Little did I realize as a child, all around me, London was buzzing. 1983 was the time of the leather-clad punk lesbian Rebel Dykes, evoking the grassroots spirit of “Do It Yourself” (DIY) collective organizing— including sex-positive AIDS healthcare fundraising, street protests, and resistance against Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.
1983 was also the year that HIV was recognized as HIV rather than GRID (gay-related-immune-deficiency), the gay plague, the gay disease, or a gay cancer. All of a sudden, masses of healthy people were dying rapidly from this unknown condition. Fear and anxiety through institutionally-generated ignorance gripped the social imagination. Governments and health professionals were not responding to the crisis. As the pandemic worsened, Thatcher introduced one of the most lethal legislations in modern history. Between 1998 and 2003, Section 28 prohibited the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities at the very time they should have been publicly discussing sexual wellbeing.
Internalized shame, as a product of authoritarianism, is something I learned from my grandparents struggle to reclaim their Jewish identity after the war. As a teenager my gay shame and toxic shame took each other hand-in-hand, got married and waltzed into the cauldron of fire. Shame is the most unproductive emotion. Homosexual shame is a particularly cruel emotion, debilitating, scornful, and paralyzing.
Fast-forward to 2005, when I found out I was living with HIV. At the time, I never thought I would be healthy, fall in love, or have sex without five bin bags strapped to my dick. I didn’t have the confidence to speak about my situation, have a family, or find meaning. All I wanted was to go to sleep and never wake up.
I spent the next years silently grappling with my status. I began to internalize the violence, resulting in low self-worth, suicidal tendencies, and drug addiction. I realized that if I didn’t want to die from the violent thoughts I was perpetuating— it was time to make a choice and change the story.
The relationship between trauma, power and love slowly then began to become clearer for me as the writer bell hooks says: “Sometimes people try to destroy you, precisely because they recognize your power — not because they don’t see it, but because they see it and they don’t want it to exist.” So began my training in critical “popular” education, as I realized asking questions of myself and others is one of the most vital acts towards liberation.
In 2012, I started my HIV coming out show called Shafted? The show combined dance, performance, live music, stunts, and spoken word poetry to tell true stories of people living with, and affected by, the virus. This led to me re-forming the ACT UP London chapter in 2014, to help put HIV/AIDS back on the political agenda. Cuts to services, rising transmission levels, and the general mistaken belief that HIV was resolved in the 1980s have led some to name this time the “HIV Second Silence.” ACT UP helped fight for, and won, the ability for PREP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) to be available for all in the UK, and had many other strategic successes against stigma.
Since then, ACT UP has also organized “HIV Blind Date” shows – dating shows for people living and loving with HIV/Hepatitis B who share the realities of life, love and struggle on World AIDS Day to celebrate how far we have come and build power for how far we need to go to end the HIV epidemic.
In 2016, I co-founded Queer Tours of London – A Mince Through Time as a radical education and empowerment program in response to the onslaught of the closure of queer spaces, using education as our weapon. Through this experience I learned about the power of creative, hilarious, attention-grabbing, deeply empowering and effective movements to overturn bigoted legislation. These illuminated how LGBTQ people have emerged, and sometimes thrived, amongst the cracks of the city, whether through cruising or by creating underground meeting spaces. Learning about them blew my mind, and I was swept off my feet.
Exploring movements such as The Homosexual Law Reform Society, London Lesbian Avengers and OutRage! was deeply enlightening. Queer Tours’ highlights have included holding events with the African Rainbow Family on LGBT+ Migrant rights, crawling up the House of Lords to commemorate radical sexual freedom history, agitating queer venues to become more accessible, demanding a permanent museum, organizing “pretty police” orgies in the bushes and calling for a full apology for all those persecuted prior to the Sexual Offences Act of 1967. I feel so lucky to be part of this collective mission until homophobia and bigotry is no longer and everyone has access to healthcare on their own terms.
Serendipity was singing sweetly when it was announced that my book, Queer Footprints: A Guide to Uncovering London’s Fierce History, was due to be published this year, the 40th anniversary of the discovery of the HIV virus, and the 20th anniversary of celebrating the activists who helped overturn Section 28. The theatrics of the Gay Liberation Front, the politics of accountability of ACT UP, the spiritual activism of anti-fascists, and the wide range of reproductive rights and feminist movements, amongst many others, deeply inspired me. From all of these, we unravel how our freedoms were born, and how our purpose as queers is renewed.
Here in Britain, the latest Conservative government attacks on our Trans community, the Police Crime and Sentencing Act, and the Immigration and Borders Bill are all indicative of its cracking down on our fundamental right to exist, protest and to resist! Remembering the strength and vitality of our community has never been more important.
As one of my heroes, Willem Arondeus, a queer anti-fascist who, in 1943, blew up a records office that the Nazis were about to pilfer to find our addresses, reminds us in his last words before execution: “Let it be known that homosexuals are not cowards.”
If only I learnt about Willem as a child.
Dan Glass is an AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) healthcare and human rights activist, performer, presenter and writer. Dan has been recognized as ‘Activist of the Year’ with the Sexual Freedom Awards and was announced a ‘BBC Greater Londoner’ for founding Queer Tours of London – A Mince Through Time. His book, United Queerdom: From the Legends of the Gay Liberation Front to the Queers of Tomorrow, was the Observer book of the week and his new book, Queer Footprints – A Guide to Uncovering London’s Fierce History, is out now. You can learn more about him on his website, and support his activism here.