Skip to main content

Home Uncategorised

Chemsex and LGBTQ addiction expert David Stuart remembered by friends and colleagues

David is among the everyday LGBTQ heroes honoured at the Attitude Pride Awards 2022, in association with Magnum.

By Alastair James

Words: Cliff Joannou; Photography: Nigel Brunsdon, Markus Bidaux

My first introduction to David Stuart came through a mutual friend, Meredith O’Shaughnessy. It was the early ’00s and Meredith and I ended up back at David’s flat in Covent Garden after a night out. I couldn’t tell you where we had been, other than it had no doubt been a wild one.

“His flat was the centre of the universe,” Meredith says of a hedonistic period firmly in the past. “We thought we were eternal.” 

In a previous life, prior to getting sober and becoming one of the world’s most prominent champions highlighting addiction within the queer community, David ran an agency for sex workers before becoming ‘the most glamorous dealer in London’.

But the seductive shimmer would soon fade to grey. “As the years progressed, the scene changed and the drugs that people used changed. Things became much more complicated for people, and that affected David a lot. I think that weighed quite heavily on his mind,” reflects Meredith.

After becoming addicted to crystal meth, David was hospitalised and arrested. It was the beginning of a journey that would lead him to become a force for good in the LGBTQ+ community.

The next time I would meet David, I was editing London scene magazine QX, and he was sober and working to raise awareness of the unique issues caused by the impact of sex and drugs on the gay community. We campaigned together on numerous issues, from normalising the discussion around addiction to campaigning for inclusive relationship and sex education in schools.

“David was the person who created the word ‘chemsex’,” says Ignacio Labayen de Inza, CEO and co-founder of the charity Controlling Chemsex. “David identified that there was a different reality coming out, that is present now all over the world.”

Ignacio met David in 2007 after moving to London from Madrid when Ignacio was interviewed by David for a role at addiction service Antidote. “He didn’t work 9 to 5, he worked every day,” says Ignacio. In those early days, service users were mostly looking for support with cocaine and alcohol.

But then people started coming in with dependencies David and Ignacio had not encountered in the gay community before: GHB, crystal meth, as well as injecting drugs. The link between sex and drugs had yet to be defined, let alone an understanding how ‘shame’ played into the disproportionate addiction issues they were seeing in the LGBTQ+ community.

The number of people that David has helped runs into the thousands, arguably hundreds of thousands when put in context of the global impact that his work has had. When Attitude published the news of David’s death earlier this year, it became the second most-read story that week.

(Left to right) Ian Spagnuolo, Meredith O’Shaughnessy, Jason Domino, and Ignacio Labayen de Inza (Photo: Markus Bidaux)

Shared across social media, the comments flowed as hundreds recounted how David had been key in helping them get sober. It’s unimaginable to envisage how David found the time for all these people, putting their needs first before his own mental health. And yet he did. 

One person who David helped was Ian Spagnuolo, who moved to London from California under the impression that it was a city free of crystal meth. He met David and Ignacio when he was accessing help through Antidote.

“David was so different from anyone else I had encountered when I sought help. He was kind, he was so incredibly smart and really seemed to understand me on a very deep level, almost from the start.

I remember emailing him and saying, ‘David, I am losing the plot and need help asap,’ and within an hour he was on the phone with me helping me through whatever my crisis was at that time.”

Ian was a femme child and had a difficult time accepting his sexuality, which led to him giving up ballet and joining the navy in an effort to pass as straight.

He discovered “booze and clubs and bars” after his first relationship ended, age 24, but resisted drugs until he made a new group of friends in the gym, mostly older men in their 30s and 40s who were successful estate agents and lawyers.

“Doing drugs with them was very seductive, they had great jobs and did drugs so what could go wrong?” Ian’s weekends grew longer, starting on Thursday and ending on Monday night.

His addiction took a much darker turn when he discovered crystal meth. “For the first time in my life, sex felt free, and shameless. Fast-forward a year and I was in my first of four trips to rehab.” Ian’s addiction led to him developing intense psychosis. “I heard voices telling me I was going to die, and that I was a filthy faggot,” he recalls.

David Stuart: Photo: Nigel Brunsdon

“David knew it was this deep-seated self-hatred, this need to punish myself, the need to hate myself that kept me stuck in my cycle of addiction, and he knew that kindness, love, and connection were the only way out. Even though he at that time didn’t really know me very well at all, he cared, and in some way, loved me. And I knew I could count on him when I hated myself most.”

David’s work extended beyond addiction and included supporting other activists, like Jason Domino, whose work supports sex workers, and was key to championing PrEP awareness through porn, even speaking on the subject at the United Nations. “David would meet activists, particularly marginalised ones struggling with the pressure and weight of responsibility for many. He’d listen to us and help us have a platform,” he says.

As somebody who was open about having once been a sex worker, David understood the importance of giving a side-lined group of people a voice.

“He proved that us being sex workers was not a barrier for being trusted to run a world- leading clinic in the centre of London,” says Jason. “His motto was ‘let kindness be your north star’, something I keep in my heart. David listened and gave people the emotional literacy to understand what baggage they were holding onto. That it wasn’t because something was wrong with them, but a response they had to an environment they were placed into. He could be blunt, but his kindness was clear, unconditional and transparent love. It shook you until you knew you could love yourself at least to that same level.”

Ian says it is hard to imagine a London without David Stuart in it. “But I remind myself all the time… he is here. His work and everything he did for our community lives on every single day. And what an honour to be part of this, to give him an award which he so very much deserves. I genuinely do not know where I would be today without David and Ignacio, and I am forever grateful to both.” 

Ignacio highlights the global influence David’s work has had. “People who live in India, in the USA, in Mexico, they always mention David’s work,” he says, pausing to hold back tears as he reflects on David’s legacy. Unfortunately, the isolation brought on by successive lockdowns proved too challenging for a man who thrived on helping people face to face.

“I knew he was going to die. I was the one who was going to his house. He was having a very difficult couple of years, he was very isolated, he was struggling with his mental health, and also at [the clinic where he worked],” Ignacio says. “He knew he wasn’t going to be here in 2022. I’m still struggling with that.”

“David never thought of his kindness and greatness in the way that other people saw it,” says Meredith about a man who is much missed, but whose impact lives on in the immeasurable number of lives his tireless work saved.

The Attitude September/October issue is available to download and order in print now and will be on newsstands from Thursday 4 August.