From proud party boys to pariahs: No sooner were gay men celebrating the freedom to live openly than Aids struck so many down. As a new drama recreates those years, ANDREW PIERCE recalls his own experience
That night the dance floor was heaving with men in tight T-shirts and jeans, many in sexually-charged embraces, and seemingly without a care in the world as Diana Ross classic I’m Coming Out thundered from the speakers.
But across the cavernous nightclub, eyes were locked on one tall, distinctive figure in his trademark Fedora as he sashayed, smiling, through the throng of young men crowding around him.
It was Boy George and as he glided past me he stopped and, to my amazement, spoke: ‘How are you?’ Within seconds, the pop star’s entourage had moved him on to ensure I could not engage him in conversation.
The Daily Mail’s Andrew Pierce, pictured in the 1980s, once met Boy George in Heaven nightclub underneath Charing Cross Station which was the biggest gay club in Europe
I watched as he was ushered into a VIP room, a sanctuary from his adoring fans.
It may have been only a fleeting encounter but it was enough for me to be able to boast that I had met Boy George in Heaven!
Not the celestial version, but the notorious venue underneath Charing Cross Station, then the biggest gay club in Europe.
It was the summer of 1985 and I’d recently moved to London, a snake-hipped 24-year-old, out and proud, relishing the new-found freedoms of the gay community.
But the euphoria faded fast that night. Only minutes later, I looked up to see a wraith-like figure approaching. At first, I thought he was a vagrant who’d found his way in from the Strand where the homeless would gather.
His clothes were hanging limply from his skeletal frame, his hair matted. As he moved closer, I saw in his eyes that haunted far-away look with which I was becoming familiar. His cheeks were sunken and his face scarred by unsightly brown marks.
They were the tattoos of death, the most telling sign of Aids, which for the previous 18 months had stalked the gay community.
My blood ran cold when, with Diana Ross still blaring, the wraith said: ‘Hello, Andrew.’ It was only then the shocking realisation hit me. I knew him. ‘Oh, Paul! How nice to see you. How are you?’
While at the club, Andrew met a friend who was suffering from Kaposis Sarcoma, such as the black marks on this man’s legs. Princess Diana, right, met with men diagnosed with AIDS at st Mary’s Hospital in Paddington
Even as the words came tumbling out, I could have kicked myself. I’d seen enough photographs to know that Paul had the rare cancer, called Kaposi’s sarcoma, which appeared as lesions on the skin and was one of the many diseases that ravaged the bodies of men dying from Aids. Paul and I met after I moved to Cheltenham in 1979 to join my first newspaper.
He worked in a department store and later moved to London to live openly as a gay man — something he couldn’t do in his home town.
His parents assumed their strapping 6 ft son — an only child — was a red-blooded heterosexual who would provide them with the grandchildren they craved. Paul felt the pressure was intolerable.
I knew I had to say something. ‘How long have you been sick, Paul?’ I asked, as I clutched his bony hand. ‘A few months,’ he replied and that was it. He drifted away, tears in his eyes. He died three months later, aged 27.
Memories of that evening in Heaven came flooding back this week as I watched the powerful new Channel 4 drama, It’s A Sin, written by Russell T Davies.
The club features several times in the series, which charts the rapid, unforgiving spread of Aids across the capital’s vibrant gay scene in the 1980s, and the fear, bigotry and hate it generated.
Gay men made to feel like pariahs, rejected in the workplace and socially, often by their families and friends, openly discriminated against and at risk of violence, all because of their sexuality. The drama, which starts in 1981, is played out through the lives of five flatmates who leave their families in suburbia to live the metropolitan dream — just as Davies did when, aged 18, he moved from Swansea to Manchester.
Andrew said Memories of that evening in Heaven came flooding back this week while watching the powerful new Channel 4 drama, It’s A Sin, written by Russell T Davies
His characters party every night and the wild sex scenes are frequent and graphic.
It was indeed a heady time. The Pill had triggered a sexual revolution for the heterosexual community in the 1960s. Now, almost two decades after homosexual acts were legalised, it was our turn.
The script and the evocative soundtrack capture perfectly the joyous optimism of young gay men coming out in record numbers. No longer did they have to hide their sexuality or live a life in the shadows. There had been an explosion in the number of gay bars and clubs, with entrepreneurs such as a young Richard Branson spotting the potential of the ‘pink pound’.
It was Branson who bought Heaven, a former roller-skating disco, in 1982.
We felt invincible, happy in our own skins, which is why on our way out to the bars and clubs we would launch into the 1970s Tom Robinson song: ‘Sing if you’re glad to be gay’. It truly seemed the best of times. And Saturday night in a club such as Heaven was the pinnacle of the week.
It was like being at a catwalk show of a major fashion house. Some were dressed in skimpy shorts, their chests glistening with baby oil; others in full drag were tottering around in vertiginous heels; there were Savile Row suits jostling on the dance floor with men on roller skates, their bodies sprinkled with pink glitter.
One or two were being led around by dog leads. Something to do with bondage, apparently.
The air was thick with the smell of cigarette smoke, sweat — and strong solvent. Most of those dancing were inhaling ‘poppers’ or amyl nitrite, from tiny brown bottles which many kept in their fridges. Poppers caused the body temperature to soar, the pupils to dilate, and triggered a two-minute rush of excitement. They also enhanced sexual pleasure.
In these clubs, gay men could be themselves: hold hands, kiss their boyfriends or, more often than not, other people’s boyfriends. Sex was high on most people’s agenda.
It’s A Sin brilliantly conveys the contradiction of the relentless pursuit of sexual adventure with the dawning, terrifying realisation that gay men were being ruthlessly hunted down by a mysterious and lethal virus.
