When I was coming out in the 80’s, it was at the same time as a lot of public health campaigns about AIDS. That did a lot to shape my identity as a gay man. In some ways it was great, because there were posters everywhere featuring gay men. I had never seen images of gay men put up openly in public before, so that was really something. Except the men on these advertisements were always very cleanly middle class, white, and muscly, like they had been to the gym a lot, depicted walking on a tropical beach somewhere holding hands, and that wasn’t what I looked like. The other thing was, of course, that these billboards were all about safer sex or getting tested, so at the end of the day, the message was that if you were a gay man and you had sex, you were going to die!
A government can be completely conservative, but when something becomes a public health issue, for example in the case of HIV, then they have to do something and that’s how things become included in policy. The relationship between activism and how things get included at a government level is real, but it’s not always a straightforward, positive thing. Lobby groups and grassroots initiatives do have an influence, but there’s also a process of co-optation where the power gets taken out of people’s hands and made part of a much more top down and bureaucratic process. And that affects how everything works. Capitalism has an amazing capacity to absorb outside elements into its neoliberal agenda.
So, on the one hand, you have all of these glossy posters, the public health response to HIV, then on the other, you have the grassroots activists like Act Up organising demos against pharmaceutical companies, lobbying for treatment, doing die-ins and kiss-ins, and a bunch of anarchist punks running around graffitiing advertising billboards, all those \’happy hetero-couple’ toothpaste advertisements and the like.
In London in the 80’s, there was a very active squatting movement. In Stoke Newington and Stamford hill, there were entire estate blocks of squats and people were very organised. A lot of anarchists and everyone was involved in different campaigns. Hackney council brought in a housing adviser, Brindley Heaven, to try and clear up the ‘squatting problem’. We plastered the whole of Hackney with posters – every lamp post and wall had one of those posters that read ‘Brindley Heaven, go to hell’, and we even managed to occupy Hackney Town Hall and issue our demands. There was a massive push back against squatters and activism from the powers that be. Hackney council spent 3 million pounds evicting the Stamford Hill Estate squat, with a siege that lasted for three days.
The New Age Traveller movement started and I joined that, going out into the countryside to live on sites, but that movement was full of the same old structural problems, repeating all the things that we see around us in society – the same old story where you have a bunch of wealthy middle class kids living in buses that their parents bought for them and the rest of us sleeping in benders, yet everybody is equal. I soon got sick of that bullshit. When I came back to London, the squatting scene had changed, much of that because of the campaign of mass evictions. Many people had gone off and joined the New Age Traveller movement; the squats weren’t full of activists anymore. The Acid House movement was getting underway and for quite a while, there was a real lull in the activist movement and nothing was happening in London. It took time for ‘Reclaim The Streets’ and other free party crews to evolve out of that.
How did I become a social worker? Well, it was during that lull. I was in a seaside town and I met this guy in a public toilet. We messed about a bit and then we started talking. Then he gave me his card, and it turned out that he was a social worker, doing sex education outreach! Seems he took his job quite literally. He told me that I should get an education so I could make something of myself. After that, I started to think, ‘Well, if he can be a social worker, then why can’t I’? I did enrol at university, of course in those days you could go for free, so I could have an education. I began by studying Irish culture, my heritage, and a lot of my politics started to form at that time.
Working in the third sector wasn’t really about a political motivation. It was about having a meal ticket and paying the rent, while I plotted the revolution. A lot of people from different backgrounds work in the third sector, because they can. Those are the work places where they are protected against discrimination. Larger public institutions have a code of practice that rules how they are allowed to treat their workers. Of course there are always micro-aggressions – bullying, treating others badly, but at a policy level, there is an anti-discrimination policy, so people from different backgrounds have a level of protection in their workplace. That’s why you see a very diverse workforce in the public sector, groups that are hugely under-represented in other sectors: women, LGBT people, people from different racial backgrounds, at least at the front line, because at the management level it is still mostly white men.
Coming out to my parents as having HIV was in a lot of ways easier than when I came out to them a couple of decades earlier as being gay. God, I remember telling my mum I was gay back in the 80’s. One of her first responses was ‘You’re going to die!’, because she too had seen the posters and the mass media headlines. Things were different 20 years on. I was settled down with my partner, we had a house, all of that. Plus the world had changed, there wasn’t the same level of stigma, there wasn’t section 28 for example. They were pretty calm about the news that I was HIV positive. It was me that had the big reaction! I suppose I was like a lot of gay men: I knew about HIV, I knew it existed, and yet somehow I thought I was cool with it, then suddenly it was positive and that was over. My response was to go around telling absolutely everyone I knew. Most of those people were part of the straight left activist community – many them would freak out and have huge reactions when I told them. So there I was having to deal with their emotional responses and doing a lot of explaining and educating. Maybe that was a way of having control, being the educator, dealing with others’ emotional responses rather than my own.
In social work, there was a particular way that we would all work together. You’ve got all these people in an office and it’s natural that people talk to those around them, that they compare notes, swap contacts, and give each other ideas for how to deal with situations. Over time, that evolves into a culture of work where not only are people working together in a self-organised system of referrals, contacts, and experience, but they also have a way to process the intensity of the work. When the government started to take apart the public sector and decrease funding to that sector, they sent in ‘experts’ to re-devise the system of work within organisations. Some management bod who had no idea of the work we were doing would come and impose a top down structure that was supposed to make us more ‘efficient’. As caseloads rose exponentially, more and more people lost their jobs in the name of cost-cutting. Management also destroyed the organic working culture we had. The situation got desperate – let’s face it, social work is pretty intense, but it just became impossible.
When I got a job lecturing in the university, I was amazed. Social work had become so pressured, so impossible, for years now, that I felt guilty for leaving my colleagues, but in another way I thought I had it made. Me, lecturing in a university! I could hardly believe it. It turned out to be an absolute nightmare, ridiculous work structures, psychopathic managers, and a completely capitalist model of squeezing its workers harder and harder. The university feels like a money-making machine. That is all it is, it’s nothing to do with students or learning or people. Those days are long gone, if they ever really existed. It costs an enormous amount of money to enter these places, and once you are in there, the whole structure around you is about maximising the universities money-making potential. I hadn’t realised, the university I went to work in was notorious for its bad management, corruption, and lack of care for its workers, but then it’s not unique in that.
Work, what does that even mean? There are so many artificial separations in our lives between what is counted as work and what isn’t work. All that really means what is paid and unpaid. The economy runs on unpaid and underpaid labour. If it wasn’t for all the unpaid physical and emotional care work being done, no one would ever make it to their paid jobs in the first place. If I didn’t have to work for money? Wow, if I had that, well I then suppose then I would spend my time… ha!… working. I’d spend my time doing things that need to be done and that I have the skills for. I have nothing against working, I’ve been an activist most of my life. I just want it to mean something.
Jet Moon in collaboration with Renegado.