On 5 June 1981, an obscure medical journal in the US reported that a mysterious illness had killed five young gay men in Los Angeles. These were the first known cases of AIDS, popularised in the press as ‘gay cancer’. The first diagnosis in the UK was quick to follow, with over 13,000 cases of HIV by the end of the decade.
Fuelled by prejudice, governments were slow to react. Why would they invest in research, public education or support services when they already knew the cause? “Too many people have strayed so far and so often from what we are taught is normal moral behavior” argued the then UK Solicitor-General.
As ignorance bred fear which morphed into hatred, LBGT+ people in the US and the UK began to realise that if their community was going to defeat the disease they would have to stand up and do it themselves. Their response was the creation of a network of campaigning organisations such as ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition and Unleash Power.
Today, thanks to breakthrough treatments and a plethora of support services - in part a result of the LGBT+ movement - AIDS is no longer a death sentence. People who contract the disease (in the West at least) can expect to lead a normal life. However, an illness just as dangerous still haunts our community. And, this time its not just gay men who are affected, but the whole LGBT+ family.
The mental health crisis - prevalent across the whole of society - is even more acute in the LGBT+ community. According to one study 52% of young LGBT people report they have self-harmed; a staggering 44% have considered suicide; and 42% have sought medical help for mental distress (with particularly high prevalence amongst bisexual and transgender people).
With another LGBT+ history month almost over, we must come together as a community once again
Why are LGBT+ people so prone to mental health problems? Let’s be clear: the problem isn’t peoples’ sexuality or gender identity, but society’s attitude to it. Even in 2018, LGBT+ people still grow up in a society where the assumption is that they are (and should be) cis-gendered and heterosexual, forcing them through the traumatic and often shame-filled process of coming out.
We are approaching the end of LGBT+ History Month. This is a moment of reflection for the community: a time to remember the challenges of the past and to celebrate the huge successes of recent years. And, of course, the reality is that LGBT+ people in the West - at least in terms of legal rights - have rarely had it so good (though there are still gains to be made, not least on transgender rights).
But we must also confront the difficulties of the present: the fight for equality is not over. In particular, there is a growing gap between the successes of LGBT+ movement on paper (in terms of legal rights) and the lived experience of so many people within our community. The mental health crisis - and the epidemic of loneliness - that we see around us is probably the most obvious and acute example of this phenomena but it is by no means the only one: LGBT+ people face high rates of homelessness, addiction and sexual ill health as well.
Don’t get me wrong: this is not a reason to be despondent. The last century of progress should tell us that things can get better. But it should also provide us with a warning: further gains will not magically appear. Like the AIDS activists of the 80s and 90s, we will need to fight for more and better services as well as greater awareness of the mental health crisis. With another LGBT+ History Month almost over, we must come together as a community once again - this time, in all of our diversity - to fight for equality.
Harry Quilter-Pinner is Director of Strategy at SCT, a homelessness and addictions charity in East London, and a Research Fellow at IPPR, the progressive policy think-tank. He writes here in a personal capacity.