Ger Philpott of Aidswise: 'I wanted to save gay men from dying from AIDS and to drag Ireland into modern times'
When his boyfriend Paul died of AIDS in 1983, Ger Philpott decided to set up Aidswise to educate people around HIV, says Andrea Smith
On the Saturday before the marriage equality referendum, Ger Philpott was canvassing at the traffic junctions in Fairview. A man cycled up to him and asked him what the YES campaign was about. “I told him and he angrily replied that it was just so I could marry my sister and called me a child-abusing abomination,” says Ger, incredulously. “I was getting this vitriol in the middle of a busy road and I didn’t know what to do, but luckily he got bored and went off.”
A week later, as he began counting the first box from Glasnevin at the Ballsbridge count centre, Ger began to cry softly as all of the YES votes in favour of marriage equality started racking up. After all the decades of hurt, discrimination and rejection, he realised that same-sex marriage was on the brink of being legalised, and his thoughts automatically went to Paul, his partner of four years, who was the first man in Ireland to die of AIDS in 1984, aged only 34.
“I didn’t expect to think about Paul at that moment, but I found myself wondering whether we would have got married if he was still here?” he says. “I also thought about all the people who died that I would have loved to celebrate that moment with, including many in my circle of friends who died of AIDS. I feel that if this referendum had passed thirty years ago, things would have been different, as help for gay men was delayed because of homophobia and people died because of it.”
Ger first met Paul in 1979 in Hills bar in Cork while he was a 22-year-old college student. Paul was eight years older at 30, and worked as an agricultural advisor. He was from Dublin and was visiting friends in Cork. “You know when your eyes meet across a room and there’s electricity, well that’s what happened,” says Ger. “Paul was beautiful and charismatic, and he had this amazing personality. He was very passionate about things. I met him later in a nightclub and we danced and kissed, but I refused to go home with him - not because I was playing by the rules, but because I had a family get-together the next day. He was very keen and found out where I lived, and the rest is history.”
Now 58, the genial Ger grew up on the northside of Cork as the second-eldest of the late Tadhg and Mary Philpott’s five children. He has one sister and three brothers, and remains close to all of them. His dad was a local Labour councillor and a trade unionist, so social justice and equality were the bread and butter of their daily life. School was different though, as Ger, who always knew he was gay, was bullied and taunted there for being different. When he was ten, the local tough kid followed him home from school one day, mocking him the whole way until Ger eventually snapped and fought back.
“As we got close to my house, I didn’t want my mum hearing him calling me a sissy, so I turned around and beat the crap out of him,” he recalls. “I was filled with rage and I demolished him. The next day at school no one said anything hurtful to me, because he was the tough kid and nobody had expected me to fight back. Maybe I learned a lesson from it, because I have always defended my right to be what I am. I didn’t see myself as different to everyone else, but obviously there are huge anxieties around being gay when you’re younger.”
Now 58, Ger recalls how life was different for the gay teenagers of the 60s and 70s because there were so few role models around, which reinforced their isolation. Like his dad, he swam competitively at master’s level internationally, but there was no Tom Daly type figure to inspire or reassure him back then. He came out as a teenager, which was unusually early for that time, and became involved in political work for the gay community. His family was very supportive, but he suspects his late parents were a bit disappointed and worried because prejudice and homophobia was rife at this time. The notion that being gay was wrong was underpinned by the fact that it was against the law, because homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1993.
At the Labour Party conference in the early 1980s, Ger and a group of men from Cork’s Gay Collective spoke to Mary Robinson, then a senator, about the way forward. She told them that what they needed to do to build momentum was become members of political parties and trade unions, talk to people and change their minds, and lobby for change from within established structures. When she became president, she signed the legislation to decriminalise homosexuality into law in 1993, a decade after she had represented David Norris in his Supreme Court action to challenge the constitutionality of the 1861 Offences against the Person Act and the 1885 Criminal Law (Amendment) Act.
“Decriminalisation wouldn’t have happened if Labour weren’t in government with Fianna Fail, because they (Fianna Fail) wanted nothing to do with it,” says Ger. “We owe Labour a huge debt of gratitude. I did a TV programme in 1991 about being gay, and people saw it as being brave, but I didn’t because I was pushing for change and decriminalisation. Now with marriage equality, things have changed hugely, but there is still a lot of work behind the scenes that needs to be tackled like education around transgender issues. So many other issues like disability, women’s issues and social justice also need reform, so while there is a lot done, there are many more giant steps to be taken. What I love is that because so many people became engaged with the campaign, young people can see that their votes have the power to change the lives of others.”
