AIDS Activism and the European Union by George J. Severs

In October 1997 the oral historian Wendy Rickard interviewed Richard Desmond as part of a project to capture the life stories of people with AIDS (PWAs) in Britain. The project, now archived in the British Library under ‘HIV and AIDS Testimonies’, aimed to ‘record and preserve the unique experiences, opinions and memories of people with HIV and AIDS … both as an historical reference about the AIDS crisis and as an educational resource for researchers, campaigners and interested individuals’.

Desmond himself was an active campaigner with a very personal stake in the issue. A gay man living in London, his life was to change forever when he was diagnosed with HIV in 1985, one year before what the historian Virginia Berridge has described as Thatcher’s ‘wartime response’ to the crisis. Shaken by the loss of his partner, Bob, and several of their friends to the virus, Desmond describes how he ‘threw himself into work’ on a project to rebuild the Savoy Theatre which had burnt down in February 1990.

DHSS Aids Poster 1986 (1)
Department of Health & Social Security AIDS Poster, 1991

Yet despite his initially prominent role in agitating for LGBT civil rights in the 1980s, very little is publicly known about Desmond’s work as a gay activist. In 1982 he began legal proceedings against the British state, arguing that the disparity in the legal age of consent between heterosexuals and homosexuals was a violation of his human rights, namely his right to respect in private life. In a 1997 interview with Rickard, Desmond recalled, ‘I was very motivated at the time, being a sixteen year old gay man … to do this, believing passionately in equality of the age of consent being terribly important’. In 1982, however, the European Convention on Human Rights had not been adopted as part of British law, as it later was. Because of this, the 16-year-old Desmond had to travel to Strasbourg in order to have his case heard. Already on a tight budget, such self-funded travel undoubtedly had an impact on the success of the campaign. In 1984 the judgement ruled that the Desmond’s case was ‘manifestly unfounded’.

In 1997, however, the European Commission ruled in favour of Euan Sutherland, another young gay man who had made virtually the same case Desmond had made over a decade earlier. Sutherland v United Kingdom ultimately led to the incumbent Labour government legislating for parity of the age at which sexual consent may be given by gay and straight people. Reflecting on this in 1997, Desmond observed:

‘I was in the paper last week, but that’s because Euan Sutherland has now succeeded, and my bit of history can be recalled. Someone had to try … It’s part of the process, in the same way as adopting the European Convention of Human Rights into English Law so that people don’t have to go to Strasbourg is going to make a difference for all sorts of issues.’

The British adoption of a progressive human rights framework produced in the European Union thus arguably had a major impact on the lives of gay people in the UK and should be regarded as a key milestone in the struggle for LGBT civil rights in this country. Yet I fear we are in danger of forgetting this. The current debate as to whether Britain should remain in or leave the European Union seems to be sorely lacking an informed historical basis. The Historians for History blog began as an attempt to counter this, and was initially very vocal in its response to the more nationalistic histories which were emerging from Historians for Britain. Yet there has been an obvious lull in this crucial historical debate, both from the academy and as part of public discourse.

We would do well, I feel, to remember the ways in which the EU has historically supported campaigns for human rights (and workers’ rights in particular, though that is perhaps a matter for another piece). Of course, the Commission was the same when Desmond and Sutherland respectively made their cases to it. Yet what is crucial here is the fact that Desmond identified Britain’s increasingly close relationship with Europe, legally speaking, as one of the factors in explaining Sutherland’s success.

ACTUP Manchester
Anti-Wellcome Poster, designed by ACT UP Manchester, c. 1990

Sticking with the AIDS epidemic as a case study, activists and interested parties would have struggled to make their cases to those in positions of power without the legislative support provided by the EU. John Campbell, an AIDS activist involved in the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) London, Frontliners, and Positive Youth, was instrumental in securing funding that enabled a great many activists from Britain to attend the 1993 AIDS Conference in Berlin. ACT UP London had led the march to the opening of the 1991 AIDS Conference in Amsterdam, and so in terms of the activism he wanted to see in Berlin, Campbell set off with high ambitions. Most notably, he planned to host a news conference in which he would suggest that Queen Elizabeth II was responsible for the deaths of her PWA subjects, a move he later recalled as follows:

‘What I proposed we do was we read out a letter to the Queen basically saying that it was her who was accountable for the deaths of people with AIDS in Britain, because ultimately it’s her government – they act in her name – she is responsible, what was she going to do?’

Ultimately, Campbell was overruled by other members of the group at the last minute, and ACT UP London’s news conference ended up addressing the perceived inactivity of drug companies. This, coupled with the mixed success the group had in demonstrating with ACT UP Paris against the French government’s handling of the crisis, might perhaps prompt the conclusion that the 1993 conference was a failure for the AIDS activists who attended.

Yet Campbell was clearly able to make a positive difference to the experiences of the lay PWAs in attendance. Due to the toxicity of the drugs that many were taking, a sizeable proportion of the PWAs came to Berlin with special dietary requirements. When Campbell saw that activists and lay PWAs were being given basic meals of bread, cheese and sausage, compared to the scientists who were enjoying all-expenses-paid meals in Berlin’s finest restaurants, he immediately took action. Targeting the management of the drug company Wellcome, who were hosting the vast majority of activists with AIDS from Europe, Campbell recalls that ‘we just said, look, there is no other option here, you either change the food or we’re going to the press, you have no other option’. The threat of several European chapters of ACT UP and other activist groups ‘going to the press’ was enough to force Wellcome to change the menu afforded to lay PWAs both immediately and generously. Campbell would die of AIDS-related illness in 2007 aged just 39, but his international collaboration is a key element of his legacy as an AIDS rights activist.

Would this have been possible without the free movement of people across Europe? I think not. The fact that so many activists were able to attend the Berlin conference and force those in government and in positions of power in drug companies to consider the particular needs of PWAs in whose interests they were supposed to be working, was down to a large extent to the rights afforded to European citizens to move freely. One only has to consider the position of many politicians today against allowing PWAs entry into the UK, and by extension, the right to freedom of movement, to grasp how significant the gatherings European PWAs en masse in Berlin were.

The European AIDS crisis, then, ought to be borne in mind more often than it currently is when discussing the merits of EU membership. Campaigners during the 1980s have looked back and seen Britain’s closer union with Europe as a positive factor in improving the lot of LGBT people in Britain, whilst activism for the rights of PWAs and disabled people during the 1980s and 1990s often benefited from the rights afforded to activists as EU citizens.

Regarding the wider impact of the AIDS crisis of the ‘80s and ‘90s, John Campbell said that ‘AIDS had an impact on society which made it a much more empowering place for disadvantaged people’. The extent to which this is the case can be debated by historians of the epidemic ad infinitum, though the fact that Campbell and others like him believed this is significant. We would do ourselves a disservice, I believe, if we forget the part that the EU had to play in forming attitudes like these, and in facilitating the campaigns and changes which Desmond and Campbell were remembering.

George J. Severs is a finalist in the Department of History at Royal Holloway, University of London, where he is writing a dissertation on the oral history of the British AIDS crisis.



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