The coronavirus pandemic is disastrous for everyone, but it affects minority groups such as queer people uniquely badly.
Statistically, LGBTQ+ people are more likely to experience feelings of loneliness and isolation instigated by the sustained period of lockdown. And queer businesses face a battle to stay solvent, which could rob the community of vital safe spaces.
For Andy Bell, one half of synth-pop outfit Erasure, coronavirus is the second healthcare crisis to have dramatically shifted his worldview.
One of the first proudly gay pop stars in an era before stars such as George Michael came out, Bell and his bandmate Vince Clarke scored five number one albums in the Eighties and Nineties during the height of the Aids crisis.
Now 55, Bell sees parallels between the challenges posed by Covid-19 and the trauma caused by HIV/Aids at its peak.
“I’m drinking probably about two bottles of whisky a week,” Bell says down the phone. He isn’t alone – many of us have increased our drinking due to the pressures of lockdown.
“We come from that culture anyway – I know that’s not an excuse. I think if you’re left long enough in a room by yourself you’re going to have some sort of mental crisis…”
Bell says the stresses of lockdown pale by comparison to the Aids crisis, which the singer doesn’t believe younger people can fathom. He struggles to find a realistic way of explaining the shock of what it was like to live through the horrors of the epidemic, and believes Aids is still stigmatised and heavily misunderstood.
Covid was acted upon pretty quickly, whereas the Aids thing wasn’t at allAndy Bell
“Covid was acted upon pretty quickly, whereas the Aids thing wasn’t at all,” he reflects. “Aids was denied. It was purposefully denied because it was about gay men, and drug takers, and Africa. It’s still the same. Anybody can get HIV, I know that, but it’s still perceived in the same way. Because it’s to do with sex, in some way it’s seen as being dirty – it’s seen as being your own fault.”
Pausing, he urges: “It’s not like it’s finished. It’s still going on. Sometimes it’s spoken like it’s history, it’s not history at all.”
For many LGBTQ+ people, sex has a different meaning from what it does for straight people. Casual hook-up culture isn’t frivolous but an essential means of bonding with others, and as a means of expression. “For us, that is part of our identity,” stresses Bell.
During the Aids crisis, and now with Covid-19, queer people are unable to experience sexual hook-ups, intimacy, and socialising – but desire for these things is only strengthened by the challenges presented.
There are always people that love that risky behaviour... It’s just from pure wild wantonness.Andy Bell
“There are always people that love that risky behaviour,” he says. “I think it’s just from pure wild wantonness. Especially for men, I think it’s just primeval urge, I don’t know... ”
How did hook-ups work in the height of the Aids crisis? “You just fessed up straight away,” Bell remembers. “You got the confidence of the person and it was a question of trust really. You asked them and they ask you and that’s it. You meet decent people, and not so decent people, that’s it. You have to go purely by instinct.
How does he feel about hook-up culture under Covid-19? “If I was single maybe I’d be a complete hypocrite,” he confesses. “Just go off and meet other people and ask them if they’re alright, if they have a temperature, if they’ve been isolating for 14 days or whatever.”
Bell was with life partner Paul, who died eight years ago, for 21 years. During the height of the epidemic, there was a disparity between his life with the band and his romantic life at home in London. At home, the epidemic’s effect was severe.
Slowly it was as if your group was being picked off. They were dyingAndy Bell
“You had your group of friends, but slowly it was as if your group was being picked off. They were dying,” he reflects. “You talked about it, but you would talk about things in hushed tones, and really you still do – it’s not like you can go out and shout your mouth off loud in any pub anywhere.”
The epidemic caused a drastic tide of homophobia that affects survivors today. “I remember reading an article asking teenagers how they felt about gay men,” he says. “In the beginning it said they were clean, and they look really nice, and they’re really neat. When the HIV thing happened everything was ripped from beneath you and we were the pariahs. We had to rebuild our own lives as we were losing others from scratch.”
Bell used touring with Erasure as a means to escape from the reality back home. “With bands, especially Jimmy Sommerville, it was amazing, the camaraderie you felt going round: we did TV shows, everywhere you’d bump into them and it was such a great feeling.
“Vince said he used to go get really scared ’cause I’d get a cab and go out driving miles to the middle of nowhere to go to a club,” Bell says of the period when he himself was diagnosed as HIV+. ”I just had a great time – you didn’t think about HIV or what was going on.”
Revisiting that period today, the singer feels as if he tried to blank out as much as he could. “It was like a bad memory. Your brain purposefully pushes it away, you know? ’Cause it hurt you. It’s like when you’ve had periods of life mourning and stuff – the pain is so much it dissipates.”
Bell’s own HIV+ diagnosis was delivered in 1998. “I had a feeling I might be HIV probably in 1997, then I wouldn’t go and see the doctor because I was too scared to go and find out because I kind of knew,” he remembers – while asserting that that, of course, the disease is totally manageable today, thanks to prescription drugs.
I remember seeing this man who had Kaposi's sarcoma on his face and being shocked – it was almost like looking in the mirror and seeing yourselfAndy Bell
But Aids was omnipresent in the years beforehand. “I even remember going to a vigil at Hyde Park Corner, just turning round and seeing this man who had Kaposi’s sarcoma on his face and being so shocked, it was almost like looking in the mirror and seeing yourself,” he remembers. “This would have been about 1996.”
Aids persists today because the government refuses to place emphasis on finding a vaccine, says Bell; it’s an issue that rattles the star. “Still to this day, it isn’t recognised. There’s no government body anywhere that recognises it as a pandemic. There’s no organisation – that’s why you have the Elton John Aids Foundation and the Terrence Higgins Trust raising money, because there are no governmental agencies raising money or putting money aside for HIV and Aids, which I think is disgraceful.”
Aside from the government which he views as being negligent – “people in power who don’t give a shit” – Bell’s delighted by the resilience of today’s queer community, which has taken a new shape since the Nineties. “It’s miraculous,” he says. “We’ve come on leaps and bounds. Lesbians, transgender, all these people included, it’s really incredible. It’s gone beyond my expectations. I think people are also very much aware of safe sex now.”
One particularly pertinent connection Bell draws between then and now is about inclusivity. How HIV leaves sufferers outside of a more conventional queer group – much like, he says, the Test and Trace NHS service around Covid-19 will.
“I’m suspicious about track and trace – it is going to end up being a club. You’re either in or you’re out. You’ve either got it, or you’ve had it,” he says.
“I think there’s still a huge amount of discrimination in the community, just from what I read on people saying ‘must be negative, or disease free,’ all these kinds of things. I think that’s really bad. Gay men tagging themselves in that way is awful, really discriminatory towards other people.”
Bell’s overarching message is that the fear and misunderstanding that persists over HIV and Aids is a destructive force still splintering the LGBTQ+ community. And as with any health crisis such as Covid-19 or HIV, a greater understanding of the facts is the starting block to better mental and physical health – and helps us cope.
And so the singer has taken on a new role, schooling younger people about resilience in the face of adversity and offering support about HIV+ statuses in the age of Covid-19.
“I’ve had a few young people come up to me and reveal their HIV+ status and they’re devastated,” he chips in shortly before we finish the call.
“I’ve had to be like an auntie, put my arms around them and say: ’Honey, you’re going to be okay, I promise you. They think it’s the end of the world, you know?”
Erasure will release a new album later this year.