Rumours had been circulating about Freddie Mercury being HIV positive for years and his increasingly gaunt appearance meant the announcement of his death shouldn’t have come as the greatest of shocks.
But it was a huge shock to me – Freddie was so vibrant, so alive, so seemingly untouchable.
The legendary Queen frontman died on 24 November 1991 – 30 years ago today – as a result of bronchial pneumonia relating to an AIDS diagnosis, just a day after announcing he was HIV positive since being diagnosed in 1987. He was 45 years old and millions across the world grieved his passing.
I was a gay man in my mid-20s back then and had lived my whole adult life under the shadow of the HIV epidemic. The first reported cases of what we now know as HIV came 40 years ago in late 1981, when I was just 16. For me, sex had never been free of shame, paranoia or potentially fatal consequences.
Freddie’s death super-charged the fear already surrounding HIV in our community. In the same way that any death (or unexplained disappearance) of a friend, lover or acquaintance from a bar or nightclub did. Except it couldn’t be avoided and you couldn’t bury your head in the sand – it was front page news and everyone was talking about it. The Sun’s headline read: ‘FREDDIE IS DEAD’.
I vividly remember thinking: if it could happen to Freddie, it could happen to me.
The constant, nagging fear of HIV and dying decades before my parents left me caught in a cycle of shame: having sex, feeling guilty and afraid, a long, torturous wait for test results, vowing never to have sex again. breaking my vow… and then starting the cycle again.
By the time of Freddie’s death, I was trying to fight against the shame and just live my life. At the time protecting yourself against HIV was about risk management (‘OK I’ll do that, but we can’t do that’) and harm reduction. We were all rolling the dice and playing the game as best we could.
That’s why Channel 4’s It’s A Sin from earlier this year is so powerful and has been so successful – it showed we were all just doing our best in the face of such devastation.
Because back in 1991, there was no end in sight and years had gone past without improvement. I genuinely believed it was hopeless and would remain hopeless. It had been hopeless for Freddie and it would be hopeless for me. I’d tried waiting for a cure or a pill to protect myself and nothing had come. I couldn’t keep waiting in limbo forever. I couldn’t keep depriving myself forever.
In many ways, my own HIV diagnosis in 1996 came as something of a relief. The chase was over and I no longer had to fear getting it. Yes, I had new and different things to worry about – it felt like the rug had been pulled out from under me and telling my loved ones will stay with me until the day I die – but that specific torture was over.
At the time, I was given six to eight years to live and vowed to pack as much into that time as possible. I imagine Freddie Mercury will have thought the same – and he certainly did. I also signed up to medical trials to play a part in developing medications, as well as in the hope they might help extend my life.
And for me the story is a happy one because the same year I was diagnosed, effective treatments for HIV were finally found. I went from being told I had a handful of years left to eventually being told I would live a normal lifespan. And from 1996 onwards, things started to get better. I got to do things I never thought I would. I turned 40 and 50, and will turn 60 and 70.
I wish Freddie and all the others lost before treatment could’ve lived to see the progress that’s been made. Progress that seemed like it truly would never arrive. And for many across the globe, it’s progress that shamefully still hasn’t.
You can now live a normal lifespan with HIV thanks to effective treatment – especially when you’re diagnosed early. HIV positive parents can also have children free from HIV. And PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is a pill you can take, which is highly effective at protecting against HIV. Just this week it was announced that long-acting injectable HIV treatment will soon be available.
And then there’s the fact that someone living with HIV and on effective treatment – like me – can’t pass on the virus to anyone else (like my husband). This is huge.
Because the big concern for me when I was diagnosed was that I would pass it on to someone else and that impacted my sex life and mental health – just as the fear of HIV has done for years before. But now I’m free from that. It’s not just that I won’t pass it on, but I can’t pass it on.
At Terrence Higgins Trust, we try to repeat that message whenever and wherever possible. Because it’s such a departure from what we were told in the 1980s and 90s, we know it’s a message that needs to be heard again and again to be believed. But it’s such a powerful way to tackle stigma, discrimination and prejudice.
The statement Freddie released shortly before he died concluded: ‘The time has now come for my friends and fans around the world to know the truth, and I hope everyone will join with me, my doctors and all those worldwide in the fight against this terrible disease.’
Freddie wanted his death to save others and to galvanise people across the globe in the fight against HIV. And it did. His death heightened awareness, inspired action and – as importantly – raised a huge amount of money to fund research, support those affected and to educate.
The Christmas number one in 1991 was the re-release of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which raised over £1million to support our work at Terrence Higgins Trust. And while today the nature of our work is thankfully very different, there’s still a huge amount of work to do.
Now as we approach World AIDS Day on 1 December, we’re targeting the end of new HIV cases by 2030 because of the incredible tools we have, which means no one should be contracting the virus any longer.
So don’t just be sad about Freddie’s untimely death today – celebrate his legacy, the incredible songs he wrote and sang, and play your part in educating others about all the progress we’ve made in the fight against HIV.
The progress Freddie so desperately wanted to see.
Ian Green is Chief Executive of Terrence Higgins Trust, the UK’s leading HIV and sexual health charity. It’s World AIDS Day on 1 December, information on how to show your support is available via the charity’s website. For advice and support, contact THT Direct on 0808 802 121.
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