Don’t Die of Ignorance: Mass Observation and the AIDS crisis

29 January 2021

Gender and Sexuality | History | Politics

This blog includes temporary free access to Mass Observer T1686's response to the spring 1987 directive on 'The AIDS campaign' from Adam Matthew's resource Mass Observation Project, which includes many leaflets on AIDS. Click on the image below to view this document for free until 28th February 2021.

A leaflet on AIDS from the National Union of Public Employees, included with T1686's response to the spring 1987 directive. Image © Mass Observation Archive Trustees. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.


In an episode of Russell T. Davies’s new drama It’s a Sin, the protagonists, a group of young gay men, cluster round the television in their battered but cheerful London flat. Crammed on to the sofa, they have obviously anticipated this moment. But what they are watching isn’t 1986’s latest, now nostalgic, primetime hit, but a new government advertisement. ‘There is now a danger that has become a threat to us all,’ intones John Hurt, in the voice that the Observer likened to nicotine sieved through gravel. ‘It is a deadly disease and there is no known cure.’

 

From Mass Observation's spring 1987 directive. Image © Mass Observation Archive Trustees. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.


The disease was of course AIDS, and in It’s a Sin we watch it stalk and circle our flatmates, and finally overwhelm them with ill health, hospitals, infirmity, death and grief. The social-history project Mass Observation, whose 1980s material has been published by Adam Matthew, asked its respondents about their thoughts on the government’s AIDS-awareness campaign in spring 1987. The line of questioning did not mention any groups of people, as indeed AIDS was ‘a threat to us all’. But the numbers showed that when it hit the developed world in the early 1980s it most significantly afflicted homosexual men; and though there were high-profile exceptions, such as the tennis star Arthur Ashe and the model Gia Carangi, a steady drip of famous gay male victims reinforced among the wider public the discussion of AIDS as a disease more or less of gay men. The bulk of the Mass Observation responses, which address general feelings around AIDS as much as the campaign against it, are no exception.

 

From observer B1891's response to the spring 1987 directive. Image © Mass Observation Archive Trustees. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.


Observer B1891 is one of many whose response mixes the customary measured, liberal attitudes typical of Mass Observers with the increased opposition to homosexuality which went hand-in-hand with the rise of AIDS into the British popular consciousness. Although she disagrees, she states, with the popular view that the virus represented a deserved punishment of gay men, she speculates that the money and effort put into fighting the disease ‘for a relatively few people’ could have been better spent – though that she might think differently if she knew any sufferers.

B663, meanwhile, begins by splitting people with AIDS into innocent and guilty, according to how they have contracted it, but goes on to reassure us that, like most women, she feels that what two adults get up to in private is their own affair – an odd juxtaposition:

 

From observer B663's response to the spring 1987 directive. Image © Mass Observation Archive Trustees. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.


A handful of respondents, however, had personal experience of virus and its effects. A1108 says he has a friend who has died and another who is ill, and gives short shrift to the idea that the state and society are coming to gay men’s rescue by paying AIDS attention:

 

From observer A1108's response to the spring 1987 directive. Image © Mass Observation Archive Trustees. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.


Another gay observer, B1106, concurs with this view, also mentioning the Terrence Higgins Trust as an example of efforts gay men have made themselves to spread awareness of the virus and help mitigate its effects. He also notes that, now more is understood about AIDS, attacking the people widely held responsible for it has become more prevalent and, presumably, acceptable:

 

From observer B1106's response to the spring 1987 directive. Image © Mass Observation Archive Trustees. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.


The Mass Observers’ responses to the new disease in their midst show a society in which homosexual behaviour was legal but alien to most and still highly mistrusted by many. More than three decades on, there remains no cure for AIDS, but, as the British Social Attitudes Survey linked to above shows, opinons of gay people have been turned on their head – as the making and primetime broadcast of It’s a Sin happily demonstrates.

 

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About the Author

Nick Jackson

Nick Jackson

Since joining Adam Matthew my main field of work has been with British diplomatic documents, having edited several of our Archives Direct collections of material from The National Archives in London. But I've also helped build resources featuring everything from guides to London nightlife to records of American slaves' court appearances.

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