'I wanted a space where we could represent, honour and celebrate black queer life in the UK'

Marc's own photos build part of the project, on the left, him and his 'first love' in 1992. Credit: Blackandgaybackintheday/Marc Thompson
  • By ITV News Multimedia Producer Jocelyn Evans

"My name is Marc Thompson. I've been working in and out of the HIV sexual health sector for about 30 years.

"I'm also an out, proud and unapologetic black gay man who's been living with HIV since I was 17 in 1986."

For three decades, Marc has worked with marginalised communities around sexual health and social justice - with projects like the Love Tank and PrEPster.

His work and his life has led him to meet "extraordinary people".

Those people, and many more, are now being celebrated in a new digital archive - 'Black & Gay, back in the day'.

  • 'I wanted a space where we could represent, honour and celebrate black queer life'

"I wanted a space where we could represent, and honour and celebrate black queer life in the UK in the last millennium," Marc said of the project - set up with writer Jason Okundaye.

"There have been black queer people in this country as long as there have been black folk in this country, but when we celebrate LGBT History Month, we very often tend to look to the US.

"Or we look for big named icons and celebrities that we remember - and in Black History month we [LGBT people] are very often forgotten."

Marc said he wanted "to celebrate the ordinary and the extraordinary men and women who lived through that tumultuous period" and show them in all their glory.

It was about celebrating all aspects of their lives too - "partying, falling in love, hanging out and just being regular folk.

"Black queer communities are missing and not truly represented in history in the same way that black history, generally, isn't recognised in our history."

The project, launched in LGBT+ History Month, documents the lives of black queer people in Britain from the 1950s to 2000 and already has a following of thousands.

Our conversation, of course, turned to It's A Sin - after the huge success of the show, in and beyond the LGBT+ community, the conversation around the 1980s epidemic and HIV has seemed louder than at any other point in recent history.

Marc said knowing about, and understanding, that period of history is essential for the younger generation - it's where we came from.

He continued that a lot of the outward stigma - from the media, local leaders, and government - has given way in the 30 years since, he said, but: "We still see high levels of self-stigma which people have internalised".

"We still have to recognise that there is a community of individuals, and the wider community, that has 30 years of PTSD on their shoulders."

  • 'We still see high levels of self-stigma which people have internalised'

The gay community at large still carries misconceptions about HIV, Marc said.

"I see stigma playing out in the gay community - online and in dating apps - people are still HIV-phobic and will reject people based on that.

"My real concern though is how we can ensure that people who are living with HIV - whether that's a really long time, like myself, or if they've just been diagnosed - how they have the tools to be empowered, to live their lives well, and to push back against stigma where they experience it."

Marc's work has challenged reductive narratives around HIV, which have historically limited outreach in underserved communities.

PrEPster, the work of Marc and other HIV prevention activists in London, was one of the many groups that campaigned for years to get the HIV prevention drug, Prep, available on the NHS.

  • 'We know that there are some gay men who have higher HIV prevention needs'

Finally, in March 2020, NHS England announced the drug would be made routinely available to patients deemed to be at greater risk.

"One of our challenges when we first started out pushing Prep was to try to ensure that it wasn't just seen as a drug for gay men," Marc said.

From the beginning, PrEPster targeted communities "most at risk" - that included "gay men, black African communities, sex workers, trans communities, and migrants".

"There's a long, long history in HIV prevention work of us not being as targeted as we should be," he said.

"In the early days of the [AIDS] epidemic, and the early days of our work, we can reflect and see that a lot of the work was targeted specifically at gay men."

Marc adds this focus tended to be on white gay men specifically, perpetuating a stereotype around HIV and leaving other affected communities underserved.

A 1994 advertisement for the National Aids Helpline about practising safer sex in new relationships. Credit: Liverpool Health Promotion Agency/WellcomeCollection

"We've improved over the years and we've got much better at doing that. We've done the work and now we know that communities are aware."

When the Covid pandemic hit, Marc and his team faced an additional challenge.

"As soon as we went into the first lockdown we thought it was really, really important that the communities we served had the right information," he said.

The team at PrEPster "recognised that people would still potentially be having sex" and were realistic about it.

PrEPster devoted pages of its website to staying safe during the Covid pandemic - promoting the government guidance on staying at home and social distancing - but acknowledging people may still "take risks".

"Recognising that people may take risks, this is what's informed our work," said Marc.

"That is also informed by the work we've done for over 30 years around HIV.

"In the HIV pandemic we didn't just run out and tell everybody to stop having sex - we just knew it was unrealistic - so we said: 'These are the things that you need to have to prevent HIV'.

"We've taken that model, we've dusted it off, and we've repurposed it for Covid and I think that's what communities need."

  • 'I take inspiration from my black queer brothers'

Marc is known in the community and beyond as a "queer elder," having worked tirelessly for three decades to enact positive change.

I asked him what has kept him going and inspired him.

"I take inspiration from my black queer brothers and from the black gay men that are around me today."

"I walk on their shoulders and in the path that they've laid out for me."

A path Marc himself is continuing to set out for others.

ITV News is showcasing the lives, legacies and stories of individuals throughout LGBT+ History Month, read more in the series here.