Now 52 and a grandmother, Stella Zuzé rummages through her oldphotos. There she is in a Sophia Loren sunhat lounging in her garden inZimbabwe, circa 1976. “Let me tell you—I was a killer then! I could have any man I wanted.”
Three decades, four children and one near-death from AIDS later,Zuzé lives in a single room in Cardiff, Wales, on the £38 ($68) a weekasylum seekers receive while U.K. immigration officials review theircases, which can take years.
“Young Stella,” she says, as if telling a fairytale, “married anartist. He designed the bird on the Zimbabwe flag. Stella had fourkids, and when independence came in 1981 and blacks were allowed to dooffice work, she got a good job.
“But the marraige turned out to be far from the fairytale that Stellhad envisioned. So she left her husband and struggled as a singlemother. And she had a lot of boyfriends! Why not? My husband never somuch as paid my rent, but they did.” (Common in African cities, thisisn’t considered prostitution.)
“Eventually, in 2000, I got sick. I went to a doctor who took a testand said, ‘Stella, your blood is dirty.’” She got blinding headaches.With cryptococcal meningitis ravaging her brain, she flew to Englandfor the treatment she needed to save her life.
Four years later and stable on HIV meds, she can’t leave the U.K.until her asylum application is settled. That means she can’t visit herkids—whom she bore before getting HIV. But she’s determined not toreturn to Zimbabwe. “The place is not fit to live in,” she says.
One in three Zimbabwean adults has HIV. “Every time you phone:‘So-and-so died,’” Stella says, beginning to sob. “Last year, I wasbegging for tablets for my nephew’s son, a teacher. He died at 28. Overthere, people think, ‘Well, if I use a condom, I’ll still die.’ ‘Deathis death,’ that’s what they say.”
Zuzé is the new face of HIV here in the U.K., which has largelyhandled the disease admirably. One in 1,000 Brits is positive, comparedwith one in 330 in the U.S. This is due in part to the government’searly adoption of needle exchange. Only 7 percent of Brit HIVers gotthe virus by injecting drugs, compared with 25 percent in the States.The Brits’ bold, sexy and community-run info programs for gay menremain models for tackling HIV non-moralistically. And the U.K. isproud of its free, tax-funded National Health Service. This includessexual-health clinics where you can drop in, give your name as ElvisPresley and get treated for STDs and HIV, no questions asked.
But the number of HIVers here has doubled in the past five years, to60,000 in a country of 60 million. That’s the steepest climb in anyrich country. Two-thirds of those new infections are amongheterosexuals. Nine-tenths of those newly infected caught HIV outsidethe U.K., 80 percent of them in sub-Saharan Africa. A health-caresystem built in Victorian times to treat pox-ridden sailors returningfrom the colonies is buckling as immigrants from those formercolonies—which have become the world’s HIV hot spots—turn up with AIDS.
This has panicked the government and enraged the conservative press,which seems to mesmerize Britain’s politicians. Immigrants are “healthtourists bleeding the country dry,” to quote the Rupert Murdoch–ownedSun. The London Times called them a “public health menace.” The Daily Telegraph got a doctor to say that paying for their treatment was “why your granny won’t get her hip replacement.”
Prime Minister Tony Blair considered a U.S.-style ban on lettingHIVers into the U.K. He dropped the idea when advisers told him itwould merely encourage false documentation. Since April, though,roughly 1,500 to 4,000 “illegals” have been denied free HIV meds. Thatincludes those denied immigrant status even though authorities agreeit’s too dangerous to send them back to countries with civil unrest.
“We’ve had cases of people admitted to hospital unconscious andgetting a bill for £7,000 [$12,600] when they wake up,” says LisaPower, head of policy for the Terrence Higgins Trust (THT), the U.K.’slargest HIV organization. “We’ve had people with active TB who, whencharged for their [HIV meds], discharged themselves halfway throughtheir TB treatment. The Immigration Department seems to think if wedon’t give them [HIV meds], they’ll go back home. But it’s still betterdying by inches in London than in Africa.”
THT chief executive Nick Partridge doesn’t think the U.K. will end up with people dying of AIDS in the streets. “The
Population: 293 million
Population: 60 million
In recent years, Blair reorganized the National Health Service(NHS), shifting spending power to Primary Care Trusts, which run alllocal services. The Trusts have no problem spending 10 percent of theNHS budget on obesity and diabetes. But they don’t like spending evenone percent on AIDS, a stigmatized disease increasingly suffered bynon-taxpaying immigrants. “It’s a challenge to make the local Trustsunderstand that AIDS is more, not less, important than it was in the1990s,” says Partridge.
