Twenty-nine years ago, on 24 November, Freddie Mercury died of complications due to AIDS. He was just 45. The lead vocalist for the band Queen, Mercury was an electrifying presence on and off stage who transformed the genre of rock music and left an enduring legacy as one of the greatest rockstars of all time. Although he never publicly confirmed his sexual orientation, Mercury pushed boundaries by openly dating both men and women, challenging gender norms in his fashions, and using music to express his sexuality. Almost three decades later, as we continue to celebrate his musical and personal impact, we should also take pause to recollect the environment in which Mercury battled HIV.
In Somebody to Love: The Life, Death and Legacy of Freddie Mercury, biographers Mark Langthorne and Matt Richards recount both the publicly flamboyant and privately intimate sides that made up Freddie Mercury. Indeed when it came to his battle with HIV, Mercury kept his diagnosis private until the last moment, although rumours amongst the press had already begun to pick up on his faltering health. In the last years of his life, Mercury limited his public appearances so as not to be seen in his progressively-frailer state. While he was likely diagnosed with HIV as early as 1982, he did not disclose his status until 1991--the day, in fact, before he died.
Mercury privately battled HIV during a time of mounting discrimination against infected individuals. As an infection associated with gay men, injecting drug users and Afro-Caribbean immigrants, HIV/AIDS was (and still is) a highly stigmatized diagnosis. In fact, HIV/AIDS was so closely associated with homosexuality that it was originally named ‘gay Compromise Syndrome’ by by the United States’ Communicable Disease Center (CDC), later changed to ‘Gay Related Immune Deficiency’ (GRID).
It’s important to remember that in Britain, homosexuality was decriminalised only 14 years before the start of the AIDS epidemic (1967). Furthermore, in 1988 a famous piece of legislation, Section 28 of the Local Government Act, banned local authorities and schools from ‘promoting’ homosexuality (Section 28 was overturned a decade later). This enduring legislative hostility towards the gay community in Britain affected both the urgency to treat HIV/AIDS as well as the way people diagnosed with HIV/AIDS were treated by their government. As historian Laurie Marhoefer writes, ‘Mercury, along with all the other men and women who tested positive for HIV in the 1980s, was a victim not just of a pandemic but of the failures of his own governments and of the scorn of his fellow citizens.’ Because HIV/AIDS was thought to only infect gay indivdiuals and other social ‘misfits’, the ‘general population’ was assumed to not be at risk. This meant governments were slow to contribute resources to the treatment of and research into HIV/AIDS, and most of the burden fell to civilian organizations.
In response to government failures, in both Britain and America the gay community rallied to provide internal support and guidance for its infected members. In the UK, the Terry Higgins Trust (THT) was established in 1982, named for the first British man to die of HIV/AIDS. THT raised funds for research, set up a helpline to answer questions, provided social support to infected infected, and spearheaded advocacy efforts. THT, along with its American counterpart the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) were also some of the first organizations to embark on health education campaigns, advocating for safe sex practices as a way of stopping the spread of HIV/AIDS.
After his death, Mercury was discussed in the press as having brought AIDS upon himself, referencing his ‘gay affairs’ and ‘hundreds of male lovers’ to connect his diagnosis to his sexuality and promiscuity. This commentary was not altogether uncommon for the times, as AIDS was often understood as a punishment for homosexuality. Besides the rehearsal of these tropes of criticism, Mercury’s death also sparked a public reaction and fueled efforts to address the ongoing epidemic. Just months after Mercury’s death, the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness was notable not only for the lineup of artists who joined in paying respects to the rockstar legend (David Bowie, Metallica, Guns n Roses, George Michael), but also as the ‘first time that music’s biggest artists came together to draw attention to AIDS awareness’.
Twenty-nine years since Mercury’s death, HIV/AIDS does not entail the grim prospects that it did when Mercury was diagnosed. Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) pills have become more widely available to groups at high risk of exposure, and have proven successful in preventing HIV-negative individuals from contracting HIV/AIDS. For those with HIV/AIDS, a variety of treatments, including highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), exist. In the twenty-first century, these strides forward in our knowledge of HIV/AIDS and its prevention have ‘transformed AIDS from a terminal diagnosis to a chronic manageable condition’.
At the same time, while better testing and better treatments have contributed to longer life expectancies and a better physical quality of life, the social quality of life for those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS still leaves room for improvement. In a 2015 study of people living with HIV in Britain, over half of participants reported at some point feeling shame, guilt or self-blame in relation to their status, and one in five had felt suicidal. Participants also worried about their infection status becoming gossip, reason for rejection from sexual partners, and cause for exclusion from friends and family. To summarise, our ability to treat HIV/AIDS is strides beyond the way we treat people with HIV/AIDS.
The world has changed a lot in the twenty-nine years since Freddie Mercury’s death, but sometimes popular attitudes are the most resistant to change. And sometimes, negative attitudes can cause damage in themselves: it has been shown that HIV stigmatisation often ‘strengthens and reproduces’ existing inequalities of gender, race and socioeconomic status. There is no straightforward or definitive method for overcoming social and institutional stigma, but it’s important work to attempt. To start, we might try to speak more openly and sensitively about HIV/AIDS, and STIs in general, ensuring that we are speaking and thinking from a basis of sound information rather than popular fallacies.
Here at Yoxly, we are leading by example: leaving stigmas in the past and paving a new way forward in sexual health care that is inclusive and non-judgemental. We believe that everyone, regardless of race, gender, age or sexual orientation, deserves access to education about and treatment for STIs, and no one deserves to be treated differently--regardless of their test results. We’re delivering on our mission by making our STI kits easy to use, and making sexual health an easier conversation to approach. For more information on HIV transmission, testing and treatment, visit: https://yoxly.com/pages/sti-information.
Be educated; be safe; and, be kind.
Julia Barr is a recent graduate of the University of Cambridge where she studied postcolonial British history. She currently serves as grant writer with Kar Geno, a Kenyan-based non-profit that assists HIV/AIDS-affected women and provides sexual health education to school-aged children.