Two men at the Lesbian and Gay Freedom Festival in 1995 (Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

April 23, 2024   5 mins

“All of my friends are dead.” It was said in his customary matter-of-fact tone, without the slightest hint of self-pity. This was Robin, my supervisor at university, who would often discuss his pre-academic life and what it was like to be a gay man during the worst of the Aids crisis. That he had survived at all struck him as incredible.

In those early days, the sense of an angel of death targeting a particular community seemed like the realisation of a nightmare. When it first emerged in the US it was known as GRID (gay-related immune deficiency). An article appeared in the New York Times on 3 July 1981 with the ominous headline: “Rare cancer seen in 41 homosexuals.” Some called it the “gay plague”.

Confusion turned into widespread panic, not limited to the gay community. The first time I heard of the disease was during a PE lesson at primary school. Such was the general ignorance that our teacher warned us not to borrow each other’s plimsolls or we’d catch Aids. Some time later I saw the government’s public health advert on the television; I remember little about it except the large tombstone with the dreaded four-letter acronym as an epitaph.

In the 40 years since the virus was identified, there has been a sea-change in attitudes. Whereas the government’s campaign set out to frighten people with the message “it’s a deadly disease and there’s no known cure”, a recent advert by the Terrence Higgins Trust reminds people that those diagnosed with HIV “can live a healthy, happy life just like anyone else”. Much of the stigma has dissipated.

The same is true of homosexuality itself. One could say that the while the Aids crisis exacerbated the hatred and mistrust against an already beleaguered community, it also spurred activists onto the pathway to normalisation. Whereas the pursuit of a gay lifestyle was romanticised — or demonised — as a dance of Eros and Thanatos, a way to ensure that one remained beyond the scope of civilised society, today the very notion of being orientated towards one’s own sex is largely perceived as unremarkable. Those who bleat about their oppression as gay people in a climate of widespread tolerance are luxuriating in a kind of perverse nostalgia for a reality they could never comprehend.

“Those who bleat about their oppression as gay people in a climate of widespread tolerance are luxuriating in a kind of perverse nostalgia.”

For those who lived through it, the Aids crisis was a moment when the concept of a “gay community” actually meant something. Lesbians were instrumental in providing support for their gay brothers, and amid the loss there was a sense of greater solidarity. I remember seeing a production of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart in New York in 2004. The audience mostly comprised of older gay men, and Kramer was among them. Afterwards, people were visibly shaken from watching the worst of their past so unflinchingly dramatised. One man approached Kramer and, through his sobs, I heard him simply say: “thank you”.

Kramer has been credited as a kind of Cassandra figure, one who had warned that the hedonism of gay life in the late Seventies would lead to trouble. His novel Faggots (1978) was loathed by conservatives for its graphic depiction of the sexual free-for-alls of New York’s bathhouse culture, but it was also mistrusted by the gay community for its moralising implications. Its lead character is on an impossible quest to find meaningful love in a world of fleeting sexual encounters. Kramer was criticising what he saw as a sybaritic and morally vacuous culture, and the sense of an impending reckoning has led to the novel being interpreted as predicting the outbreak of Aids.

When the crisis exploded, Kramer was one of those calling on gay men to exercise sexual temperance, and to shut the bathhouses until the virus could be contained. For this he was accused of being a puritan and a traitor to the gay lifestyle. His play The Normal Heart is set around this time, and in one furious monologue a character rails against a Kramer-type figure for trying to make gay men feel ashamed of their own liberation.

For the ultra-religious, Aids was seen as a righteous punishment from God. Many had been appalled at the promiscuity that inevitably arises when women are no longer in the equation. Male sexuality has always been contained to a degree by the institution of marriage, but gay men had been forced to exist on the periphery. There was no need to abide by sexual mores, because the rules had clearly not been written with them in mind. In other words, sex became an integral aspect of their own defiance against the society that had shunned them.

It always seemed a catch-22. Gay men were loathed for their sexual licentiousness, and at the same time excluded from the very ethical framework that would, to a degree, offer some kind of incentive against it. In his 1982 lecture, “Rediscovering gay history”, the historian John Boswell addressed this fundamental contradiction and argued for the need for a gay archetype or moral aspiration. He pointed out that when a straight man cheated on his wife, he at least knew that he was falling short of society’s expectations. But the same could not be said for gay men:

“I think that part of the reason for the ambivalence of the intellectual establishment in the United States is that they can’t tell when they read a book like Edmund White’s States of Desire, whether the life of casual promiscuity it depicts represents a homosexual ideal or the failure of an ideal. Are they reading about what gay people should do, what they do, or both, or neither? So they don’t know how to fit it into their usual critical apparatus. They don’t understand what would be a departure from homosexual ethics because they don’t know what homosexual ethics would be. And neither do we.”

Boswell was right that this ambivalence existed within and without the gay community. When William Friedkin’s film Cruising was released in 1980, the most vehement opposition came from gay campaigners who feared that it would depict them as being inherently deviant. And yet the movie had been shot in the leather bars of New York City, and the real-life sex acts that were filmed were hardly atypical. This subculture may not have been reflective of gay society as a whole, but it certainly existed.

Perhaps it could be said that the activists who sought to ban Cruising won out in the end. Their implicit goal was that gay people could be brought under the aegis of heterosexual respectability — that they could, in other words, live as conventionally as everybody else. It didn’t surprise me at all, therefore, that it was a conservative government in the UK that eventually legalised same-sex marriage. It would appear that we have seen the cultivation in the Western world of the kind of shared ethical ideals that Boswell seemed to crave. Gay monogamy is no longer seen as an oxymoron.

Many gay rights groups, of course, opposed same-sex marriage. To them, it was a way to control gay people, to bring them within the same heteronormative yoke that dominated the rest of society. This debate echoed those of The Normal Heart, where there was a fear of an attempt to “civilise” those who had found freedom in occupying a realm outside of social convention. To be gay was to be different, and for many this was a source of pride. An older gay man once told me that sex was far more exhilarating when it was illegal. It meant that even the most casual sexual encounter was a little act of rebellion.

But even as tolerance has increased, anti-gay feeling has not gone away. The Aids crisis galvanised such prejudices, and of course religious fundamentalists have always opposed those who they deem to be acting against the wishes of their various gods. Today, these prejudices are resurfacing through the obsession with gender identity, an ideology that shames gay people for not being attracted to members of the opposite sex and has been responsible for the government-funded medicalisation of gay youth. In many ways, this is a “progressive” rehash of Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, with its prohibition in schools against the “promotion” or “acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.

The instinctive disgust that many people feel towards those who do not share their own sexual inclinations is seemingly hard-wired, and so what we call “homophobia” will always emerge in one way or another in a majority heterosexual culture. But at least to be gay is no longer defined solely by the sexual act, and that for one man to fall in love with another is widely considered to be an unexceptional fact of life. The gay rights activists of yesteryear weren’t necessarily calling for universal indifference, but perhaps we’ll get there in the end.

Andrew Doyle is a comedian and creator of the Twitter persona Titania McGrath