The Trusts also don’t like spending on HIV prevention for “poofs”(that’s British for “fags”). But infections in gay men have risen 40percent from 1999—that’s three times the increase among American gaymen.
London, where Victorian laws once punished any sex act other thantwo-in-a-bed heterosexuality, has become the sex-party capital ofEurope for gays and straights. Take Hard On, successor to thenotorious, polysexual fetish club Fist, which made its promoter,lesbian S&M diva Susie Krueger, a very rich woman. Or Pigpitmen, amonthly bareback party at an East End pub. It’s for guys with HIV,though proof of status isn’t required.
Meet Sam Cotton, 29. The hunky Scot represents yet another new faceof the U.K. epidemic: younger gays. He knows the bareback world well.“After I was diagnosed, I had little safe sex,” he says. “I regarded itas a perk of being positive. I’ve changed my mind due to STDs, but I dothink a lot of positive guys, like me, are thrill seekers. I’d neverhad unsafe sex until six months before I was diagnosed at 25.”
In 2000, Cotton was having a bad year. “I thought I wanted to be anactor but was doing it very half-heartedly. I was lost. It was that andthe GHB,” he says, referring to the party drug that can make onevulnerable to rape or a fatal overdose. “That’s the only drug that’sever made me lose it. And yes, I have tried crystal.”
Crystal meth, or “tina,” has arrived on London’s gay scene buthasn’t yet saturated the community as it has in the U.S. GHB is adifferent matter. Positive guys on Norvir (ritonavir) are at particularrisk because it hikes GHB to lethal levels. Tired of ambulances cartingoff comatose boys, sex clubs now frisk for GHB bottles.
After his diagnosis, Cotton was aimless. “In this country,” he says,“if you’re positive, the government plies you with meds and money.”It’s true that, if you’ve paid taxes, you can get generous benefits,sometimes including a government-leased car. But benefits have becomemore difficult to get—and many HIVers are being forced back to work.
After taking a life-coaching course, Cotton got a job working withDerren Brown, the U.K.’s answer to the hip American magician DavidBlaine. Now, Cotton rings up people and asks whether they’d like to be“vanished” on TV. “I know so many boys who’ve had HIV for ages and arejust a mess on welfare,” he says. “I’ve learned I’m too important to bea mess and that I can realize my goals. I’ve worked through a lot ofguilt about myself. You don’t ‘catch’ HIV, I think—you receive it. There’s something symbolic about that virus filling an empty hole.”
Yusuf Azad, policy director of the National AIDS Trust, worriesabout people like Sam. Azad thinks prevention messages in the U.K.,however nonjudgmental, are dangerously misdirected. “The U.K. hasbrilliant information about how you catch HIV,” he says. “But Ichallenge you to go into a gay bar and find a leaflet that issues aclear statement about why you shouldn’t catch it.” Some HIVworkers think that CHAPS, the consortium of groups doing all that sexyharm-reduction work, should augment their pamphlets on the relativerisks of, say, topping versus bottoming, with a blunt surgeongeneral’s–type warning that unsafe sex with many partners greatlyincreases one’s risk for HIV and other STDs.
“London is also an asylum center for men who can’t be gay in theirown country,” he adds. “How many of these new HIV cases in gay men arealso among immigrants?”
Welcome to Kudos, a gay bar just off London’s Trafalgar Square. Thedesigner decor and steep prices mark the opposite end of Pigpitmen.Half the guys are Asian. And downstairs, in the louder disco bar, it’sall African boys in beads and Muslim prayer hats.
The Health Protection Agency, the U.K. equivalent of the CDC,documents the probable country of infection for every heterosexualdiagnosed with HIV but not for gay men. In a recent newsletter, theagency estimated that one in six new gay infections comes from abroad.The 2002 Padare Project, which studied HIV positive African Londoners,found that one in five was exclusively gay. So far, however, remarkablylittle HIV prevention targets them.
