Begin/Again: Marking Black Memories

The AIDS Epidemic


Many remember the 1980s as a decade characterized by the HIV and AIDS epidemic – a fatal virus that wreaked havoc upon LGBTQ+ people and society at large. Shrouded with misconceptions that were often rooted in homophobia, little was understood about the virus from a medical point of view. Still today AIDS accounts for many death worldwide, and it is estimated that 35 million people have died from AIDS-related illnesses since the 1980s.


AIDS in the UK 

The first known AIDS-related death in the UK occurred in 1981. By 1987, had "become most associated with people with haemophilia who were infected through contaminated blood products, with drug users who had shared needles, with babies infected by their mothers, and with gay men infected through unprotected anal sex. There were cases of transmission through heterosexual vaginal sex, but this was widely seen to belong to the crisis as it was unfolding elsewhere – in parts of Africa and Haiti, for example. The British press distinguished between 'innocent' haemophiliacs and babies on the one hand, and drug users and homosexuals on the other. Of the latter pairing, homosexuals were the most frequently associated with the virus and its devastating effects. This was because it was gay men who had been infected in the largest numbers in Britain and because they were already a demonized minority – and one which was developing a strident communal voice in part because of previous political organizing (in the Campaign for Homosexual Equality and Gay Liberation, for example). By the end of 1987 around 2,500 people were known to be HIV-positive in the UK; roughly seventy percent of these were thought to have contracted the virus through sex with another man. Six hundred and ten people had died by this time – half in that year alone, signaling a marked escalation in the crisis."

In May of 1987, the Mass Observation social research project asked its panel of 1,300 'ordinary' people for their views on the intensifying crisis. Six hundred and thirty people responded, with 1,386 pages of largely handwritten testimony – forming an archive which gives us some shadowy sense of the emotional tumult surrounding AIDS in and around that particular year. This is the testimony of a 28-year-old London local government worker whose friend, Mark Ashton, died of AIDS at age twenty-six. 

"A mutual friend [of Mark's] who works in the same building as me asked me to go out to the corridor with her. … She waited until no one was around and then told me that Mark had been taken into hospital in the final stages of the disease. … I went back to my office and telephoned my partner to tell him that Mark was very ill. When he asked me what was wrong with him I did not say because I was afraid that the others in my office, hearing that I knew someone with AIDS, would associate me with it. I went into the men's toilets and cried. On the day he died, the same mutual friend called me at work and asked me to meet me outside her office. She told me that she had been with him that morning when he died. We stood in the corridor and both cried and when one of her colleagues passed us to ask what was wrong she said that Mark had been run over by a car and died after being in a coma. Her colleagues were very sympathetic. Later one of them heard her in the staff canteen telling her boyfriend what had really happened. When she came into work the next day they had moved her desk to the far side of the room and refused to speak to her. One man told her that he couldn't risk contact with her as he had children. She left her job shortly after." 

Source: Matt Cook, ‘Archives of Feeling’: the AIDS Crisis in Britain 1987, History Workshop Journal, Volume 83, Issue 1, Spring 2017, Pages 51–78,

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