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Marc Thompson: how an HIV diagnosis at 17 helped him change Britain | Society

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Marc Thompson was 17 when he came upon he had HIV. He had been out as homosexual for less than a yr when a buddy steered he get himself examined. “I assumed: ‘Yeah, why not? I’m not going to be constructive.’ You needed to wait two weeks for the outcomes again then – I’d truly organized to have lunch with a buddy on the day they have been due, as a result of it by no means occurred to me that I might be constructive.”

Thompson says he’ll always remember how he felt that day – partly as a result of he’s nonetheless requested about it on a regular basis. As one of many UK’s main HIV, Aids and queer black males’s well being campaigners, sharing his personal expertise comes with the job. “I felt full and utter numbness,” he says. “All I may hear was white noise. I used to be strolling round in a daze.”

By the point Thompson examined constructive in November 1986, public consciousness about HIV was rising, however the prognosis was poor and efficient remedy was nonetheless a decade away. “It felt like a dying sentence,” says Thompson. “I spent plenty of time interested by what it could be wish to die in hospital. I picked the songs for my funeral. I deliberate essentially the most glamorous send-off attainable. That’s the way in which you take care of that stuff in your early 20s.”

Thompson, 52, may be very a lot nonetheless right here, nonetheless. In a 25-year profession as an activist and programme supervisor working in HIV prevention and sexual well being, he has been at the forefront of serious adjustments within the remedy of HIV and Aids. In 2015, he turned one of many founders of PrEPster, an organisation that pushed for the life-changing treatment PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) – which dramatically reduces the possibility of spreading HIV – to be supplied on the NHS. After years of campaigning by Thompson and others, PrEP was made freely out there in England in April 2020. (It was rolled out on the NHS in Scotland in July 2017, whereas routine commissioning was introduced in Wales in June 2020; after a two-year pilot, Northern Eire is anticipated to make PrEP out there imminently.)

It’s a watershed second, he says, particularly for homosexual males. “For almost 40 years, many homosexual males have carried a worry of HIV on our shoulders that stops individuals from loving freely,” he says. “I do know males who’re PrEP customers who speak about being liberated from the worry of intercourse.”


I meet Thompson within the LGBTQ+ group area within the housing co-op in Brixton, south London, the place he lives with Travis, his parson russell terrier. Rotimi Fani-Kayode, the Nigerian-British photographer who was recognized for his explorations of race and sexuality earlier than he died of Aids in 1989, used to dwell on this constructing, Thompson says proudly. Certainly, it has been residence to plenty of marketing campaign “plotting” over time.

His work as a campaigner started in 1992, when he began going to a assist centre for individuals with HIV and Aids at the Landmark Aids Centre in close by Tulse Hill. Within the early years of his diagnosis, “I wasn’t massive on going to social assist teams, as a result of invariably I used to be the one black individual there, invariably the youngest, and most of the time the one one that wasn’t unwell. I felt actually remoted.”

Nevertheless, an alternative got here as much as run workshops on safer intercourse for black homosexual males. “This was a brand new idea at the time, you recognize: how are we getting individuals to make use of condoms correctly? So I jumped on board. It was enjoyable. And I realised that by telling my very own story and speaking about my diagnosis and how I got here to phrases with my sexuality, I used to be giving individuals permission to inform theirs, too.”

‘We’re nonetheless asking why black and brown individuals have poorer well being outcomes’ … Thompson, who has been a campaigner for 30 years. {Photograph}: courtesy of Marc Thompson

In 1995, he joined Large Up, a bunch set as much as handle inadequacies within the HIV prevention providers out there to black homosexual males. On the time, providers have been both aimed at white homosexual males or straight black communities. “Neither of them have been doing work for black homosexual males. So we fell via the cracks.” It’s an space he has stayed in for the easy motive that the work is critical. Regardless of a dramatic discount in HIV transmission charges in recent times – new diagnoses amongst homosexual and bisexual males within the UK decreased by 47% between 2014 and 2019 – black homosexual males are 15 occasions extra probably, globally, to get the virus.

“If we glance at the drop within the charges of HIV diagnoses in males up to now few years, they’ve been unbelievable, however we haven’t seen the identical drops for males whose first language isn’t English, males who’re migrants to this nation or males who aren’t white,” says Thompson.

“I battle for all communities, however I make no apologies for placing black homosexual males at the highest, as a result of we’re so typically on the underside rung of the ladder,” he says. “I’ve little question that if the Aids epidemic had hit younger, white, straight individuals at that point, the response would have been totally different. The federal government and the well being service would have acted much more shortly.

You see the same with Covid today; we’re nonetheless asking why black and brown individuals have poorer well being outcomes.”

Thompson was born and raised in Brixton. His father was a demolition employee, instrumental in clearing London of the postwar rubble that gave solution to a vibrant new metropolis. His mom was a probation officer, working with south London’s younger offenders.