Mohamud Yasin, 29, is from the one African country that beatsZimbabwe in U.K. immigrant numbers: Somalia. It’s a failed state tornbetween rival warlords. But that’s not why Yasin’s family bundled thenewly married 16-year-old to neighboring Kenya shortly before civil warbroke out in 1991.
One evening, Yasin’s brother caught him kissing another man. “Itwasn’t my brother who tried to kill me,” recounts Yasin. “He just said,‘You are qanes.’” (Pronounced kanesh, the word means “gay” in Somalian.) “But my sister leaped on me and started biting me! I was in fear of my life.”
Somalia is homicidally homophobic. “This guy in London,” Yasinreports, “came out to his mother. She pretended to accept it but ranghis father in Somalia. He said, ‘You must kill him.’ And she did! Sheinvited him ’round and stabbed him.”
Islam dictates, however, that if your family accepts you, no oneelse can touch you. “The night I was ‘outed,’ my father gathered us,”continues Yasin. “My brothers wanted to kill me. But my father said, ‘Iam the one who can kill him or let him go.’”
In Kenya, Yasin found a Somalian boyfriend, Abdi, also an exile. ButAbdi returned to Somalia to die of AIDS in 1997. “That was my darkyear,” says Yasin. “I got letters from him every week. Then, theystopped.”
Mohamud applied to the U.K. for refugee status and arrived here in1999, almost as sick as Zuzé. He soon tested HIV positive. Thanks tomeds, he’s healthy and works at the Naz Project, a West London groupthat supports positive Latinos, Asians and East Africans. Working withSomalian HIVers, he decided to set up a support group for gay ones.“Their lives are still in danger,” he says. “I get them running to mydoor saying, ‘Mohamud, they’ve found out—you have to rehouse me now!’”
He was expecting around 30 guys at the first meeting. Eighty-fiveshowed. “A lot are nice-looking and have good hearts but are forced tomarry,” he says. “They have no English; they have no self-worth; and ifa white man wants sex without a condom, they are easy meat. If I don’twork with them, who will?”
Britain finds itself at a crucial point with HIV—the numbers aren’tyet dire but the political will to ramp up funding for prevention andtreatment for gay men and immigrants, who need it most, is feeble.Without it, experts say, the situation could worsen. “At the moment,”says Partridge, “prevention for HIV and sexual health is simply not oneof the NHS priorities—something I think will turn out to be a hugemistake.” And with right-wing groups like the British National Partyweighing in, no one wants to trigger more anti-immigrant backlash byscreaming for immigrant AIDS services.
At a recent major PWA conference, an angry caucus of Africansprotested that groups serving them weren’t doing enough to counter themedia’s scare stories. “It’s time for us as Africans to take the leadon these issues,” says Thandi Haruperi, 42, who came here from Zambiain 1990 with ambitions to start her own chain of fashion boutiques onlyto learn she had HIV in 1998. Today, the divorced mother of two runs ahealth-education agency for black youth and HIVers—and serves on theboard of the U.K. Coalition, the nation’s largest PWA group. “We needto challenge the government,” she insists. “Why press for more Africansto test for HIV if there is no treatment?”
For all the press hubbub over HIVer immigrants, the issue likelywon’t play a major role in the upcoming elections, which, expertsbelieve, will favor Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labour Party, which hasbeen relatively progressive on HIV and AIDS. Even if Blair’s own partyevicts him as party leader and PM—a possibility, due to his unpopularsupport for the U.S.-led Iraq war—his likely replacement would be hisown finance minister, Gordon Brown. Brace for the worst, however, ifthe Conservatives get in. Their leader, Michael Howard, supportsimmigration quotas and deportations—even though his own Jewish parentsfled the holocaust.
Also troubling? The increasing criminalization of people whotransmit HIV. Last year, three men, all African asylum seekers, gotheavy sentences for passing HIV to women. “African men are demonized asghastly sexual predators,” says Azad. “HIV is becoming fetishized as acriminal activity by the government and the conservative media. We arelosing the argument for a public-health approach to HIV. Would we getneedle exchange through today? I doubt it.”
Meanwhile, back in Cardiff, Zuzé thinks about her family inZimbabwe—about her daughter, a jazz singer, and her teen son, who’sfailing his school exams. But she’s determined to prove her worth toher new home, proudly displaying the paper on European Union law shewrote in night school. And she’s determined to stay in the mothercountry for the drugs she needs to live. Says she: “I’m not goingnowhere.”