I was surprised to hear about Chris Smith. His revelation in last Sunday’s papers that he had been HIV-positive for the past 17 years was news to many of his friends. Sombre, I suppose, but in a loose-tongued age it is satisfying to find a really well-kept secret, and one salutes Chris (as I saluted Edwina Currie a couple of years ago) for guarding a significant story so well.
Though the reasoning puzzles me a little, I also salute his motives in bringing this into the open now. Chris Smith has been a rare thing in New Labour politics: a mild, kindly, good man who seems to have the elements of his life in some kind of proportion. And he is right: there was absolutely no need to inform the Prime Minister; no more than for the PM to disclose his heart problems to Chris Smith; perhaps less. Nobody who dealt with this secretary of state for culture, media and sport ever noticed any failure of energy or intellect. I am sure he was unimpaired.
I have anyway admired Chris tremendously for many years, and envied him a little. In declaring his homosexuality as a Member of Parliament — the first to do this completely freely — he did what I always knew I should do in Parliament, but never quite found the courage. He took a risk. A little earlier in that decade, and as a rural Tory, I should have had to take a greater risk, but I regret that I did not. I bitterly regret it. Chris made a real difference. He helped move public attitudes.
So when a few weeks ago a card arrived from the Mayor of London inviting me to a party to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Chris Smith’s declaration, I was flattered to be asked. It has since emerged that this celebration is to be funded from the public purse and I do not think that is right: one would have been pleased to pay for one’s own ticket. But there it is: Ken Livingstone has decided otherwise, and Chris has agreed to be guest of honour, and that’s good enough for me. As many toasts as anyone cares to propose for the Rt Hon. Member for Islington South, I shall be happy to join — whoever pays for the wine.
All the same, I remain ...not critical, but quizzical about the HIV announcement — or, rather, Chris’s stated reasons for making it now. His motives will not have been self-interested. He is retiring from front-line politics, there will have been plenty of job offers, he does not need publicity, and he never was an attention-seeker. Besides (I dare say) the relief of getting an awkward truth out into the open — something anyone with health concerns needs sooner or later to do — he will have wanted to do it in a way that helped others. We should accept that.
He said he had been impressed by Nelson Mandela’s open acknowledgment of his own son’s death from Aids, and is responding to the former South African president’s call to end the stigma surrounding HIV. But are Africa and Britain comparable, medically or in terms of attitudes? A stigma Africans do need to remove attaches, in their continent, to homosexuality; and there is a huge need for (and a disgraceful shortage of) African heroes, role-models and achievers prepared to confront this; but that is another story. Chris is not black, only gay, and HIV-Aids is not associated with homosexuality in Africa. Most African Aids patients are not homosexual, and the HIV stigma in Africa relates not to assumptions about the infected person’s sexuality but to two other aspects of the condition.
For most people there (unlike in Britain, where we have access to life-preserving drugs) HIV brings Aids and Aids brings death. Among many Africans, an element of shame as well as horror attaches to all serious and debilitating illness. In rural Africa, being very ill is felt by some to reflect a kind of failure or perhaps curse, and sometimes leads to severe mental depression. Illness does not always bring sympathy. In Africa the sick often creep away and hide.
HIV is a sexually transmitted disease. On this fact, African attitudes are not so different from ours. The shame — or at least the indignity — does not arise from shame about sexuality but from shame about sex. Until the discovery of penicillin early in the last century, at least as much stigma attached to syphilis, and where this was the cause of infirmity or death the truth was often hushed up.
Now, how can I say this with the care needed if I am not to be interpreted as feeling anything but respect for the strength — and sorrow for the tragedy — of those gay men who have died from, or struggled with, Aids? For I see them as in some ways comrades-in-arms, unluckier than I. We who were lucky grieve for their loss. Though I hate badges of every kind, I found the wearing of the red Aids ribbon by so many — gay and straight — moving.
But I am sure many gay men have shared this reflection: throughout the 1980s and 1990s I was troubled by the thought of those hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens who were dying of illnesses other than Aids. Nobody wore ribbons for them. They were not a ‘community’. But were cancer sufferers or victims of Parkinson’s less tragic than those with Aids?
If HIV had been swept under the carpet, if the Tory health secretary Norman Fowler had led a less than creditable national response to the epidemic, if funds had been withheld from research into treatments, if the sick had been shunned or offered inferior care, then the case for a kind of badge of honour for HIV-Aids patients would have been strong. But there was no such discrimination. Government, people and national sentiment, even the press, were on the whole sensitive, supportive and generous.
All potentially terminal illnesses are surrounded, in every continent, by a kind of stigma. This arises from fear of death — our own or others’ — and the pain and embarrassment of acknowledging a possibly mortal illness in anyone we love. Cancer is no different. We wince and look away. When Chris talks of the ‘stigma’ of HIV-Aids I am not sure I recognise this as attaching especially to that medical condition — except among those who stigmatise homosexuality itself.
Theirs is a prejudice which we should take on directly (and Chris has) rather than obliquely, by way of an illness. I was always doubtful about inviting sympathy or support for homosexuals generally via the tragedy of Aids.
HIV-Aids is an affliction. Homosexuality is not. I am wary of conflating a variety of human love with a kind of victimhood. In so far as there exists popular prejudice and cruelty towards homosexual people, it seems to me important to face this with the minimum possible appeal for pity. Pity and stigma are not far removed from each other.
So from Chris Smith’s admirable statement last week I draw a simpler message than he does himself, though it may worry the safe-sex campaign. You can live happily and successfully with HIV. Long may Chris.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.