SUBWAYArc Thompson was 17 when he found out he had HIV. He had come out as gay for only a year when a friend suggested he get tested. “I thought, ‘Yeah, why not? I’m not going to be positive. ‘ You had to wait two weeks to get the results back then; in fact, I had arranged to have lunch with a friend the day they were due, because it never occurred to me that it would be positive. “
Thompson says he will never forget how he felt that day, in part because he is still asked about it all the time. As one of the UK’s leading activists on HIV, AIDS and queer black men’s health, sharing your own experience comes with work. “I felt a total and absolute numbness,” he says. “All I could hear was white noise. I was walking in a daze. “
By the time Thompson tested positive in November 1986, public awareness of HIV was growing, but the prognosis was poor and effective treatment was still a decade away. “It felt like a death sentence,” says Thompson. “I spent a lot of time thinking about what it would be like to die in the hospital. I chose the songs for my funeral. I planned the most glamorous send-off possible. That’s the way you deal with those things in your 20s. “
However, Thompson, 52, is still here. In a 25-year career as an activist and program director working on HIV prevention and sexual health, he has been at the forefront of significant changes in the treatment of HIV and AIDS. In 2015, he became one of the founders of PrEPster, an organization that lobbied for the drug PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) to be offered on the NHS, which dramatically reduces the chance of spreading HIV. After years of campaigning by Thompson and others, PrEP was made available free of charge in England in April 2020 (it was rolled out on Scotland’s NHS in July 2017, while routine commissioning was announced in Wales in June 2020; after two pilot years, Northern Ireland is expected to make PrEP available imminently).
It’s a watershed moment, he says, especially for gay men. “For nearly 40 years, many gay men have carried the fear of HIV on our shoulders that prevents people from loving freely,” he says. “I know men who are PrEP users who talk about being freed from the fear of sex.”
I Meet Thompson in the LGBTQ + community space at the housing cooperative in Brixton, South London, where he lives with Travis, his parson Russell Terrier. Rotimi Fani-Kayode, the Nigerian-British photographer known for his explorations of race and sexuality before he died of AIDS in 1989, used to live in this building, says Thompson proudly. In fact, it has been home to a host of campaign “conspiracies” over the years.
Her work as an activist began in 1992, when she began going to a support center for people with HIV and AIDS at the Landmark Aids Center in nearby Tulse Hill. In the early years of her diagnosis, “I didn’t really like going to social support groups, because invariably I was the only black person there, invariably the youngest, and most of the time the only person who was not unwell. I felt really isolated. “
However, the opportunity arose to hold safer sex workshops for black gay men. “This was a new concept at the time, you know: how do we get people to use condoms correctly? So I jumped on board. It was fun. And I realized that by telling my own story and talking about my diagnosis and how I accepted my sexuality, I was giving people permission to tell theirs as well. “
In 1995, he joined Big Up, a group created to address gaps in HIV prevention services available to black gay men. At the time, services were aimed at white gay men or straight black communities. Neither of them worked for black gay men. So we fell through the cracks. “It is an area in which he has stayed for the simple reason that work is necessary. Despite the drastic reduction in HIV transmission rates in recent years: New diagnoses among men homosexuals and bisexuals in the UK. decreased by 47% between 2014 and 2019 – Black gay men are 15 times more likely, globally, to contract the virus.
“If we look at the drop in rates of HIV diagnoses in men in recent years, they have been incredible, but we have not seen the same drops in men whose first language is not English, men who are migrants to this country or men who They are not white, ”says Thompson.
“I fight for all communities, but I don’t apologize for putting black gay men at the top, because we are often on the bottom rung of the ladder,” he says. “I have no doubt that if the AIDS epidemic had affected young, white, straight people at that time, the response would have been different. The government and the health service would have acted much faster.
“You see the same with Covid today; we still wonder why black and brown people have worse health outcomes. “
Thompson was born and raised in Brixton. His father was a demolition worker, instrumental in clearing London of the post-war rubble that gave way to a vibrant new city. His mother was a probation officer and worked with South London juvenile offenders.
