This Brixton elderly LGBT+ group for over 50s wants everyone to know AIDS is no myth

With a spirited shout, Clare called the 11-person group together.

Clutching a royal purple bowler hat, the 57-year-old said: “I was shocked about 15 years ago by a youngish bloke, in his 20s, degree-educated, who thought AIDS was a myth.”

The chairs creaked as the group shuffled, shocked, in their seats.

“I disabused him of the idea by telling him the name of everyone I know who died of this ‘myth’.”

It was the 30th World AIDS Day, and the Brixton Umbrella Circle, a social group for LGBT+ people over 50, had met last Saturday at Vida’s, the side-café of Age UK’s Vida Walsh Centre.

On the first Saturday of the month, the group hold a meeting that explores a theme of queer life. Today it is AIDS.

Introducing the topic to the group, Clare said: “Half my social circle seemed to disappear one year.

“In the late 80s it seemed that everyone I knew – if not them, then their partners, their exes, their friends, their housemates – was affected by it.

“You’d see somebody one day and then they were dead the next week. Dropping like flies seemed to be an appropriate description.

“It was a very dark time.”

The LGBT+ rights charity Stonewall estimates there are one million LGBT+ people aged over 55 in Britain.

Studies suggest that older LGBT+ people are more likely to live alone in old age, with fewer links with younger generations, thereby increasing their sense of isolation.

Umbrella was co-founded two years ago by Davey, 65, and Bruce, the latter whose involvement in Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners back in the 80s was reignited when the film Pride (2014) was released.

During the mid-2010s, Davey collected donations around Brixton for the miners, who had reconvened for the first time since the mining strikes.

“Nobody thought in 30 years’ time anyone would make a successful film about them,” Davey said.

“The effects of AIDS in the 80s and the defeat of the strikes are still all around us and we’re still living with the consequences of it among the gay community.

“But nobody speaks about it. ‘Oh, Pride, what a great movie,’ people would say. But nobody was addressing the bad, so, I helped set-up Umbrella to speak about that side of things.”

He contacted Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners, and a chance encounter with Bruce led to the two men forming Umbrella.

Davey added: “It’s great to get together and socialise and offer whatever support we can to one another as we get older.”

For the men and women in the room, they were aged between 16-34 when AIDS first emerged in the west.

The high number of AIDS deaths at the epidemic’s peak (1987-1996) shaped their social, psychological, and community lives, during the epidemic, throughout their life, and into their later years.

The unfolding political context was one of silence from both the state and themselves – typified by Margaret Thatcher’s Section 28, which banned the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities and in Britain’s schools.

You intuit that Clare reminds herself to smile as she said: “One man I know was the man who brought the fireworks to Brockwell Park.

“I can’t watch the fireworks without bursting into tears. He ruined Valentine’s Day for me, too; he had his funeral on Valentine’s Day.

“Valentine’s Day will never be the same.”

Medical science has made leaps and bounds since the 80s with many of the treatments for those living with HIV vastly different from what it was 20 years ago.

Today, PrEP and PEP are methods of preventing HIV infection, standing for pre-exposure prophylaxis and post-exposure prophylaxis respectively. 98% of adults living with HIV are on antiretroviral treatment.

Ron, 59, is a tall guy with a large, bushy handlebar moustache wearing a beaten and blanched pair of Levi jeans.

He illustrates children’s books, most recently ‘Pat the Young Kitty Cat’, and his youth was spent singing in an acid house cover band.

“I’ve had HIV for 30 years now, I’m a long-term survivor,” Ron coolly said.

“It is a manageable disease, almost like diabetes.”

Ron, after defining the difference between PrEP and PEP, detailed his own medication to the group.

“It’s quite easy, I’ve been on drugs since the late 90s and they have a handle on them now. Times are different now,” he said.

For years, Ron’s worry has not been his positive status. Rather, it has been the “periphery effects of the antirhetorical drugs” he took during the late 90s.

Drugs change. Technologies change. People change.

But for this group of Brixton locals, meeting once a month gives them with a sense of stability that no medical journal or mobile application could ever provide.

*Names changed to protect their identity.

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