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Could Pride Have Saved My Uncle's Life?

Back when my uncle was diagnosed, I wrote to the Terrence Higgins Trust, asking for information and advice. We still had the 'ignorance' campaign in our minds and we were terrified - not least when I saw my mum kiss her dying brother on the forehead.
Stuart Dee via Getty Images

I've travelled around 8,000 miles visiting fourteen Pride events this summer, from Vilnius to Manchester, Copenhagen to Cardiff, Amsterdam to Birmingham. And whilst every single one has been memorable for a different reason, one stood out for the deeply moving, profound effect it had on me: Cumbria Pride.

The story, pertinent for World AIDS Day on Thursday, starts 25 years ago in Yorkshire. It's a Saturday night and my parents are having a dinner party at home. At 14, I'm not invited, so I'm pouring - or something - over photos in Smash Hits magazine in my bedroom. And the phone rings. It's my nan. The mystery illness that's been affecting my uncle for weeks has been identified. He has AIDS.

My uncle was around 30. He lived in a small town in the Lake District, with just my nan. The youngest of seven, he wasn't 'out' and no-one even knew he was gay - though I guess the Elton John albums and Kylie's 'Locomotion' single could've been a clue. As far as I knew, he worked in a local pub and had just a few friends.

Within a few short months he was dead. The first AIDS-related death in Cumbria, we were told, though that wasn't news shared with his friends at the funeral, who were all told he'd died of another, less-stigmatised illness. As I recall, the hundreds of people who packed out his funeral were asked to donate to an unrelated charity in his memory.

As I grew older, and came out myself, clues began to slot into place. When I came out to my mum, her words were, simply, 'Don't forget your uncle'. He was a good looking guy who spent lots of time in Blackpool, Brighton and Gran Canaria. He never had a girlfriend. And, yes, Kylie and Elton. Eventually a frank discussion with a couple of family members confirmed what I'd worked out for myself.

So I can't be blamed for thinking of Cumbria as a pretty backwards place when it comes to LGBT+ equality, and not as somewhere welcoming to people like me, or like my late uncle. Driving in September from London up to Cumbria with a colleague from the European Pride Organisers Association, I spent most of the journey telling him that it's probably the most beautiful county in England, but don't expect the liberal attitudes of a big city.

I couldn't have been more wrong. Cumbria Pride left me shellshocked. More than that, it left me wondering: could Cumbria Pride have saved my uncle's life?

Back when my uncle was diagnosed, I wrote to the Terrence Higgins Trust, asking for information and advice. We still had the 'ignorance' campaign in our minds and we were terrified - not least when I saw my mum kiss her dying brother on the forehead. We asked THT to reply in a plain envelope, lest our postman - 70 miles from my uncle - might work something out. THT were outstanding. They sent so much literature and information that we were reassured but overwhelmed, and as a result they've always held a very special place in my heart.

Seeing THT at Cumbria Pride, handing out condoms and lube, was a trigger for me. We've come full circle, from frightened teenagers writing to THT asking for advice about a dying uncle, to THT handing out jonnies to teenagers on Carlisle's main shopping street on a Saturday afternoon.

Other charities and organisations were there too. Sellafield, Cumbria's biggest employer, were a big sponsor. An international car rental firm. National supermarkets. Lots of local businesses. These sponsors showed how 'normal' it now is. The only surprise was that Kendal Mint Cake manufacturers weren't there promoting their wares for energy boosts at chillouts. I just couldn't help wondering: if Cumbria Pride had existed in 1991, might my uncle still be alive? More than that, there was almost a guilt that I was here enjoying it when, really, it should have been him; this was 'his' Pride.

Twenty five years on, here's a pride event in the city's main square, alongside the main shopping street, and right outside the main civic building. The mayor is speaking on the stage. Local media are there, as are thousands of locals. Some of the locals reminded me of my late nan, coming along for an inquisitive look at what's going on, what 'these' people get up to. Straight allies were typified for me by a man and woman who stopped me to ask me what time Whigfield was playing. "We don't get stars like Whigfield in Cumbria; we've delayed our honeymoon by 24 hours so we could see her."

It goes to show the power of the pride movement, not only for LGBT+ equality and empowerment, but for the promotion of sexual health too. It's easy to think that being diagnosed in the early 1990s meant that my uncle didn't stand much chance of survival, but I'm absolutely convinced that had he been twenty or even just ten years younger, he'd still be alive today. He'd be less likely to be hiding his sexuality, hiding who he was - and we know that that means he'd have been less likely to be engaging in risky sexual activity.

Above all, he'd be alive to enjoy Cumbria Pride - and to sing along to 'Saturday Night' as we all did, remembering how awful it was the first time around.