As the rumours gathered pace, as our friends fell ill or suddenly vanished from our lives, as wraiths like poor Paul became a routine sight, many gay men abandoned the scene altogether. They retreated, consigning themselves to a grey closeted world, fearing their chances of meeting a lifelong partner had been snatched away.
The script by Davies — who made his name in 1999 with the ground-breaking TV drama Queer As Folk and brought Doctor Who back to our screens in 2005 — is funny, poignant, achingly sad and brutally honest about the often fatal consequences of the reckless sex antics of the central characters
Some refused to change their way of life. I was in a long-term monogamous relationship, so was never tempted by the deadly roulette of casual sexual pick-ups.
Occasionally, though, my partner and I would go to a back street bar or club, where you had to knock on a door and give a password.
We went for the music and the dancing, although many were seeking other pleasures, there for brief encounters with men intent on the same. They would disappear into dimly lit back rooms for sex where there might be a dozen or so people. They might never bother to exchange names. Safe sex? I don’t think so.
The script by Davies — who made his name in 1999 with the ground-breaking TV drama Queer As Folk and brought Doctor Who back to our screens in 2005 — is funny, poignant, achingly sad and brutally honest about the often fatal consequences of the reckless sex antics of the central characters.
Tears stung my eyes when one, wannabe actor Ritchie Tozer (played by Years & Years singer Olly Alexander), is told a rival for a part has gone home ‘for good’. When you heard that phrase in the 1980s about a gay man, you knew they had gone back to their parents to die.
But it wasn’t always home sweet home. There were chilling reports of partners banned from seeing their dying lovers in the family home, visiting them in hospital or attending funerals.
Often, it was because the parents were in denial that their son was gay, let alone had the ‘gay plague’.
It’s why when Stonewall, the gay rights group, was formed in 1989, I was an early recruit. They were campaigning for a statutory right for long-term lovers to be allowed by the bedside of dying partners.
As the world confronts the Covid pandemic — caused by a virus that, 12 months ago, we knew little about, but for which we now have numerous vaccines and health education campaigns — I am reminded of how very different those early days of Aids were.
Reports were filtering through from New York and Los Angeles about a strange disease afflicting only gay men, but the first many of us here heard about it was in July 1982. It was then that the Gay News, a fortnightly newspaper, ran an item about a man called Terrence Higgins who died from what American doctors had dubbed Grids or ‘Gay-Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome’.
A Hansard reporter in Parliament, Terry was also a sought-after DJ in gay bars. Aged just 37, he collapsed in Heaven and died in hospital, one of the first British men to die from what we would later know as Aids. The Terrence Higgins Trust was established in his memory to campaign for research funds into the mysterious virus. It’s still going strong today.
Within a year of Terry’s death —and as French scientists announced they had isolated the virus responsible — panic had broken out in the gay community and beyond.
For young gay men, the ignorance and prejudice were terrifying. I had the bruises from ‘queer bashers’ who’d assault you on your way home from a night out. They usually wore gloves in case we bled and infected them.
Gay men were evicted from rented homes by landlords who feared other tenants would walk out. They were summarily sacked from jobs because colleagues objected to their presence.
Heartbreakingly, many were forbidden from visiting the homes of family and friends or seeing young nieces and nephews in case they ‘passed on’ this dreaded disease. There were discussions on TV and radio about the risk of ‘catching’ Aids from lavatory seats, from taking Communion wine or at a swimming pool.
The landlady of my local pub told my boyfriend and me we’d have to bring our own glasses after a revolt by other drinkers who feared touching a glass we had used. We found another pub.
When we bought our first flat in 1986, it was almost impossible to get an endowment policy — then a popular mortgage option — because insurance companies did not want to insure two men.
Hospitals, which ought to have been a sanctuary for the desperately sick and distressed victims of Aids, could also be hostile environments. In the Covid pandemic, staff are protected by head to toe PPE and patients are treated with warmth and compassion.
It was not like that in the early days of Aids. While I may take small issue with Davies’ portrayal of a man dying alone in empty wards in what looks like a Victorian workhouse, his meals dumped outside the door — it is too stark — I know that many Aids patients were placed in isolation rooms.
Only London hospitals had dedicated Aids wards where patients could support one another.
Visitors, too, were treated with hostility and suspicion. But it could have been worse. There was hysterical talk from some politicians about isolating Aids patients in leper-style colonies.
In the digital era, with facts and figures readily obtainable from the internet, it is difficult to grasp how hard it was to find out the truth about the virus that was ravaging an entire community back then.
In 1987 — by which time it was apparent that heterosexuals were as vulnerable to infection as gay men — the much mocked ‘monolith’ advertisements of giant tombstones crashing to the ground were broadcast. They spelled out the safe sex message as actor John Hurt’s distinctive voice urged ‘Don’t die of ignorance’.
Every household received Aids information leaflets which began to put paid to wildly inaccurate claims about the disease. I, for one, welcomed such initiatives.
HIV infection is no longer an instant death sentence, but that has allowed complacency to take hold in both the heterosexual and gay communities
That same year, the first Aids-specific drug was approved for use and suddenly there was light at the end of this darkest of tunnels.
Today, there are more than 40 drugs to choose from and, with the right combination given at the right time, some HIV positive men and women never get sick.
HIV infection is no longer an instant death sentence, but that has allowed complacency to take hold in both the heterosexual and gay communities.
Not that long ago, I was a guest speaker at a Terrence Higgins Trust fundraising event at a West End theatre which was packed with hundreds of 20 to 30-somethings. I asked how many of them practised safe sex. Barely a fifth of the hands went up.
It’s A Sin is great television, a moving and harrowing narrative stunningly told. But it is morality tale, too, and I hope younger viewers — regardless of gender or sexual preference — take heed and, at the very least, watch out for themselves and their loved ones.
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