In those days there was a multitude of reasons not to test…. the general rule was that you were better off not knowing.
1986. My seven year relationship with Jim was in dire straits: we spent Christmas apart, me with my next boyfriend, him with our elderly next door neighbours. He’d dumped me in the middle of a couple counselling session and walked out – I’ve had better Christmases. Overshadowing it all was the knowledge that in the new year I was going to have an HIV test at the earliest opportunity.
In those days there was a multitude of reasons not to test: life insurance, mortgages (like I’d ever have that much money), discrimination (some people found themselves out of a job because they handled food), pensions (when I finally got a full time job with Westminster City Council they told me I couldn’t join the pension scheme), and above all, having an illness that had no cure or treatment. No, the general rule was that you were better off not knowing.
Despite all that Barrie’s death played on mind, hence my decision to test. I’m one of those people who has to watch when bloods are taken: basically I need to know what’s going on in my body. So on 6 January 1987 I turned up for my appointment to see the health advisor for pre-test counselling. Amongst her first questions was where did I work. National Aids Helpline, which had been set up by the government to support the tombstone campaign. “Ah,” she said, “there’s probably not much I can tell you that you don’t already know…” and we spent the rest of the appointment discussing prevention ideas before I saw a nurse to have my blood taken.
In 1987 it was generally a three week wait to get the result. Jim was furious that I’d gone without him: he’d wanted to be there to support me and the row led to a further division between us. My thirtieth birthday lay between then and results day and I don’t remember a thing about it. I probably went to the Coleherne – you’re supposed to remember significant birthdays, but I was too focussed on the 27th.
I cracked on the 26th: I’d been doing some admin work after my morning shift at Lesbian and Gay Switchboard and the temptation was too much. I phoned the clinic and was told “Yes, we do have a result for you Steve.” I knew from her voice what that result was: “And you’re not going to tell me over the phone are you?” So I got on the tube at King’s Cross and went down to Balham, listening to Tangerine Dream’s “Rubicon” (still a favourite piece of music) on the way.
At the clinic I noted that their receipt stamp on my test result was 16th January: I could have been told ten days ago. The health advisor told me that I’d tested positive and I said that I had figured that out. She made a half hearted stab at post-test counselling, knowing that I knew what there was to tell already, and then asked what are you going to do tonight. “Oh, I’m on the evening shift at National Aids Helpline. Actually I’d better be off because I’ve got to be in Acton by 5.45”.
Numb. Totally numb. I’d expected it, though for the wrong reason. I was a long way from the memory of the seroconversion rash re-surfacing. I went off and did my four hour shift without anyone guessing there was anything wrong. Straight to bed when I got home – fortunately Jim was out. I’d have to tell him sooner or later, though. Although the relationship was very fragile, it was still going.
Back at the helpline the next day and I decided to treat myself (hell, after a positive HIV test everyone deserves a treat) and go out that night. I started a the Coleherne and on the way home thought “sod it, do the job properly” and got off the tube early to go to the Market Tavern in Vauxhall. So I was well plastered by the time I ran into Chris, also HIV+ (strange at the time to think that!), who at the time was more an acquaintance than a friend. We were standing out on the balcony to get away from the heat, smoke and noise when something he said made me finally crumple. Between sobs I told him what had happened and he took charge. Exactly what I needed. We had another drink at the Market and he took me back to his place for coffee (and just coffee).
We sat up half the night while he told me his story, what to watch out for, why I should be careful about who I told, basically gave me the full advice lecture before we fell into bed exhausted. I went straight to work from Chris’s place (it was informal enough at the time that no-one objected to the handcuffs hanging from my belt) and then home. Jim was there with his “where the hell have you been?” face on. So I told him. I got it all over again about how he’d wanted to go to the clinic with me to be supportive and I’d cruelly denied him the chance.
Our relationship deteriorated further and we saw as little of each other as possible until a couple of weeks later when I was asleep and he returned from a leather club and started beating up on me. I fought him off, jammed my bedroom door shut and was off for a morning shift at Lesbian and Gay Switchboard before he woke up. I never slept under that roof again.
Ours was one of those non-monogamous relationships where I had to stick to the rules and he did what he wanted. What he didn’t know was that I’d cottoned on to what he was up to, hence my spending Christmas with Derek, and it was to Derek’s flat I went the next evening. It turned out that a mutual friend had a room going spare, so I ended up moving there, collecting my belongings when I knew Jim would be at work.
I had a few months of trying to come to terms with it by myself and was helped by one of the women at Lesbian and Gay Switchboard who acted as a go-between to help me contact the other poz guys at Switchboard. By spring I’d hit the “what the hell” point. My gay closet was old, broken-down and unused. Wasn’t it about time my HIV closet went the same way?