Lesbian Visibility Day: Lisa Power on anger, activism and LGBTQ+ solidarity
By Lisa Power
Lisa Power is a British LGBTQ+ rights activist. She was one of the founding members of the lesbian and gay rights group Stonewall in 1989, which has played a pivotal role in achieving legal recognition and protection for LGBTQ+ people in the UK.
As a volunteer at Switchboard (formerly London Lesbian and Gay Switchboard), Lisa saw firsthand the devastating impact of HIV and AIDS in the 1980s, kickstarting a decades long fight on behalf of people living with HIV.
I thought we’d start by asking about the early days of HIV activism. In the early 80s, how did you and others channel your anger into activism?
Well, it all crept up on me a bit. It's a bit like people talk about boiling a frog and the water gets hotter and hotter and you don't really realise. I was on the phones at Gay Switchboard when it all kicked off and therefore was involved right from the start. And anger kind of went in two directions. One of which was an awful lot of people in our community being in denial, but the other was the government being in denial.
The anger is obvious because people were dying. It was primarily gay men and injecting drug users. This is before we were aware of the issues for African migrants and those grew considerably in the late 80s, early 90s. But in the early days it was two groups of people who were incredibly stigmatised to start with. We just watched HIV being used as yet another stick to beat the queer community with.
You’ve got to remember, in the early days, we didn't really know how it was transmitted. We didn't know how contagious it might be. Being on Switchboard was being at the absolute heart of that initial fearful response.
It was the randomness of it as well, the fact that some people seem to fall ill and die very fast and others seem to persist and be OK and be very level. And we now know about the incredibly long arc of HIV. But then we all thought that you were going to die within a couple of years and that was that. That's a myth that has persisted to this day. So many people who are diagnosed now still say, “does that mean I've only got a couple of years?”.
So yes, of course we got angry. Because the alternative to anger was despair.
What can activists now learn from those early days of HIV activism?
Don't take no for an answer and find your allies. If it was down to Mrs. Thatcher, it would have been a quick poster on the back of a toilet door and that would have been it. But it was finding the people within her government willing to listen that really helped. This is what we blew with Section 28 because we didn't understand, as a lesbian and gay movement at that time, that we needed to find allies within her government until it was too late. But on AIDS we did do that. Some of that was helped by the fact that Conservatives were no more resistant to HIV than anybody else. If we hadn't had Norman Fowler and Willie Whitelaw… finding or making your allies is still a lesson today.
What are some of your proudest moments working at Terrence Higgins Trust for 17 years?
One issue I’m particularly proud of working in is criminalisation. Now there’s a fairly strong consensus about criminalisation; that criminalisation of reckless transmission is unhelpful, but that intentional transmission is a different matter. That was the line that we formulated between THT and NAT and that was our biggest alliance for a long time.
I had to navigate that line through a very large organisation where senior members of staff had varied positions. Coming up with a line early on and sticking with it was the way to slowly bring the organisation, and then to an extent the Crown Prosecution Service, around about it. That was really big for me and I'm so glad we did that.
And if there's if there's one campaign or event, I am going to shamelessly boast about the fact that I started National HIV Testing Week in the UK and then in Europe. I'm not gonna hide my light under a bushel about that one. I can't stop inventing things, it's terrible. I call myself a serial interferer.
You’ve said before that you moved to Cardiff with the intention to retire… clearly slowing down isn’t on the agenda any time soon. Can you tell me a little bit about your work within Fast Track Cardiff and Vale?
I behaved myself after moving to Cardiff, because there's nothing worse than English people popping over the border and telling Welsh people how to do things. I waited a decade until I started popping up on lists of influential Welsh women and I thought “right, I'm Welsh now. I can start telling people that I think the HIV situation here is a mess” because there was no voluntary sector left.
I can't claim to be the first person who started talking about Fast Track Cardiff and Vale. It was actually Dr Jane Nicholls, one of the clinicians at Cardiff Royal Infirmary, who was pushing the idea of bringing Fast Track Cities to Wales and particularly to Cardiff. We got together and were really lucky as we found a whole bunch of people who were interested.
It's been one of the most fun experiences of my life actually, because it's been a bunch of very dedicated people having new ideas about what to do somewhere, with something had just disappeared from the public consciousness, and pushing it back in and finding out loads of doors were open. I mean, everybody from national politicians to the local politicians and health board and people have all been really helpful and really good about it. To the extent that three years on from going “we really ought to do something about this” we've now got a National HIV Action Plan and Fast Track Cymru.
We shouldn’t boast too much too soon but it really feels that we've brought HIV back into the national discourse. Every time I say I'm going to retire, it seems to retreat further away from me. Maybe one day!
Why is solidarity among all LGBTQ+ communities important?
It's important that we all stick together because frankly, the people who hate us don't hate one bit of us. They hate all of us. They may pick one bit of us, just as they're currently doing with trans people. It's documented that American evangelists sat down and worked out who would be the best group of people to pick on currently.
If we don't stick together, we'll get picked off bit by bit. We should have learned that lesson before, but it's certainly true now. I watch what's happening, the creeping way that transphobia has changed into homophobia, and that backlash takes people with HIV, and migrants, and everybody else who's in any way out of the absolute norm, and it sweeps them all up together.
We need to support each other and learn from one another. That doesn’t mean we can't criticise each other but we should be building each other up more than we tear each other down.
What does lesbian visibility, or queer visibility in general mean to you?
I mean, I am a very visible lesbian. I'm all over Twitter! I'm a right big mouthed madam and I think it's important. I have absolutely no right to tell anyone else that they should come out as lesbian, gay, bi, living with HIV, whatever. But I can tell people that coming out is good for your mental health, as long as you have a safe environment to do it in. That’s why an awful lot of kids go to university outside of their hometown, for example. Once you have a level of safety, coming out as anything, and that includes coming out as living with HIV, will liberate you. I'm here not to push people into doing things, but to support them if they want to liberate themselves on those fronts.