DocsNotCops was born out of Act Up and the intersectional campaign for universal access to HIV medications. In the run up to World AIDS day on 1 December 2017, we join Act Up, Queer Bus Tours and other activists in the ongoing fight for access to healthcare for all, and celebrate, remember and claim, from the top of a bus, a history for HIV-positive people in London.
Our tour starts from Soho. Voices from the bus talk about sexual liberation and the claiming of queer space in the 1970s. We hear of activists rampaging down Charing Cross Road, overturning tables of the book Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) for only showing heterosexual sex and ignoring gay women.
Trudy Howson, LGBTQ poet laureate recites her poem written to mark 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality, remembering the time before: “There is danger in dark places/For men like us, there are no spaces/ Where we can be proud, where we can be free/ Where I can love you and you, can love me”
We set off from Soho to the old Middlesex Hospital, once a specialist unit for people, mostly young men, dying of AIDS. We’re asked to “turn to someone you don’t know and tell them about a person that you are remembering, a person you are thinking of today”. A former nurse talks of her experience of nursing those young men dying when the disease wasn’t understood: “we nursed them wearing plastic gowns, masks, they used paper plates – it took away their dignity”.
Those were days of mourning, but also organising. The fightback produced one of the most successful civil rights movement of the past 30 years: the incredible advances in HIV treatments were won through the bravery of individuals and the power of movements like AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (Act Up), popularising the message that Silence = Death. But however great the success story was here in the Global North, access to anti-retrovirals globally in 2016 was only at 46%. Remembering the history of the movement is key to renewing the political project at the centre of HIV activism: healthcare as a right for all.
But in the NHS this right is being eroded. As from 23 October 2017, the latest phase of the implementation of the 2014 Immigration Act introduced upfront charging for hospital inpatient and outpatient services and some community services. This is being enforced with immigration checks at hospital appointments and in A&Es, building on a longer term political project to obfuscate the funding crisis of the NHS and blame migrants instead.
While HIV services are technically still free for all, regardless of immigration status, the confused implementation entrenches racial profiling, detaches hospital staff from a duty of care and frightens patients from accessing the services they need. Major HIV advocacy organisations, such as the National AIDS Trust have been very vocal about their concerns, recommending that the legislation be withdrawn.
They are among the growing number of organisations calling for upfront charging to be removed from the NHS. Among them, DocsNotCops is committed to fighting the hostile environment that turns hospital staff into border guards – agents of this government’s migrant scapegoating. DocsNotCops fights to promote free healthcare for all, available without judgement, prejudice or fear.
As we continue our bus tour, we hear the experiences of those whose HIV came from using drugs and the stigma they faced. We hear the stories of HIV-positive women, the effect on their families, their loved experience at the intersection of race, gender and HIV status. We hear the damage the 1989 public health campaign “Don’t Die in Ignorance” did to those it shamed for their sexuality. “Don’t ever let that happen again”.
London is experiencing an unprecedented fall in new infections, which one Dean Street support worker attributes to, among increasing campaigning and countering stigma, also the improved access to PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) an antiretroviral that at risk, HIV-negative individuals can take to stay that way. It’s been trialled very effectively in young men, but the NHS has not made it universally available across the UK. For many, PrEP remains only available if they pay for it themselves. We hear from a representative of the National AIDS Trust that PrEP trials are not focusing enough on other at risk groups, particularly at-risk women. Act Up is campaigning for greater access to PreP for all those at risk of transmission.
Most touchingly, we hear the testimonies of those with their own stories to tell, the stories of love, of drugs, of sex, of their moment of diagnosis. The bus, covered in the banners of Act Up, Docs Not Cops, statements of freedom of sexuality and choice for our bodies, pulls up at Dean Street – but the struggle continues.