Lady Di Destroys AIDS Stigma

Before her tragic death in 1997, Diana, Princess of Wales, helped to challenge the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS and gay men.

Over two decades after she died tragically in a car accident on August 31st, 1997 in Paris, France, Diana, Princess of Wales, is back in the spotlight following the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle (now known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex) on May 19th, 2018. In August of 1997, I was preparing to enter tenth grade, and the news of Diana’s death is the only memory that I can immediately recall from that summer. There was something about Princess Diana that captivated me. She was poised, stylish, and her blue eyeliner was on point. At the time, I knew nothing of her charity work, and especially not her work with persons living with AIDS at a time when stigma and fear circulated openly. I now recognize the quality that made Diana so admired was her willingness to display her humanity openly.

Born Diana Spencer to a British noble family, she rose to international prominence when, in 1981, she wed Charles, the Prince of Wales and heir apparent to the British throne. Diana was known affectionately as the “People’s Princess” for being both publicly beloved and an atypical royal. She was involved with a variety of charitable organizations, taking on issues not common of a royal, and spoke publicly about her struggle with bulimia and her troubled marriage. Diana began her charity work during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic when there was much public misinformation as to how the HIV virus was contracted.

The epidemic began in 1981, the year Diana became a member of the British royal family, when the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), an American government agency, identified cases of a form of pneumonia that typically manifests in those with compromised immune systems in gay men. In 1982, the CDC labeled the new phenomenon as Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, or, AIDS. By 1983, the HIV virus, the cause of AIDS, had been identified by French and American scientists.

Once the virus was discovered, medical professionals could better understand how it spread. HIV is contracted through exchange of bodily fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal and rectal fluids, and breast milk and is not spread via air, water, toilets, food and drink, or casual physical contact. Despite this knowledge, during the height of the epidemic misinformation about the transmission of the virus was widespread. This public ignorance and fear was exemplified by the case of Ryan White, an American teenager who contracted HIV in 1984 following a blood transfusion for hemophilia. Following his AIDS diagnosis, White was denied admission to his school in Kokomo, Indiana. When White advocated for his right to an education, he gained national attention, becoming one of the public faces of the epidemic.

As for the gay community, fear of the disease combined with homophobia to create a toxic mixture. Gay men, in particular, were considered both deviant and diseased. In the United Kingdom, AIDS stigma caused negative attitudes towards homosexuality to peak during the 1980s, resulting in the passage of Section 28 of the Local Government Act of 1988. Section 28 of the act, which applied to England, Scotland, and Wales, specified that the government “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”

Amidst this climate of ignorance, stigma, and fear, Diana made headlines when, on April 19th of 1987, she attended the opening of the Middlesex Hospital AIDS ward in London, the first ward in the U.K. dedicated to the treatment of HIV/AIDS. At the opening, Diana was photographed by the press shaking the hand of a man with AIDS without wearing gloves. The photograph shows the Princess, then only 26 years old, holding the hand of a patient seated in his hospital room and facing away from the camera, her expression one of compassion and interest.

“HIV does not make people dangerous to know. You can shake their hands and give them a hug. Heaven knows they need it. What’s more, you can share their homes, their workplaces, and their playgrounds and toys.”

The man in the photograph was named Ivan Cohen and, according to his friend Philip Chklar, he was “the only person in the special wing of the Middlesex Hospital willing to be photographed with the princess and only on condition that he was photographed from behind” due to the intense stigma associated with AIDS (The Guardian). The Princess of Wales exhibited empathy for persons with AIDS at a time when public knowledge of the epidemic was growing, yet shame and stigma remained high.

The year 1986 marked the beginning of “Don’t Die of Ignorance,” a straightforward public health campaign that raised awareness through television advertisements and leaflets mailed to the home of every British citizen (The Guardian). In 1987, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), a non-partisan direct action activist organization, was founded in New York City. Then President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, publicly acknowledged the illness for the first time while summarily rejecting increased funding for safe sex education in American schools on the grounds of morality.

Prince Harry, Diana’s younger son, explained his mother’s stance towards people with AIDS like this:

“She knew that AIDS was one of the things that many wanted to ignore and seemed like a hopeless challenge. She knew that the misunderstanding of this relatively new disease was creating a dangerous situation when mixed with homophobia. So when, that April, she took the hand of a 32-year-old man with HIV, in front of the cameras, she knew exactly what she was doing. She was using her position as Princess of Wales — the most famous woman in the world — to challenge everyone to educate themselves, to find their compassion, and to reach out to those who need help instead of pushing them away” (The Guardian).

Over the next decade, Diana would be photographed with numerous persons with AIDS, and her simple gestures — a handshake, a touch, a hug, a conversation held in close proximity — helped to destroy the stigma of the illness. “If a royal was allowed to go in shake a patient’s hands, somebody at the bus stop or the supermarket could do the same,” said a nurse present at one of Diana’s hospital visits. “That really educated people” (BBC News). Images of Diana holding the hands of people dying from AIDS — many of them gay men — circulated around the globe. The Princess was also a frequent visitor at London Lighthouse, a day center for people with AIDS that opened in 1986. “HIV does not make people dangerous to know,” she said plainly. “You can shake their hands and give them a hug. Heaven knows they need it. What’s more, you can share their homes, their workplaces, and their playgrounds and toys.”

Though from our current vantage point it is near impossible to separate Diana the woman from Diana the princess, the icon — the factual Diana from the embellished persona — she undoubtedly played a pivotal role in dispelling the fear and stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS, particularly in relation to gay men. In humanizing people with AIDS, Diana also humanized the gay community.

Diana was a gay icon not only because of the compassion she showed towards people with AIDS, but because her life was defined by a constant negotiation between royal protocol and personal authenticity. Many gay people naturally related to the struggle of living one’s truth in all its messy complexities versus fitting oneself into society’s confining, premade roles. It is therefore unsurprising that the Princess of Wales befriended prominent queer men of her time such as Elton John, Freddie Mercury, and Kenny Everett. Skylar Baker-Jordan, a gay British man, said that Diana made it easier for gay youths to come out, and when his family was struggling with his identity, he cited the Princess’ “example of kindness, compassion, and unabashed acceptance” as a guide (Independent).

Prince Harry, Diana’s younger son, has continued his mother’s HIV/AIDS advocacy, calling for the public to embrace regular testing as a way to combat the continuing epidemic. Shortly after the public announcement of their engagement, Harry and Meghan Markle visited the HIV/AIDS charity the Terrence Higgins Trust to mark World AIDS Day.

“I often wonder about what she would be doing to continue the fight against HIV and AIDS if she were still with us today,” Prince Harry mused in a speech delivered in October of 2017 as he accepted Attitude magazine’s Legacy Award on his mother’s behalf (The Guardian). Surely Lady Di, the “People’s Princess,” would approach the HIV/AIDS epidemic today with the empathy, grace, and kindness that, during her brief life, taught many to see the humanity in those outcasted, struggling, and in need.



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