Meeting Gay Rights Activist Jonathan Blake, Winner of This Year's Pride Award

In the early 1980s, after being one of the first people in Britain to be diagnosed with HIV, Jonathan got involved with the campaign group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners.

Helen Nianias

Helen Nianias

Jonathan Blake in his garden, standing next to a sculpture by the artist Lesley Hilling (Photo by the author)

Jonathan Blake has been living with HIV for 33 years. One of the first people in the UK to be diagnosed with the virus, he later got involved with the campaign group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM), which is exactly what it sounds like: a group of gay-rights activists aiding the striking Welsh miners in 1984 because of their mutual hatred of Thatcher and the tabloids.

LGSM helped to raise thousands of pounds for the cause, and a bond was struck between the two groups. At London's Gay Pride march in 1985, the miners came up from South Wales by the busload, and the mining union later used its block vote to help enshrine gay rights in British law. Pride, a film about the whole saga, was released last year, and Dominic West plays Jonathan.

Three decades later, Jonathan, now 66, has been given Attitude magazine's Pride award for all the work he's done for the LGBT community. I recently met with him at the Brixton home he shares with his partner, Nigel, for a chat about HIV, his activism and his garden.

VICE: You must be so happy about being given the award after all these years.
Jonathan Blake: I think: 'Gosh, isn't this wonderful, to live long enough that they give you a gong.' Dominic West got cast as me, so I am "AKA Dominic West", and everybody wants a piece of him. I'm very honoured.

Why is Pride is such an important weekend?
It's difficult, because it's changed. I come from the days where there were demonstrations and we were still considered to be "illegal, vile, faggots, burn 'em" and what have you. The reason it's on this date is because of when the police raided the Stonewall pub in New York, and the drag queens fought back. So really, that is what gay pride is about: it's remembering that we had to fight for our rights and we still have to fight for them.

But for LGSM, this year is a really important one, because it's the 30th anniversary of when the miners came and they marched with us.

Photo by Colin Clews. (Click to enlarge)

[He shows me the above picture and points at the two people wearing tartan trousers.]

That's 1985, and that's me in trousers I made myself, and that's Nigel, my partner, in trousers he made himself. Because we went to this trouser-making class.

You look fantastic. What are you most proud of having achieved?
It's so difficult. One is – and this was the gift of the South Wales miners – the miners' union used their block vote to get gay rights on to the Labour party agenda. Now, who would have thought that? The miners, who were considered homophobic.

When were you diagnosed with HIV?
In October, 1982. My number was L1 at the Middlesex [hospital]. All hospitals had different numbering systems, so it wasn't like I was the first one, but I was the first person at the Middlesex. I was really fortunate, because there was a trial where they were using AZT, which is a horrible failed chemotherapy drug. I kind of got belligerent and refused. I didn't care if I lived or died. I tried to commit suicide that December.

What happened?
I was going to do the Roman thing of get pissed, warm bath, slit my wrists. But I am appalled at the thought of someone having to come in and clear up after me... I couldn't do it. So then I thought, 'If you can't do it, get out and live.' It wasn't straightforward, because you've got this virus in you and you feel like a real leper. But then, I saw there was a group called Gays for a Nuclear-Free Future who were going to leave for a march from the bookshop Gay's The Word on the 1st of April, 1983. I arrived full of trepidation and I saw this guy wearing these extraordinary pantaloons, wellington boots, a shock of black curly hair, and we just connected. And his name was Nigel, and we're still together 33 years later. From that, my whole life just turned around. Nigel suggested we moved in together. I was going to be dead next week, so it didn't matter what I did.

It sounds like the HIV diagnosis was almost strangely freeing.
Yeah, it is. Because you've got no responsibilities – you've got no consequences, because you'll be dead. So that's taken care of; it's everybody else who has to watch out!

Did that attitude help you through the early stages?
Yes. The main thing was always a displacement activity. Having a garden, there is always something happening. Whatever the time of day, there was something living – and something dying. But, you know?

You get a lot pleasure out of it?
Yeah. I worked at the English National Opera as a tailor. But the stress was crazy and I got shingles on the phrenic nerve. My immune system was down – if you're stressed when you're HIV positive, you get things. I was medically retired and thought: 'What am I going to do?' So I laid a patio.

Jonathan and his partner, Nigel, planting the first thing in their garden.

Does the political climate of today remind you of the 80s?
[Cameron] is the son of Thatcher, as was Tony Blair, so yeah. What is also so different from the 80s is that we now live in this very atomised society. You can be sitting at your computer at home and you can be signing these petitions and feeling you're doing something, but you're an individual. What we wanted to do was support the miners and break Thatcher's hold on wanting to decimate trade unions. And that's what Cameron's trying to do now.

A lot of young people are too disillusioned to really mobilise – what's your advice?
One needs to always be on one's guard and challenge your supposed superiors, because often it's just a way of divide and rule.

Do you think people's attitude to HIV has changed enough?
No, there's still a huge amount to do in terms of stigma. And this is what I thought was really great about the film, and why I'm happy to be "out" about my status, is that Dominic West never portrayed a character who was a victim. HIV was just part of his DNA – it was a fact. It wasn't a huge deal. That's really important.

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As you mentioned, you were diagnosed very early on – HIV wasn't even clinically observed until 1983, the year afterwards – so treatment at the time was still very much in its infant stage.
I've had terrible times. I must have a fairly good constitution, surviving as long as I did. The AZT I refused ended up killing people [the doses prescribed were too high at the time, causing severe side effects in some patients]. I was very angry about the drugs, and I got to the late 1980s without medication, and at that point it was considered an AIDS diagnosis and I freaked. Because I'd been a difficult patient and not taken part in the trial, I never saw the same doctor twice, and people just wanted to put me on drugs. But I hated the drug companies, so I resisted. Eventually, I was put in touch with a great doctor who put me on the initial medication that would stop the pneumonia, which was the big killer, and we went from there.

Later, I developed such pain in my feet and in the supermarket when I was shopping that I used to hang off the trolley so my feet wouldn't go on the ground. But the drugs I was taking were [what was] giving me the pain – there was nothing you could do. You could amputate your foot and it would still hurt – it was the nerve endings. I was feeling wretched, but I was able to keep it all hidden from Nigel.

What do you hope the legacy of LGSM is?
I hope that people will remember the work we did, and also remember that it is not, sadly, a given that one has rights. They've been hard-fought for. To me, socialism is about society, and it's about people, and it's about communities. And when communities come together, we're strong. When we went to join the Welsh miners, there was this amazing bond that was created. But there was such strength they gave us, we gave them. And they repaid it thousand-fold, so the most important thing is for people to believe in stuff, get involved, work for it.


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