OPINION: The importance of archiving LGBT+ history

by Paul Coleman | National HIV Story Trust
Monday, 22 June 2020 08:49 GMT

A drag queen wears a pin that reads, "Keep the promise", during an HIV/AIDS awareness campaign on the occasion of World AIDS Day in Sao Paulo, Brazil December 1, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Preserving personal stories helps us understand how we got somewhere

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Paul Coleman is the founder of the National HIV Story Trust, a project to film, record and preserve the stories of those affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic of the 1980s and 90s

It can sometimes feel as though we’re experiencing the most remarkable, unprecedented time of our lives. And yet many of us automatically find a way to live within the parameters of this ‘new normal’.

In fact, I’ve been struck by how we, at least initially, adapted to living within the restrictions imposed by lockdown - staying at home, reduced mobility, bare shelves.

But these are indeed new times. The past few years have repeatedly thrown up different and unusual challenges, which I need not delve into here. Nonetheless, the thoughts, feelings and experiences of those of us living through them will be of great interest to society in the future.

For me, collecting and archiving history is vitally important. It can feel like history is being made daily and, due to the level of global interconnectedness of the 21st century, it can come from any corner of the planet.

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We don’t always appreciate how close we are to recent history and how quickly time passes. Consider the impact the world wars continue to have on our lives. Yet so few of those who lived through them are left to share their lessons.

To capture a wide collection of people’s varied experiences allows us to understand the impact of an event – be it the world wars, the Covid-19 outbreak or even something as prosaic as a sports match – across society. That could be at a global, national, societal, community or individual level.

And herein lies the crux.

It is all well and good to acknowledge a global pandemic has far-reaching consequences but looking at – and recording – the impact on individuals means we not only serve to humanise these events, we create a resource of immense value and a compendium of lessons.

Compiling this provides researchers in the future with a means of accessing unfiltered, first-hand primary sources. But it also has a public policy impact, by creating a conduit for people who may otherwise have no way to input into the system on how decisions directly affected them, sometimes at great cost.

Putting these testimonies together can also have the effect of challenging widely accepted ‘truths’.

At the National HIV Story Trust we have filmed in-depth interviews with over 100 people who lived through the HIV/AIDS crisis of the 1980s/90s, as well as medical professionals and friends and family of those who sadly succumbed to the virus.

These are not just ‘AIDS stories’ but testimonies that contextualise the wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds of the changing cast of people at the frontline of a pandemic that has lasted almost 40 years.

Alongside the heart-breaking stories of loss, pain, loneliness and ostracisation there are stories too of love and compassion. We can see the long-term impacts of constantly changing drug regimes, the withdrawal of support services and reductions in financial support.

We established the Trust when we realised that the numbers of those who had survived the crisis were beginning to dwindle. Archiving history ensures that not only cold hard facts reach the history books, but the stories of those who have lived, breathed and survived an experience. That they have their story recorded and preserved in their own words, ensuring their struggles and sacrifices were not in vain.

Today for LGBT+ people the world is a messy patchwork of rights and protections.

We see legalised marriage in some countries, others with varying degrees of protection, and in some places even the death penalty. No one even 30 years ago would have thought the UK would allow gay marriage, same-sex adoption and produce the HIV prevention drug pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).

We hope that one day the entire world will be in the same position. And when it is, having a record of how we got there will be more important than we can realise now.

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