During the 1980s and 1990s, there was an epidemic which affected queer communities more significantly than wider communities. This was known as the AIDS crisis. Globally, 35 million people have died due to the AIDS crisis to date. Many queer people felt ignored and forgotten by society during this period and so LGBTQ+ groups worked to make sure the crisis and its impact was remembered.
The West Yorkshire Queer Stories Project (WYQS) is an excellent example of this. This was an archive of stories from LGBTQ+ people across West Yorkshire, but this blog will focus on the stories which talk about the AIDS crisis.
Most of the stories from the archive concerning AIDS discuss the huge issues that occurred during the crisis. There is a story from a young man named Mark who came out during the AIDS crisis. He recalls watching the political talk show Question Time and hearing one of the guests argue for the recriminalisation of homosexuality in light of the AIDS crisis. There was a constant tirade against queer people from the media, which lead to a feeling amongst them that the community was being attacked whilst it was struggling. The AIDS crisis often felt like an opportunity to whip up fear and anger about homosexuality.
John Roe’s story is another told to WYQS, which discusses how all of the negative press meant that there were very few reasons to celebrate being queer at the time, and no positive role models. The consistent negativity towards homosexuality in the media and politics during that time has subsequently led to a much harder fight for equality for queer people in the UK. One of the big issues was the ‘Don’t Die of AIDS’ campaign for sexual health which the government introduced. It included dramatic adverts and flyers, urging people to get tested for the disease. Overall, whilst it was effective in reducing cases, it also increased the bigotry against the queer community by increasing fears and suspicions around the disease. John Roe mentioned how people diagnosed with HIV still come to the Skyline support centre in Leeds in tears because of the stigma and misunderstanding around the virus which was increased by this campaign.
WYQS highlights the benefits of remembering these events. Community archives like this one can be considered pieces of activism in their own right because of their focus on prioritising the voices of underrepresented communities. Queer community archives have always been known for collecting queer materials because very few other archives would bother collecting these materials and stories. There are several oral history projects like WYQS and ACT UP New York’s oral history project which concern themselves with preserving queer stories. These archives are essential in keeping stories from the AIDS crisis because its decimation of the community threatened to erase them.
The AIDS epidemic was characterised by the statement SILENCE=DEATH, highlighting the anger and frustration that the queer community felt being ignored by mainstream society. WYQS recorded conversations with members of the Leeds ACT UP group who discuss having merchandise printed with the phrase ‘Women don’t get AIDS, they just die of it’. The large amount uncertainty and ignorance surrounding the AIDS crisis leading to increased stigma for the affected groups, is felt in the archives.
Queer archives and oral history projects like WYQS are essential for remembering the victims of the AIDS crisis. They continue to memorialise those who have been lost as a way of gaining justice for them. A particularly impactful example of this from WYQS is a story from man named Aaron who worked at the sexual health organisation, MESMAC. He tells the story of a Romani man he met there. He had helped him when he came in for a HIV test. He was struggling with both the stigma of being a queer man in the Romani community and the issues of his partner being HIV positive. Aaron describes helping this man feel safer with his partner’s diagnosis. However, the partner called him a few months later saying that the Romani man had committed suicide because of the stigma he had experienced.
This story is entitled ‘Fighting for the people who can’t be heard’; an excellent example of the way WYQS focuses on remembering these people. It is designed to tell and uplift the stories of queer people silenced by the AIDS crisis across Yorkshire. In giving these stories life, archives like WYQS are creating a form of justice. It was created to continue fighting against societal amnesia concerning the stories of queer individuals. Memorialisation within the context of this crisis is inherently useful because it provides an exposure to the mainstream public which the queer community sorely needs. There is a deep-rooted justice in preventing invisibility.
The Preservative Party have recently taken on this kind of justice as they work on a project about the hidden voices within the collections at Leeds Museums and Galleries. This project aims to bring stories of people who are forgotten, who cannot be heard, to the forefront of discussion in museum spaces which continues to be an essential part of museum curation.
By Aleks Fagelman, Preservative Party volunteer.
Aleks is part of the Preservative party, Leeds City Museum’s group of young volunteers. The group is currently doing a project about stories in history which have not traditionally been told. If you would like to get involved, please email our Youth Engagement Officer at [email protected].