“I was given six months to live with HIV in 1982 – 40 years later I’m still here”



Most mornings Jonathan Blake heads down to his local lido to swim some lengths.

With his 73rd birthday approaching this year, Jonathan feels blessed to be alive and enjoying an active lifestyle.

Nearly 40 years ago, in October 1982, he was told he had just six months to live when he became one of the first people in the UK to be diagnosed with HIV.

It was a devastating thing to be told at a time when little was known about the newly-emerging virus, which was causing untold misery, particularly within the gay community.

Jonathan – who was the inspiration for Dominic West’s character in the popular British movie Pride – features in a BBC series set to start tonight exploring the AIDS pandemic.

Jonathan swims most mornings and says he feels lucky to have survived for 30 years with HIV
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Jonathan Blake)

Speaking to The Mirror during Pride month, Jonathan said it is important that people talk about the epidemic and the impact it continues to have.

Back in the 1990s, when he didn’t think he had long to live, he gave a series of interviews to researchers examining the crisis, which have since been stored at the British Library.

Jonathan’s words will feature in hard-hitting documentary AIDS: The Unheard Tapes.

“I don’t remember what I said, it’s going to be fascinating,” Jonathan revealed.

“When I got the diagnosis I didn’t know how I was supposed to live. I had this killer virus in my veins and I felt like a modern-day leper.

“I remember in the December of the year I was diagnosed I was going to commit suicide after hearing what was in store for me. But then I heard the voice of my mother saying ‘you need to clear up your own mess’, and I couldn’t do it.

Jonathan was the inspiration for Dominic West’s character in 2014 movie Pride

“When Covid came along people were saying we’ve never had a pandemic before, but I remember when we had HIV in the 1980s.

“AIDS became the forgotten epidemic, until It’s A Sin came out and the profile was raised.”

As time passed, Jonathan has found it easier to talk about his condition, which he is able to manage thanks to incredible scientific breakthroughs in the past four decades.

Effective treatment means the amount of virus in a person’s blood can become undetectable, and they cannot pass it on.

He now works alongside the Terrence Higgins Trust, which provides vital support for people with HIV, to tackle the stigma around the virus.

There are nearly 110,000 people believed to be living with HIV in the UK, with around five per cent unaware they have it.

Jonathan hopes that by talking about living with HIV, he can help address the stigma that many face
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Jonathan Blake)

“In the early days I was very nervous about it and I made choices about who I told,” Jonathan said.

“Gay men were vilified, although the adverts said it could affect anybody, the press did a good job of making people think that we were the cause.

“I never told my parents, they never knew I had HIV. But I think that the longer I was living with it and having an easy time, I just felt that it was important to talk about it.

“The longer I lived I could say, ‘well look at me, I’ve managed to survive, it’s not all doom-and-gloom’.”

His survival has baffled many, Jonathan said. Tragically he saw a number of people die as a result of their illness, and he has no idea how he lived to see the rollout of antiretroviral drugs, which help people manage the condition.

“I still find it fascinating that no one has said ‘let’s break down his genomes and see what it is’,” he said.

“There doesn’t appear to be much interest, I think it’s strange.”

There are more than 100,000 people in the UK living with HIV, it is believed
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Getty Images/ImageSource)

With Pride month well underway, Jonathan says it is important that the struggles the gay community have endured over the years are not forgotten.

“It was about battles that needed to be fought, we had to fight battles to get our rights,” he said.

One battle that has been immortalized is the incredible work activist group Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM), including Jonathan and partner Nigel Young, in supporting strikes in the early to mid-1980s.

They helped raise thousands to support communities worst affected by Margaret Thatcher’s sweeping cuts, and formed close bonds with campaigners.

It formed the basis of the 2014 film Pride, which has been given particular prominence on Netflix during Pride month.

“It’s fab, I loved it,” Jonathan said. “We thought that the story would die out with us, it’s just so extraordinary how it came about.”

He fondly recounted meeting West, who visited his London home with the film’s producer David Livingstone and writer Stephen Beresford.

“Suddenly there was McNulty from The Wire standing outside my house, it was just extraordinary,” he said.

The film went on to be a critical success, picking up Golden Globe and Bafta nominations, with a musical based on the story said to be in the works.

For Jonathan the celebration of the LGBT community’s struggles and victories exemplifies what Pride month is all about.

He carved out a successful career as a pattern cutter for the English National Opera, and spent 38 happy years with partner Nigel, who sadly died earlier this year.

Nowadays Jonathan is a huge advocate for HIV testing, as earlier diagnosis makes a huge difference for those living with the virus.

And he is worried about the lack of drop-in centers for people to find out more about the condition. “There’s still a need for it, people need information and somewhere they can go and find out more, but they’re finding there isn’t enough,” he said.

But he said he is glad that HIV and AIDS are being talked about, and hopes that by publicly addressing his condition he can help erode the stigma surrounding them.

AIDS: The Unheard Tapes will begin on BBC2 at 9.30pm tonight.

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www.mirror.co.uk

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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