Skip to main content

Home Culture Culture Sexuality

Why Princess Diana’s groundbreaking Aids activism will define her legacy forever

When so many people turned their backs on gay men suffering with HIV/Aids, and the fear generated by the epidemic was used to fuel prejudice and hate, Princess Diana bravely stepped in and changed the conversation.

By Matt Cain

Princess Diana
Diana, Princess of Wales with a patient at London Lighthouse in 1996

This article was first published in October 2017

Being gay in the 1980s wasn’t easy. Acceptance of gay people had been growing since the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York helped ignite the gay liberation movement. But then the Aids crisis struck — and reversed that progress.

Although the gay community wasn’t the only section of the population to suffer, we were disproportionately affected to the extent that newspapers referred to Aids as the “gay plague.” The hysteria generated was intense.

When police raided gay bars they wore rubber gloves. Dentists refused to treat people who were HIV positive. Even in hospitals, doctors, nurses and paramedics wouldn’t touch people with Aids; meals would often be left at the door by nurses who didn’t want to go into a patient’s room.

Gay men began to be portrayed in the media as reckless and irresponsible. When “innocent” people were infected with HIV through transfusions of contaminated blood, we were blamed.

The backlash was ferocious. And we were almost defenceless; there were few out gay men in the public eye and few straight allies speaking up for us. Then, along came Princess Diana.

In the 1980s a princess was expected to be pretty, dutiful and a devoted wife and mother. Diana excelled on all these fronts. But there was much more to her than this. And behind her famous beauty and style, there was a radical firebrand driven by a passion for activism.

Over the course of her life, Diana was involved in charities helping the homeless and the mentally ill as well as the campaign to ban anti-personnel landmines — none of these safe, expected choices for a princess. But it’s for her contribution to combating the stigma around HIV/Aids at the height of the epidemic that she made the most impact on the gay community.

“There were few out gay men in the public eye and few straight allies speaking up for us. Then, along came Princess Diana.”

Diana’s involvement in HIV activism began in April 1987, when she opened the UK’s first purpose-built HIV/Aids unit at the Middlesex Hospital in London.

When she refused to wear gloves as she met and greeted patients and was photographed shaking hands with a patient, the pictures made headlines around the world.

Ian Walker was an occupational therapist working in the HIV sector at the time and he observed the effect of Diana’s approach.

“It seemed to break down a million barriers overnight with that one simple act,” he says.

“This was a time when people were terrified to touch people with HIV, people would glove, mask and gown up in regular hospitals. People were rejected by their families, people would feel really uncomfortable when they saw you walking around. She held that guy’s hand and overnight this dispelled a lot of the stigma.”

Throughout the Eighties and Nineties, Diana carried on visiting patients with HIV/Aids at the Mildmay Mission Aids Hospital and the London Lighthouse hospice — both in an official capacity but more regularly on secret, unofficial visits. These had a huge impact on the lives of patients.

Gerard McGrath was diagnosed with HIV in 1987 and accessed the services of the London Lighthouse. He met Diana on two occasions in the 1990s and, like many people, he remembers her unique ability to empathise with patients.

“I felt that she linked in or had something about her that made her empathetic to people’s position and the difficulties they were going through at that particular time,” he says.

“Also, she was just a very personable woman. She was human like the rest of us. She was flawed just like the rest of us.”

Diana was also knowledgeable about medical advances in the field and invited top HIV experts to visit her at Kensington Palace to give her regular briefings.

During one of his conversations with her, Gerard recalls: “She asked me how I was getting on and was I having any problems with my treatment. I said to her in the early part of the Nineties when I took AZT only, it was toxic and made me very ill and she said, ‘Yeah, I have friend who said this; it’s finding the balance’. And she was quite aware, researched and knowledgeable about the new combination of therapy that had come out at the time.”

Between 1993 and 1997, Ian Walker was the senior occupational therapist in the residential unit of the London Lighthouse and met Diana on numerous occasions.

“She filled the room and she gave off light,” he remembers. “Everyone was immediately put at ease, and just the fact that she would come in, talk to someone, hold their hand, that would mean that maybe the next day they died happy because Diana had spoken to them.”

Death was a harsh reality for anyone diagnosed with HIV in the 1980s and early 1990s, before the development of antiretroviral drug therapy. For years there was little to give sufferers hope. But when Diana joined the battle against HIV/Aids, they suddenly had a champion.

“[Diana] was quite aware, researched and knowledgeable about the new combination of therapy that had come out at the time.”

Julian LaBastide was a nurse at the Mildmay Mission for 17 years. He remembers the effect Diana’s work had on everyone involved.

“My patients and people I worked with felt that they were important, that someone was taking their cause — their fight — to another level.

“Diana wasn’t making that distinction of ‘these people are more important or less important’. It was, ‘you are all important’. And she knew that every time she did an announced visit with the cameras there, that would go mainstream.”

Very few individuals had the power to change the mindset of millions of people in the 1980s and 1990s but Diana knew that she was one of them — and, despite her great wealth and privilege, she chose to wield her power to improve the lives of gay men suffering with HIV/Aids. And that’s why Princess Diana is the recipient of the 2017 Attitude Legacy Award.