Chris Smith’s decision to come out as HIV-positive after quietly living with the virus for 17 years made headlines around the world. The immediate reaction was admiration for his action, as exemplified by an editorial in The London Evening Standard, which lauded Mr Smith’s “act of courage”, and hoped that it represented “a landmark in people’s attitudes to those with HIV and AIDS… We hope that his example helps draw attention to the considerable difficulties still experienced by HIV/AIDS sufferers, and wins them greater public understanding.”
But then the doubts started to emerge.
Chris Smith says that he was inspired by what Nelson Mandela said at the funeral of his son who recently died from AIDS: “Let us give publicity to HIV/Aids and not hide it, because the only way to make it appear like normal illness like TB, like cancer, is always to come out and to say somebody has died because of HIV/Aids”.
Mr Smith told The Sunday Times: “Let’s take a lead from Mandela and face the injustice, and ignorance and prejudice that give rise to it, head on.”
But Peter Tatchell was less happy. He pointed out in an article in The Independent that Mandela has not always practised what he preaches. “On HIV, President Mandela let down his own people,” Tatchell wrote. “He ignored the pleas of HIV-positive activists, many of whom were members of his African National Congress (ANC). They survived the bullets and beatings of the apartheid regime, only to be, in effect, sentenced to death by the inaction of their own ANC government.”
Then, Private Eye, claimed that Chris Smith had been pushed into making the admission when he discovered that the Mail on Sunday was about reveal his health status.
In a classic spoiler tactic, Chris decided to pre-empt the tabloid exposé and do the deed on his own terms. But that begs the question: would he still be in the HIV closet if The Mail on Sunday hadn’t knocked on the door?
Certainly there was an element of bitterness from The Mail when it reported the story “Brave or just a cynical ploy by a grey man who craves praise?” its headline asked, and then laying on the spite with a trowel.
Peter McKay, the paper’s relentlessly homophobic commentator, wrote: “Mr Smith didn’t tell voters he was a homosexual when he stood for parliament in 1983. (He announced it afterwards.) Neither did he mention that he was HIV-positive when he was offered a seat in the Cabinet. He announces it after deciding he’s not standing for parliament again.”
McKay says that what he imagines Nelson Mandela had in mind with his plea was that “those with HIV and AIDS should say so even when it’s inconvenient to them. By waiting until he has nothing to lose, Mr Smith emphasis rather than removes the stigma of HIV.”
Deborah Orr, however, in The Independent, took issue with this line of thinking. She says that Smith’s declaration has probably made him “the most senior politician in the world to have declared himself HIV positive” which is, in itself, an achievement. But then she asked what would have been achieved by coming out at a time of raging AIDS-fuelled homophobia.
“Firstly,” Ms Orr says, “he would have been under even greater pressure to become what he did not want to become – a single-issue politician. As a gay politician, anyway, Smith had plenty of opportunity to be involved in shaping policy on AIDS, and in fact served on the all-party Aids Parliamentary Group from 1987 until he became culture minister in 1997. Had he been openly HIV [positive] all of that work would have taken on a personal emphasis that might have been counterproductive.”
But if it did nothing else, Mr Smith’s announcement got AIDS back on to the front pages for a brief while. And boy, oh boy, does it need to be on the front page.
The Scotsman reported that a record number of positive tests last year now brought the total number of people living with HIV in Scotland to something like 2,800. The numbers throughout the rest of the country are also rising at an alarming pace.
Consultant Professor David Goldberg, said: “The message that people should not have causal unprotected sex has never been more important.”
Yet, strangely, that message has never been less visible. And this is perhaps a much more important negative effect from Chris Smith’s coming out. He has been kept well by the use of combination therapies. He wants everyone to know that HIV is a manageable condition – you don’t have to die from it any more. That’s OK then, why bother with condoms when you can take a pill to keep you well?
But the reality of living with HIV, with its relentless regime of extremely powerful drugs, is not being spelled out sufficiently. Because Chris Smith looks so well, and dismisses his condition so lightly, he may be inadvertently sending the signal to youngsters that infection with HIV is not serious.
Writing in The Guardian, Colin Richardson, an NHS health promotion worker and former editor of Gay Times, gave some idea of the truth. “A typical comment on Chris Smith’s self-outing was ‘It just goes to show that an HIV diagnosis is not a death sentence.’ Indeed, and nor is diabetes, another incurable but manageable condition. But who on earth would be happy to have diabetes? Infection with the human immunodeficiency virus, even in the era of anti-HIV drugs, is not without consequences. The virus itself, even when kept in check by medication, can damage the body, making HIV-positive people more susceptible to certain cancers, for example. Almost as problematic at the very drugs used to combat the virus. Everyone who takes anti-HIV drugs experiences side effects, most of which pass in time, but some can linger or be so unpleasant that people abandon their medication altogether. HIV-positive people are as likely to be hospitalised because of bad reactions to their medication as they are from HIV-related illness. In the rush to congratulate Chris Smith, we are in danger of overlooking the reality of HIV in the UK.”
I don’t suppose we’ll be hearing about Mr Smith’s problems with drug regimes or side effects, but others are more forthcoming. In The London Evening Standard, Gus Cairns told of his experiences living with HIV for the past 19 years.
“It was only when I became seriously ill in 1996 that I thought I would die. I got an awful AIDS-related illness called MAI, which is related to tuberculosis. I even went to see my mum’s vicar to talk about a funeral.”
He was put on a combination drug therapy which revived him, although he still suffered side effects – extreme tiredness and nausea, and eventually anaemia which required blood transfusions. Now he takes four drugs a day.
Gus doesn’t recommend coming out at work, and says he isn’t surprised Chris Smith took so long to take the plunge. “In an ideal world everyone should feel free to tell people they have HIV but you can suffer a lot of prejudice.”
So, perhaps Chris Smith was right – on purely pragmatic grounds – to keep his status quiet all those years. He has achieved much more by being silent than if he had “done the right thing” in those times of panic and blind prejudice. His career would almost certainly have ended overnight. In his place, I would almost certainly have done the same thing.
But now he has the opportunity to really make his decision count. He can make clear to the upcoming generation of young gay people that any notion they may have harbour that getting HIV is “no big deal any more” is simply not true. He may have lived with HIV for seventeen years, but what has been going on behind the scenes for those 17 years?
Chris Smith has big plans for the future. And, of course, telling the world that not only do you have HIV, but that it – and the drugs you take to control it – make you ill from time to time, will be no recommendation to potential employers.
But if no-one ever challenges that, when will the prejudice and discrimination ever end?