As Britain’s first openly HIV-positive mayor, Philip Normal says his responsibilities stretch far beyond his constituents in Lambeth, the inner-city borough that perhaps best epitomises London’s demographic hotchpotch.
The new mayor, an artist and designer, who runs his own fashion store in Lambeth’s trendy Brixton area, has received thousands of congratulatory messages following his election by fellow councillors last month – many applauding him for being open about his HIV status.
“No one should be obliged to reveal their status… But the response has been brilliant,” Normal, 38, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
“Hopefully, it’s sending a really positive ripple that will go on to smash the stigma around HIV that needs to go once and for all,” says Normal, who was part of the campaign to make the life-saving PrEP HIV drug available on the National Health Service.
Normal and I have met many times over the past decade and, in the typical small world of a city’s gay scene, we have many friends in common. He laughs, though, when I suggest he was “a boy about town”, out at the right parties and clubs during his early years in the capital.
“Well, I was a DJ for a bit and I am a very social person,” he admits now.
After growing up in the mainly rural areas of Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire, Normal moved to London, aged 18, to study fashion at the University of Westminster – and set about reinventing himself.
First, there was the name.
Normal, who was born Philip Burr, was photographed by style bible i-D Magazine, while in the queue for the annual Graduate Fashion Week, when he was 20. Later, the photo desk called for his details.
“I said I was looking for a new name and gave them a few choices – and asked which one they liked,” he laughs, relishing retelling the story.
“They said Philip Normal’s really good – so that was it and later I changed it by deed poll.”
For Normal, formerly deputy mayor of the borough, changing his name was a creative act, “similar to the way actors do it”, he says now.
“I wanted it to be part of my identity.”
It was at around the same time that he started to get interested in politics, gay rights in particular.
“Equality was always at the heart of my politics when I was younger,” says Normal, who was elected as an opposition Labour Party councillor in Lambeth’s Oval ward in 2018.
Still, he is keen not to be seen as a single-issue politician; the gay mayor in the gayest borough in the country.
According to Britain’s Office for National Statistics, in 2017, 5.5% of Lambeth’s estimated 320,000 residents identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual – the highest percentage anywhere in England.
“We also have a real issue with rough sleeping and homelessness,” Normal says.
According to the new mayor’s chosen charity for his year in office, LGBT+ youth homelessness charity, the Albert Kennedy Trust (AKT), 24% of young people on the streets in Britain are LGBT+.
Lambeth faces other challenges. In 2019, the inner-city area was ranked the 42nd most deprived out of the 317 English local authorities, according to government statistics.
As the coronavirus crisis deepens around the world, Normal is able to draw on his own experience as a teenage barman, at the Retro Bar in central London, for insights into LGBT+ pubs and clubs facing closure around the world – and closer to home.
“I don’t know where I would be without the Retro Bar,” he says, having worked at the pub for 10 years, from the age of 18. “It was a second home to me and was just so important for me growing up as an adult.
“And now as we come out of the coronavirus, young people are going to need them more than ever.”
Normal’s career as an artist and fashion designer, now known particularly for his slogan T-shirts, blossomed when he opened a stall in London’s Camden Market, the capital’s alternative fashion centre.
His new store in Brixton Village is within walking distance of the home he shares with his partner of almost three years, charity worker Matthew Doyle, and their French bulldog, Noah.
Keenly aware of the pressures facing other small businesses in his borough, Normal says he is lucky in being effectively a one-man band, working alone in his studio.
But the coronavirus outbreak has presented some more unusual challenges; unable to be fitted for the mayor’s ceremonial robe and chains of office, Normal fashioned his own out of recycled jersey jumpers – complete with the Lambeth crest picked out on a vivid pink background.
“I love (the chains) as an object,” Normal says with evident glee.
“I thought it was going to take longer to make, but it only took me a day.”
With the country under lockdown, the mayor’s usual round of visits, ribbon-cutting, and citizenship ceremonies are still going ahead – but virtually. And while Normal says he is too busy with constituency work to think too far into the future, becoming Lambeth mayor means a seat in the British parliament has become a more realistic goal.
If the local member of parliament (MP), the Labour Party’s Florence Eshalomi, were ever to step down, Normal says he would jump at the chance to succeed her.
“It’s not something I ever planned to do, but if Vauxhall (the local parliamentary seat) came up, then yes, I’d go for it,” he says. “That would be brilliant.”
-Hugo Greenhalgh @hugo_greenhalgh – Thomson Reuters Foundation