“I would love to say that my activism was inspired by Martin Luther King or Bayard Rustin, but it was not,” he says. “It was inspired by the common people around me: my dad, my mom, and my grandparents.” Both sets of Thompson’s grandparents immigrated to the UK from Jamaica. “It was that typical story,” he says. “My maternal grandfather came here in ’57 and then he sent for my mother. My paternal grandparents settled here and then returned to Jamaica in the mid-70s, but their children stayed here.
“Looking at my dad and uncle’s experience with police brutality, arrest and search, and the injustice my mom faced as a black woman in the 1970s gave me an early idea that there was injustice against blacks in this country,” He says. “My dad was a very proud man who told me to stand tall and walk strong in this world. Hearing those things throughout my childhood made me very aware of my position in this country. “
Thompson spoke to his mother when he was 15 years old, who was “brilliant.” “There is a narrative of black families that don’t always accept gay children,” he says. “My family accepted my sexuality, they accepted my HIV.”
Navigating the homophobia and racism of London in the 80s was more difficult. “I went out with my family, but not in my barbershop,” he says. Meeting other gay people locally helped. “I was lucky. A lot of gay men come out of the closet and don’t know where to go. That was especially true for blacks, because those spaces either didn’t exist or were underground.”
Going to queer black club nights, like Queer Nation in Vauxhall, was a “political act,” he says. “We fell in love in those spaces and expressed ourselves, and that became so important as the AIDS epidemic began to take root. The club became our salvation. “
The importance of that salvation was brought to life vividly this year by Russell T Davies’s drama It’s a Sin, which encompasses the often too short lives of a group of friends in London during the AIDS epidemic. The show, which is Channel 4’s most-watched drama, has been “fantastic in reigniting the conversation about the epidemic in our communities,” says Thompson.
“I feel encouraged when I think of all the young people who have been inspired to learn a little more about their history. But I don’t want queer youth to worry about HIV like we do.
I know people who have been recently diagnosed, who are young. They are as devastated as I was 35 years ago. What is different is that there are many more options for preventing HIV. [transmission]. “
There is still no cure for AIDS, but there are treatments for HIV-positive people that allow them to live long and healthy lives. Antiretroviral therapy (ART), which stops the virus from reproducing, didn’t reach the UK until 1997. Thompson started his in 2001, 15 years after he was diagnosed.
As an HIV positive man, Thompson will never take PrEP, but it is a key part of his holistic approach to preventing further transmission: “Now I have two new ways to help people prevent HIV transmission. One is prEP, one is U = U. “The latter,“ undetectable = untransmissible, ”refers to HIV-positive people with such a low viral load, thanks to ART, that they will not be able to transmit the virus through sex.
“When we started the conversation about PrEP, it was very similar to the conversation about HIV in the early 1980s. ‘If you don’t want HIV, don’t have sex,’ became: ‘If you don’t want HIV, you must use condom, “he says. “As a man who has already been diagnosed with HIV, I don’t necessarily need to expend energy promoting prEP; I could just promote U = U, ”he says. “But I see that the two go hand in hand, because I want negative and positive people to be safe and liberated.”
“The fact that PrEP is available in sexual health clinics is fantastic. It means if you are an urban gay man, you can get it. The challenge we have is for those communities that are still at risk: women, black African communities and trans people, ”he says. “We need to raise awareness, but also put it in places where they can access it, so how can we bring PrEP to GP clinics and pharmacies? That will not only help black African women; it will improve access for all, including gay youth. “
The UN goal on AIDS, adopted in Great Britain, is to achieve there will be no new HIV transmissions by 2030. “We are doing a good job testing our way out in this country, but the problem is that this is a global pandemic, not a UK pandemic, and if we keep cutting foreign aid, we will never end HIV. ,” he says.
Thompson says he hopes that, 35 years from now, “we are no longer talking about HIV.” Since, in 2016, 438 children became infected with HIV every day, this is an ambitious goal.
Still, it will go on. “HIV opened my eyes to a lot of things,” he says. “It has given me a career and introduced me to some of the most amazing and inspiring people in the world, but most of all it has taught me that whatever life throws at us, we all deserve to be loved for what we do. are”.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism