HIV seems to be at the front of our minds at the moment, given the storm caused by NHS England’s decision not to fund PrEP on the NHS.
Many HIV campaigners, gay men, healthcare professionals and even politicians were all eager to join a movement that will hopefully see PrEP becoming widely accessible.
Perhaps it was only a timely coincidence that I finished reading The Normal Heart, just as the modern day PrEP movement began to gain momentum. A play written at the start of what we now call the ‘AIDS epidemic’ of the 1980s, holding inside it many lessons that we’re still trying to learn from today.
As a 20-year-old gay guy living in one of the most diverse cities in the world, this play has allowed me to step back and reflect on how far we’ve come as a society and some of the mistakes that we made back in the 1980s. How interesting that some of the debates brought up in the play – namely a small group of people asking the government to help fund treatment of a ‘new plague’ - are still relevant now. Today we know that AIDS was ‘the plague’ mentioned in the play and we have a greater understanding of HIV. Even decades after the play was first performed, another group of people are asking the government to fund treatment. This time around the group has changed and comprises men and women seeking free access to PrEP, a vital tool in HIV prevention.
Today we have access to HIV services, whether you’re gay or straight, it doesn’t matter. And just as we’re approaching a time where we know enough about HIV to put in place measures to prevent it being passed on, we’re now also seeing vital HIV services being axed, due to funding cuts.
Shouldn’t this Government be striving towards achieving zero new cases of HIV? Shouldn’t it be supporting citizens of this country who are living with HIV, who rely on these services? Shouldn’t people in positions of power be advocating for those who cannot advocate for themselves? These were perhaps some of the questions being asked back in the 1980s. I suppose you could say that we’ve achieved progress in some respects, yet the fight for better HIV treatment is ever present.
Furthermore, in schools there still seems to be a fear of same-sex relationships. We’re not teaching students about gay sex. In fact, sex education itself is under threat of being removed from the curriculum. Just as we’ve reached a stage where people are starting to take their sexual health seriously and they have access to resources which allow them to practise safer sex, we’re now taking that away from them. Surely this will result in sexual health problems for the generations to come? And the work of people like Larry Kramer and other activists, who campaigned for such public health education, will have gone to waste.
Having read The Normal Heart, something that really struck me was just how far we have come as a society. Many mistakes were made during the period in which the play is set and I feel as though many of them have been learnt from. However, I would argue that we, as a society, need reminding and educating about this period of time, in order to continue on a journey towards equality for LGBT people and towards zero new cases of HIV.
Of course, it’s easier said than done. That’s why we should all be supporting the work of HIV services and campaign groups for PrEP. This may be simply sharing a campaign on social media, making a donation, volunteering some of your time or even writing to your local MP. The work of activists from the 80s isn’t over, so let’s join together in continuing that work.