The whole informal system of mentoring broke down in eighties when the epidemic started, like everyone else I knew I was too damn busy looking after brothers and lovers while worrying like crazy for myself.
There I was, newly out at the age of 19, a bit scared, but excited at the same time. Homosexual acts had been decriminalised nine years previously for those over 21, but I was more concerned about getting stopped by the law with my quarter of Red Leb than I was about getting done for underage sex. The thing I never appreciated was that there was a barely visible circle of gay men keeping an eye on me, stopping me from making really stupid decisions, listening to me as I told my tale of woe from the stupid decisions I did make.
Along with others my age I got the personal safety lectures (if you go off with someone always let the guy see you make arrangements to meet a friend the next day) the clap clinic lecture and so on, all delivered in a casual manner so that it didn’t feel like being lectured: it was just conversation. A bit stuffy and we were usually glad when the guy moved on: we were young and invulnerable in the way late teenagers and early twenty year-olds always are.
So many of us at some point or another had sex with these older guys at one point or another that we put their interest in us down to sex and sex alone. But they were the ones who gave us a lift home after a pint or three too many at the club, held our heads over the toilet while we threw up, put up with our apologies the next day and listened to the heartaches that had caused that spell of over-drinking.
The whole informal system of mentoring broke down in eighties when the epidemic started. By the time the epidemic was strongly underway in the UK, I’d have been one of the guys looking out for the new kids in the bar, steering them away from bad news, but like everyone else I knew I was too damn busy looking after brothers and lovers while worrying like crazy for myself.
In those years between the first appearance of aids and the arrival of effective but imperfect treatments, we lost so many guys that the whole idea of slightly older guys looking out for those newly come out broke down completely. There were the odd exceptions: I remember my late partner and I giving a home to a 25 year old for a few weeks after his mother had thrown him out.
But by and large the contact between generations seems to be lost. “Don’t go with older guys: they’ve all got AIDS.” Anybody not heard that? And what’s happened? We have a young generation for whom HIV is a complete mystery. Only a week or two ago I had a guy whose profile claimed an age of 30 ask me on Grindr “What’s HIV?” And he was serious. He’d have been three or four when the government was telling us of the dangers of tombstones and icebergs.
Such complacency doesn’t help anyone, least of all those asking the question. But how the hell do we reach them? It’s all very well for the high-ups in HIV organisations to sit there and say that it’s a largely manageable condition (which for many it is) but that leaves those who didn’t live through the horror of the eighties and nineties with the impression that it’s just a matter of taking a pill or two. It’s not real to them. It’s a joke. It’s an insult.
Online hook-ups have replaced the bar hook-up so that the gay community has been fragmented down to the individual level. I have what I consider to be a fairly active online social life, but last time I was in an actual bar was last World Aids Day. The contact tracing service offered by some of the hook-up sites is a move in the right direction, but we need more than this.
We have to accept that the days of the generic support group are pretty much over. Most sites and apps offer a limited free membership: how about a series of nag screen offering HIV and STI news every time you log in as a guest? Regular messages to everyone, guest or member giving HIV information? Leaflets, which you only get after going through with the appointment, at STI clinics offering a week or two’s full membership of a hook-up site via a code? Individual use once only codes aren’t that difficult – that’s how I collect my Tesco card points.
And above all, we need a history project: those of us who survived are fewer every year. If HIV doesn’t get us, the diseases of old age are lurking just around the corner. So many valuable lessons were learned in the worst years of the epidemic that it would be a crime for our experiences not to be documented, if only for today’s young HIV-ignorant people not to have the resource of learning how we dealt with it.