Scrapping [anti-gay] bans around the world is vital to fighting the spread of HIV, because it would encourage more people to get tested, Britain’s former health minister during the 1980s AIDS crisis said on Thursday.
Norman Fowler, who this month takes up an ambassadorial role at the UN agency, UNAIDS, said many people are unwilling to come forward for HIV tests in countries that effectively criminalise homosexuality.
“That’s going to have a vast effect upon any population,” Fowler told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
“It means they don’t come forward for testing and it means that they come forward far too late for testing.”
[Homosexuality] is illegal in 68 countries worldwide, according to the ILGA advocacy group.
As Britain’s secretary of state for health, between 1981 and 1987, during the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Fowler oversaw the country’s first HIV/AIDS awareness programme – facing widespread resistance, even from the late PM.
“I’m afraid that she was what these days might be called a sceptic on this whole area,” said Fowler, 83.
“Her position was quite near to a number of the religious leaders who simply said, as much as they said anything, that we should be pursuing a ‘moral’ campaign,” he added.
Thatcher’s concerns stemmed partly from what she saw as the explicit nature of some of Britain’s early HIV/AIDS awareness campaigns, which began in 1986.
An initial proposal for an advert mentioned “risky sex”, which Fowler said Thatcher thought “would offend people and … tell young people things about which they knew nothing, with the implication that it would encourage them”.
Thatcher’s scepticism was indicative of attitudes towards gay men, and the wider LGBT+ community, at the time, recently highlighted in the hit British television series, “It’s A Sin”, which Fowler praised for its accurate depiction of the era.
While gay sex was partially decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967, there was still an unequal male age of consent up until 2001.
Famously, Queen Victoria’s refusal to believe lesbians existed meant that the age of consent for straight and gay women remained equal.
In 1988, when Thatcher was still prime minister, her Conservative administration passed a law banning local authorities from ‘promoting’ homosexuality.
Fowler supported the legislation, which was overturned in England and Wales in 2003, and later also voted against a possible equalisation of the age of consent at 16.
He said he regretted both decisions.
“That was a mistake,” he said.
“And I’ve never made any bones about that.”
In his new role at UNAIDS, which he takes up after stepping down as the speaker of Britain’s upper parliamentary chamber on April 30, he will be focused on highlighting the battle to combat AIDS as COVID-19 dominates global health concerns.
“There’s a real danger that the world is going to forget about the crisis and problem of AIDS because obviously the COVID issue is foremost in people’s minds,” Fowler said.
“But the fact is that AIDS – in spite of all the heroic efforts that have been made over the past 20 years – remains an enormous problem.”
While anti-HIV/AIDS measures have seen transmission rates plummet in more developed countries, 1.7 million people were newly infected with HIV in 2019, according to UNAIDS.
Globally, more than 38 million are living with the virus.
“The issue of AIDS remains a very central one, and although it may not be as evident in Europe, it certainly remains very evident in whole swathes of the world,” Fowler said.
By Hugo Greenhalgh @hugo_greenhalgh – Thomson Reuters Foundation