David Furnish: The story of AIDS became a message about hope

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David Furnish wants people to watch ‘How to Survive a Plague’, a new film about the AIDS epidemic. He says we should never forget those who “stood up and fought” against apathy in the 1980s.

Writing in the London Evening Standard, Furnish, chairman of the Elton John AIDS Foundation, said: “I remember seeing the first reports about a mysterious new disease called AIDS on TV when I was a closeted young man in Canada. They started with gaunt, almost skeletal gay men losing hope as fast as they lost weight, and they were followed by clips of fundamentalist preachers, gloating that everything they said had been vindicated. Here, they announced, was God’s judgement on perversion.

“As I watched, I backed deeper into the closet, and deeper into despair. Indeed, I ran to the very back of the closet and tried to nail it shut. The illness was gleefully labelled ‘the gay plague’ and victims were treated like lepers in medieval times.”

He added: “Back then, everybody knew how the story of AIDS was going to play out. It was going to rage through gay people and prostitutes and injecting drug addicts across the world, and kill them all. Here was a disease for which there was no cure, killing people who were widely despised. There would be no political action. There would be only loss.

“Except that’s not how it turned out. The story of AIDS did not turn into a tragedy. It turned into a story about how people overcome tragedy and achieve the seemingly impossible. The most reviled groups in our society demanded action — and they were so successful that if we continue on the current course, we will end AIDS in my lifetime, or the lifetime of my sons.”

In September, the deputy executive director of the United Nations’ HIV/AIDS agency said the epidemic could potentially be over by 2030 – but only if infection rates among most at risk populations, such as men who have sex with men (MSM), fall substantially.

“If we do not succeed in controlling the epidemic among these groups, AIDS will stay with us,” Dr Luis Loures said.

Condoms, HIV testing, antiretroviral medication and Post-Exposure Prophylaxis means the UK does already have the tools needed to reach an end point of the epidemic – but getting there in practice is a huge challenge.

“As I know from my work with the Elton John AIDS Foundation, many of the people carrying the HIV virus in London today are either gay men or recent African immigrants”, Furnish said in the Standard. “There are people who would rather remain silent about this because they are worried that it gives fuel to bigots who want to attack and demean these groups.

“But How to Survive a Plague shows the right way to respond to bigotry. Don’t deny it. Acknowledge it. Fight it. At the end of this month it is National HIV Testing Week. We need a big national push to get ourselves and our friends tested —without stigma, without shame and without stalling.”