backdrop, I received my HIV diagnosis at St Mary’s hospital on the 21st January 1991, and went home and cried myself to sleep. Back then there was no effective treatment and the prognosis wasn’t great. I was 34 years old, and I didn’t expect to see my fortieth birthday.
I kept my diagnosis to myself for many, many months. I was too ashamed to tell even my closest friends or family, afraid they would reject me.
It wasn’t until September 1992, when I was hospitalised with PCP pneumonia, that I came out as HIV+ to my friends. And guess what… they rallied around and showed me nothing but love and support. They still do to this day.
It was a few years later that I told my parents and family members. I was visiting home for the weekend and my mum saw my medicatios in my bag. When she me what they were for, I told her. Up to this point I hadn’t discussed my sexuality with my parents, so it was a double whammy for them. I’m very happy to say they too showed me nothing but love and support.
In the early days, I was making twice monthly visits to St Mary’s for bloods and monitoring. My viral load was 200,000 and my CD4 count hovered around 200 for the first 4 years. A healthy CD4 count is between 500 and 1500. I was taking AZT medication, which was the only option for treatment at the time.
Then in June 1996 a regular blood test showed I had a CD4 count of 10. My viral load was 250,000. I thought this is the beginning of the end. Luckily for me, a new generation of drugs called combination therapy was just being made available. So, in October 1996 I began taking a cocktail of 4 pills, twice a day. The side effects of these early anti-retrovirals were pretty harsh but as long as I adhered to taking my meds, things could improve. Sure enough, by July 1997 my viral load had dropped to below 1000, although my CD4 remained around 200.
The improvements in antiretroviral medication can be seen reflected in my own blood results. By 2005 my viral load hit less than 50 copies, undetectable, and my CD4 count has plateaued at 1200. Since that day, I count myself as one of the lucky ones who are U=U (undetectable = untransmissible).
Thirty years later, thanks to our brilliant NHS and effective medication, I’m still here. For me, living with HIV no longer presents a barrier to a full, varied, healthy and independent life. But working for The Food Chain, I know my story isn’t the same for everyone.”