Seasons of love: reflections on what makes me proud
16 June 2022
By David Woodhead
I remember attending a conference with my friend Mark at London South Bank University, one ordinary Saturday in June 1995. We were fresh-faced, full of fun and fury, and determined to change the world. I was doing a PhD about gay men’s identities in the HIV epidemic. And he was leading community-based HIV prevention work in the south west. What a dynamic duo we were.
I struggle to remember much about the event except there were lots of good-looking young men in white jeans and black t-shirts, with pierced ears, wearing pink triangles – standard fare in the 90s.
There was, however, one presentation that I will never forget. It showed that gay men with AIDS in San Francisco who had strong networks of friends and family with whom they could talk frankly about their fears, their hopes, and their imminent deaths, had better mental health. And, more often than not, they had better expected outcomes for their physical health as well as longer life expectancy.
They were happier and lived longer.
Men who were isolated, shunned by their families (as so many were), or not able to talk about their illness and mortality, fared much worse.
I realised, in that moment, at the age of 25, that there were lots of things that negatively affected LGBTQ+ health: homophobia and discrimination; fear of AIDS; deaths of friends and loved ones; poverty and unemployment, to name a few.
Conversely, to connect, to engage, to love and be loved, to be part of something welcoming and safe helped us to survive and thrive.
Mark and I left the conference fizzing with ideas. And as we walked into Soho for a celebratory beer or two, we mapped out a rough blueprint for a new movement. As a community, we needed each other. We needed to believe in each other. And we needed to be proud of the networks we formed and the new kinds of families we created.
We called this our manifesto for love.
Unfortunately, it didn’t materialise. We were young and distractions were plenty.
But looking back, I realise that, in micro, we were building something important. Something enduring. Something quite revolutionary.
My friends and family are all LGBTQ+ or strong allies; people who embrace sexual differences and celebrate them. They are people troubled by injustice who want to make a difference.
Over the years, we have marched, signed petitions, written letters and articles, shouted and remonstrated. We have blown whistles and danced, cried and hugged. We have helped each other get through the exigencies and challenges of queer life. And we have developed identities centred on a strong belief in our friendships and networks, and the contributions we make to them.
So when I am asked, ‘what makes you proud?’, this is it: my friends, family and I have supported each other, checked in, helped out, lent a hand, an ear, a shoulder to cry on. Together we have got through landmark moments: coming out, heartbreak and grief, anxiety and depression, homophobic violence, workplace discrimination and redundancy, desertion and divorce, the chaos of addiction and the uncertainty of early sobriety, HIV and cancer diagnoses, and much more.
There’s always been a bunch of queer friends and allies who have had my back, even when I was hiding in dark, remote places. Even when I had pretty much given up hope. It was their love that got me through.
Mark lives in Australia now, in a house by a beach with white sand and amazing sunsets. He has a fabulous boyfriend and a pet cockatoo. It’s a long way from Elephant and Castle in the mid-90s. But the connection between us is still strong. And for him, and all my extended LGBTQ+ and ally family, I am forever grateful. And interminably proud.
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