“I’d like to say my activism was impressed by Martin Luther King or Bayard Rustin, however it wasn’t,” he says. “It was impressed by the common those who have been round me – my dad, my mum and my grandparents.” Each units of Thompson’s grandparents migrated to the UK from Jamaica. “It was that typical story,” he says. “My maternal grandfather got here right here in 57, then despatched for my mum. My paternal grandparents settled right here after which went again to Jamaica within the mid 70s, however their kids stayed right here.

“Observing my dad and uncle’s expertise of police brutality, cease and search, and the unfairness my mum confronted as a black girl within the 70s gave me an early sense that there was injustice towards black individuals on this nation,” he says. “My dad was a very proud man who informed me to face up straight and stroll robust on this world. Listening to these issues all through my childhood made me conscious about my place on this nation.”

Thompson got here out to his mom when he was 15, who was “good”. “There’s a story of black households not all the time accepting homosexual kids,” he says. “My household accepted my sexuality, they accepted my HIV.”

Navigating the homophobia and racism of London within the 80s was tougher. “I used to be out to my household, however I wasn’t out in my barbershop,” he says. Assembly different homosexual individuals domestically helped. “I used to be fortunate. So many homosexual males come out they usually don’t know the place to go. That was very true for black individuals, as a result of these areas both didn’t exist or they have been underground.”

Going to black queer membership nights, similar to Queer Nation in Vauxhall, was a “political act” he says. “We fell in love in these areas and expressed ourselves, and that turned so essential because the Aids epidemic began to take root. The membership turned our salvation.”

The significance of that salvation was delivered to life vividly this yr by the Russell T Davies drama It’s a Sin, which spans the usually too-short lives of a bunch of associates in London throughout the Aids epidemic. The present, which is Channel 4’s most-watched drama ever, has been “incredible in reigniting the dialog across the epidemic in our communities,” says Thompson.

“I’m inspired after I take into consideration all of the younger individuals who have been impressed to seek out out a bit extra about their historical past. However I don’t need younger queer individuals to fret about HIV like we did.

Thompson with his mother
‘My household accepted my sexuality – so many homosexual males come out and don’t know the place to go’ … Thompson along with his mom. {Photograph}: courtesy of Marc Thompson

I do know individuals who’ve been recognized just lately, who’re younger. They’re simply as devastated as I used to be 35 years in the past. What’s totally different is there’s so many extra choices to stop HIV [transmission].”

There may be nonetheless no remedy for Aids, however there are therapies for HIV-positive those who allow them to dwell lengthy and wholesome lives. Antiretroviral therapy (ART), which stops the virus from reproducing, didn’t arrive within the UK till 1997. Thompson started his in 2001 – 15 years after he was recognized.

As an HIV-positive man, Thompson won’t ever take PrEP, however it’s a key a part of his holistic method to stopping additional transmission: “I now have two new methods to assist individuals forestall HIV transmission. One is prEP, one is U=U.” The latter, “undetectable = untransmittable”, refers to HIV-positive males with a viral load so low, due to ART, that they gained’t be capable to go on the virus via intercourse.

“Once we began the PrEP dialog, it was similar to the HIV dialog within the early 80s. ‘Should you don’t need HIV, don’t have intercourse,’ turned: ‘Should you don’t need HIV, it is best to simply put on a condom,” he says. “As a person who’s already been recognized with HIV, I don’t essentially must spend power selling prEP; I may simply promote U=U,” he says. “However I see the 2 as going hand in hand, as a result of I would like detrimental and constructive individuals to be secure and liberated.”

“The truth that PrEP is out there in sexual well being clinics is nice. It signifies that, in case you’re an city, homosexual man, you may get it. The problem we’ve received is for these communities who’re nonetheless at threat: girls, black African communities and trans individuals,” he says. “We have to elevate consciousness, but additionally put it in locations the place they will entry it – so how we will get PrEP into GP clinics and pharmacies? That gained’t simply assist black African girls; it’ll enhance entry for everybody, together with younger homosexual males.”

The UN Aids goal, which has been adopted in Britain, is to succeed in no new HIV transmissions by 2030. “We’re doing a great job of testing our method out of it on this nation, however the difficulty is that it’s a international pandemic, not a UK pandemic, and if we keep cutting foreign aid, we’re by no means going to finish HIV,” he says.

Thompson says he hopes that, in 35 years’ time, “we’re now not speaking about HIV”. On condition that, in 2016, 438 children were infected with HIV every day, that is an bold intention.

Nonetheless, he’ll maintain going. “HIV opened my eyes to a lot,” he says. “It’s given me a profession and launched me to a number of the most superb, inspirational individuals from everywhere in the world, however above all it’s taught me that, no matter life throws at us, all of us need to be liked for who we’re.”

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