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Aids: The Unheard Tapes—voices of those who lived and died resurrected

Aids: The Unheard Tapes plays recorded interviews with some of the first casualties—giving insight into struggles not long past, says Isabel Ringrose
Issue 2810
Dickie Beau as Michael, wears a moustache with a blonde wig, gold jewelry and a golden dress in Aids: The Unheard Tapes

Actors lip synch to recordings of real people such as Michael in Aids: The Unheard Tapes

Aids: The Unheard Tapes tells the tragic and brave first-hand stories of gay men with the disease throughout the 1980s and 90s. Their words, never broadcasted before, are lip synced and shown alongside footage of them.

These are accompanied by modern day interviews with activists, scientists and doctors who fought the virus and campaigned against the onslaught of lies and homophobia.

Part One—Ignorance starts with the life of Terry Higgins, the first recorded Aids death in Britain 40 years ago. His friends and partner Rupert Whitaker set up the Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) to support those with HIV/Aids.

In 1982, as the voices in Aids: The Unheard Tapes explain, gay men were second class citizens. An underground culture of nightclubs that were “sexually charged playgrounds” grew in opposition to the world’s hatred.

Having sex with as many men as possible was an act of defiance and liberation. But news reports started to spread of a rare form of cancer affecting gay men in the US. Theories spread about whether it was deliberately manufactured, or how it was passed on.

Aids reached Britain and growing misinformation created panic and dread. THT and the Gay Switchboard, the only support services available, moved fast as Margaret Thatcher’s government refused to act.

Young and otherwise healthy men died horrendous deaths. “Because it was sexually spread among homosexuals there was a complete lack of concern,” activist Tony Whitehead says in Aids: The Unheard Tapes.

An antibody test was created in 1984, but a positive result became a death sentence as no treatment existed. THT tried to educate gay men about a new concept—safe sex and positive alternatives—by leafleting clubs and bars.

“This was an uphill battle,” Whitaker explains. Those with the virus tried to stay healthy but were in the dark about what was killing them. Many without a diagnosis wanted to carry on living, and dismissed the dark reality of HIV/Aids.

The deep shame of catching the virus was supported by a media frenzy stigmatising, demonising and victim blaming gay men. This drove homophobic attacks.

 “We were in the middle of a warzone,” Michael, one of those whose voices we hear in Aids: The Unheard Tapes, says. “It was a rod to beat gay men with but also to put out misinformation, lies and created a climate of bigotry and homophobia.”

Meanwhile young men died isolated and scared. “Do you realise what this means?” John says his doctor asked. “You will die and kill anyone if you have sex, and you can’t get life insurance or a mortgage. I sat there completely stunned,” John recalls. 

These stories of those affected—and how many courageously resisted the horror—makes Aids: The Unheard Tapes a valuable insight into the reality of the Aids crisis. 

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