I think most gay men of my generation remember where they were when they heard that Freddie Mercury had died. It was 30 years ago today and I had been Out, as we used to say, since 1980, more or less (I was 15: I told a girl who I knew could be relied on to tell everyone, saving me some legwork). It was a peculiar period of retreat in my life. I was working as a Clerk in the House of Commons, and for that moment was no longer Out. For some reason, I was sharing a flat in the only conspicuously non-gay bit of London I’ve ever lived in, Parson’s Green. A long-term relationship was not working out. I was not having the best time; and then I caught flu.
It had been announced that Freddie was HIV positive — a sombre moment. The next day, I was curled up with a blanket watching the television. The news came on; Freddie was dead. Bohemian Rhapsody started to play. I’ve never been quite certain whether I cried so much because I had a fever of 102 degrees, or whether the floods would have come anyway. It meant a lot.
In 1991, HIV/AIDS had been part of our lives for 10 years. There had been plenty of deaths. Many of those deaths had happened in groups of people less likely to make themselves known to us — it was cutting a terrible swathe through Africa, for instance. Haemophiliacs and intravenous drug users who contracted HIV remained, for the most part, as statistics. The public face of the disease in the West — the individual and conspicuous cases — were gay men, and in particular those gay men who were already in the public eye.
Denholm Elliott, Ian Charleson, Tony Richardson. Kenny Everett, Derek Jarman, Sylvester, John Curry, Bruce Chatwin — the list of British deaths alone is long and sobering. It was Freddie’s, though, that made the biggest impact. He seemed so embedded in British life, from the unprecedented impact of Bohemian Rhapsody in 1975 to the unforgettable turn at the first Live Aid in 1985.
He had achieved this status, too, despite being very unusual: unmistakably gay, Parsi, with a musical persona marrying debauched lechery, sustained tragic grandeur (Barcelona!) and extreme silliness. Everyone loved him. To us as gay men, he might have indicated that you didn’t need to fit in. You could be whatever you were, and that would make perfect sense. Perhaps that was an illusion. After all, Freddie never exactly came out.
Thirty years on, I start to wonder just how much HIV/AIDS shaped the lives of people like me. I was relatively lucky; by the time I was becoming sexually active, we knew about safe sex. Lucky, too, to live in a country where the advice from quite early on was to use condoms, rather than to adjust your morality or to attempt monogamy. Gay men born five or 10 years before me saw most of their friends die; I lost perhaps a dozen, no more.
All the same, we lived in a world where a fundamental truth was influencing all our actions, and it was this: You might die soon. Not many generations of people live through their twenties and thirties with this somewhere near the front of their minds. It has an inevitable effect on what you do. In recent years, friends in their twenties and thirties have sometimes asked me whether I ever thought of having children. It never crossed my mind as a reasonable possibility. It wasn’t until the late Nineties that I even gave way to a long temptation, and got a dog — I mean, dogs can easily live 15 years. It might turn out not to be fair.
Looking back, there might have been other consequences to this looming terror. One of them might have been a general state of mind that can only be summed up as “Fuck it”. You might as well do what you had in mind. Shame more or less disappeared as a state of mind. I knew a lot of straight literary people who anguished and writhed and wasted time over the question of whether they should or should not write a novel, taking it for granted that they’d live another 60 years. Fuck it. I wrote one, then another, then another. People younger than me were dying of the virus, after all.
There were other consequences of that fuck-it mentality. Gay society took on a dangerous and reckless flavour, with the first all-night clubs like Trade — there was one point in the Nineties where we worked out that you could go to one dance club after another without a break between 10pm on a Friday to lunchtime on Monday. Some queens really did it. The mood of outrageous bad taste was universal. One of Derek Jarman’s last paintings was called Arse-Injected Death Syndrome. “Bad news,” a dear friend said to me once. “I’ve got the fucking Death Clap.” And burst out laughing.
Maybe, too, the sense that you might be dead in five years brought people together, to disagree and argue and yell, but with a sense that your different opinions were all in the same bundle. A lot of my generation find it pretty weird that speakers for what is now called the LGBTQI community seem obsessed with determining who can be admitted to their ranks, or excluded. It wouldn’t have seemed a very pressing question in the Eighties and Nineties, and we haven’t forgotten how important the support of lesbians was to gay men during the crisis. It went a long way towards unifying a community.
By the turn of the century, things were changing. The new century went on; we started to hear the words “living with HIV” as an accurate description, and not as a hopeful euphemism. The habit of hedonism remained; the urgency of protest receded. Gay Pride renamed itself as Mardi Gras; it turned into a parade of LGBT-supporting businesses, anybody gay and lesbian without an official wristband confined behind barriers.
We might, after all, live as long as anyone else, and people started to marry, to adopt children, to stay in boring jobs, to talk about pensions and property. I got married to my boyfriend; I paid off my mortgage; we got a small Schnauzer called Greta, who is still going to be here in 2035, as I hope to be. The friend of mine who told me he had “the fucking Death Clap” is, for all purposes, perfectly healthy.
Freddie goes on, not as a martyr, but as a marvellous, unique presence who did something never seen before and never really attempted since. Quite a lot of him has since been toned down; when the jukebox musical We Will Rock You opened, it was striking that it turned Freddie’s music into the backdrop to a straight romance between a couple of kids. Freddie was outrageous in a way that might not be permitted now; a six-minute pop song with casual incorporations of the Islamic imprecation “Bismillah”; the Tom of Finland image with moustache and crotch-clinging trousers; the Live Aid performance, including the borderline sexual harassment, live, of the onstage cameraman.
His outrageousness was extinguished by a disease, but the presence of that disease fed and spread something of the same outrageousness: that desire to say “Fuck it” from time to time. I think any gay person who lived through the ten years between the discovery of HIV/Aids and Freddie Mercury’s death — lived though it as a sexual being — will always have been shaped by it. Maybe always set slightly apart from what followed, too. If they lived.