John: Full Recording
This recording was made in the run-up to World AIDS Day 2018 and reflects a short discussion around John's memories of learning about AIDS in the 1980s, rather than a full interview.
Short interview with Ross Horsley for World AIDS Day
14th November 2018
INTERVIEWER: John, when did you first become aware of AIDS?
JOHN: 1981. I used to come from home to Leeds up Swinegate and get to the station, and on the corner of a little yard I know as Blayds Yard there was a bookshop that sold "dirty" magazines. One day one of these magazines caught my eye and for some reason I bought it, and in it I learnt about AIDS for the first time. It wasn't called AIDS then; the gay plague I think they called it. It later became H3, and then H4, and then HIV. This article mentioned this disease that was affecting the gay population in California and America, and it described it as a nasty disease and people were dying from it. But it wasn't widespread, it was just confined to a certain area and, as they put it, it was as rare as rocking horse shit so there was nothing really to worry about.
INTERVIEWER: How did it develop?
Well following on from that you started to see snippets in the main papers, you'd hear about this disease in America and this disease in America was going around male saunas. And Ronald Reagan didn't think much about this disease and didn't do anything about closing these saunas and it was a nasty disease. There was no cure for it. People were dying from it, and other people could catch it besides gay men and all these little things in the papers, not a lot, but if you were a gay man and you were looking out for it, you noticed them, you took notice of them.
INTERVIEWER: Which famous people did you become aware of who'd died as a result of AIDS?
JOHN: Well I think the watershed moment was when Rock Hudson died. That was splashed all over the front of the papers, I think November and October 1985, "Rock Hudson Dies of AIDS". A picture of Rock Hudson, 59, a wizened old man. That can't be Rock Hudson the film star, surely? He's a handsome young man, he's not gay, never, never in a million years; I wouldn't have believed it. But yet it was right, he'd died, he was a homosexual man, been a homosexual man all his life, but covered it up brilliantly to make sure it didn't get found out in the newspapers. He caught this disease, probably caught it before he knew it existed, and he died in the most horrible manner. His body had disintegrated into a wizened old man, and he'd died. He was a millionaire, billionaire, but yet all the money in the world couldn't save him. He might have been a chap in the street, the same as us, he died. And I think that was the watershed moment when people took note of the fact that AIDS existed, homosexuals existed, and it had to be talked about. Prior to that, homosexuality wasn't mentioned.
INTERVIEWER: So when it started to be mentioned, what else did you see in the media relating to AIDS?
JOHN: Well following from that it got a lot more publicity, it turned out anybody could catch it; for instance in Africa it started being widespread. It could go into women, women could catch it, it was transmitted by sex, mainly gay sex but straight sex could transmit it. People were getting it; people were dying from it. There was no cure whatsoever, and gradually they found out more about it. It was this virus that was causing it. Nobody knew where this virus had come from, nobody still knows where the virus had come from. I believe the best guess is that it came from apes. It had appeared from nowhere in about 1981/1982. There was a Patient Zero, some Canadian airline steward, but as he said, "Somebody's given me it; I didn't start it." It started being on the television, they made television commercials about it, educating people on what to do, what not to do.
They started talking about these things called condoms. I always knew condoms existed, they called them johnnies in my day, rubber johnnies. But until the AIDS epidemic, I'd never heard of the medical term, 'condom'. That was a new one and I suspect a lot of other people in the country had never heard them called condom either. It even got into my stamp collection – the post office had a national slogan which they put on all the mail, "AIDS: Don't Die of Ignorance".
INTERVIEWER: And did you know of any people in West Yorkshire who died of AIDS?
JOHN: I was never an active gay, so I wasn't really in the gay community so I didn't know anyone personally. But I do remember my father, in 1991 he took badly and was in Leeds Infirmary for a month in intensive care. Obviously, I visited every day and during that time we saw a lot of people come into intensive care. Mostly they just stopped a day or two, they either died or went back into the wards when they had recovered sufficiently. But one day, I wasn't there but my mother was and they brought in this young lad who was in his 40s. He'd got pneumonia and he was dying, and he died shortly after. His mother and his relations were, of course, extremely distressed. They were crying and, 'oh it should have been me,' his mother said, ‘not him’. And to me it was perfectly obvious, the young man had got AIDS. He'd died of AIDS, pneumonia-related AIDS, and that brought home to me how close it was. My mother, she must have known I was gay but she'd never mentioned it and she sort of looked at me and said, 'don't you get it'. She didn't say it, but you could feel that she was frightened I might get it.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think things have changed nowadays?
JOHN: Well, we have a lot of Gay Liberation Fronts and Stonewalls and groups that promoted homosexuality, and they're the chief success but I think the reason we have the situation today is because of the AIDS virus. It's done more for gay liberation, in my opinion, than anything else put together. People had to acknowledge gay men existed, people had to acknowledge that there was this disease, people had to do something about this disease, and the subject from then on became talked about and people became more aware of gay issues – the problems gay people have, this disease that gay people were facing, and of course the high-profile deaths kept continuing.
A couple of weeks after my father, Freddy Mercury, again a handsome young man, a wizened wreck of a man, Kenny Everett, Liberace, mind you could understand that he was gay. And so it went on. But of course, they studied this virus, it was a clever virus, but they gradually found ways of treating it. They came up with this combination therapy, so after a few years people didn't die of it, they just had to keep taking the pills for life which tended to stop people being as cautious as they were. I mean in my own case it affected my life, you could never indulge in the gay activities that you wanted to do. I can remember going to saunas in the 1990s where, let's say they still weren't practicing safe sex. And I was invited to join in – quite nice, handsome young man with a nice beard before it went grey, but you couldn't. You know, it wasn't a question of 'oh you might catch something' or 'oh you might be embarrassed in the newspapers', it was a question of 'oh you're dead'.