When he was a young man, Ger found that it was relatively easier to be gay in Dublin, but living in Cork city and going to university gave him certain advantages. If you were from a rural area, you wouldn’t have the same support, he says, and even today, people in certain areas are still afraid to come out. After school, he went to UCC to study sociology and economics, and when he met Paul, he travelled up and down between Dublin and Cork. “College was great - sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll,” he laughs. “We tried to set up a gay society in the 70s in UCC, but there was no recognition so we had to do it unofficially. We were openly gay in Dublin, but I remember Paul came down to Cork to see me after my final exams and we couldn’t hold hands there because it was so different. You are bolder, braver and less cautious when you are younger, and then as you get older, you start to worry about your safety."
Ger moved up to Dublin permanently when he graduated, and moved in with Paul. They were very happy together, even though that happiness would be sadly short-lived. “I was working-class and Paul was upper middle-class from a very wealthy family, but we weren’t that different,” says Ger. “We had lots of fun, we were in love and we played house in his place. We fixed it up and entertained guests, and our lives just integrated together.”
Paul first became ill in the autumn of 1982, and he went downhill quickly. Doctors had no idea what was wrong with him, but Ger always believed in his heart that he was going to get better. Maybe that was denial, he says, but his boyfriend was losing hope as he grew weaker so he had to be strong for him. One of the hardest things was when Paul asked the hospital chaplain to hear his confession a few weeks before he died in October 1983. The priest explained to the devastated man that he couldn’t absolve him unless he promised not to contemplate having sex with another man again, because homosexuality was against the laws of church and state.
Paul’s year-long illness and subsequent death was difficult and it was an isolating time, but Ger says that the nurses were incredible and did everything they could for him. “We had always had a very hot physical relationship, but when Paul was dying, he physically couldn’t have sex and I became more of a carer,” he says. “It was important to him that he kept his dignity, and you could see his pain if he made a mess, or whatever.”
Paul was never confirmed as being HIV positive, and AIDS wasn’t put on his death certificate, because it was such a new disease at that time they didn’t have a name for it. After his death, Ger discovered that he was much stronger than he had realised. Paul’s family sold the house so he had to get a “crummy little flat” in Fitzwilliam Square, and there, stricken by grief, he withdrew from the world. He even contemplated suicide as he didn’t think that life was worth living, but what stopped him was not wanting the people in his life to experience the same kind of grief that he was feeling over Paul.
“I couldn’t speak for ages and would just walk the streets at night time,” he says. “I would do things to fill my day and distract myself, but it was a very lonely place. Paul and I had planned to buy our own farm and I was going to work as a teacher. I went back to become a teacher a year after he died, because I was still clinging on to that dream. I also left Dublin and went back to Cork, because there were too many ghosts there for me at the time.”
While the passing of the marriage equality referendum is a massive step forward, LGBT teachers say proposed new equality legislation won't protect them against ongoing discrimination in the workplace. A teachers’ union spokesperson recently revealed that many gay teachers are afraid of being fired because of their sexual orientation. Ger can testify to that as he had two teaching job offers rescinded in Dublin and Cork in the 80s when his potential employers discovered he was gay. “I was gobsmacked at the time, but that kind of discrimination is being tackled now,” he says. “It was imposed by the Catholic Church, and they have a huge influence around education that really needs to be shed.”
It was when Ger was teaching at a school in Limerick, several years after Paul died, that he discovered that he wasn’t HIV positive. “I was very lucky because, for a long time, I thought I was going to be infected,” he admits. “I had tests and got the news in a phone box that I didn’t have it, and I remember walking down the street crying because I had a future.”
Ger went off and lived in the Bahamas and San Francisco for a few years, and says the latter was like the “Good Ship Lollipop” because it was so normal and integrated there to be gay. He often reflected on how different his life would have been if he had grown up in that type of environment, rather than one where secrecy and subterfuge were required. He was doing voluntary work with children and AIDS over there, and when Mary Robinson became president, he decided it was time to come back to Ireland because he had unfinished business here. He set up a group called Aidswise and brought back a lot of what he learned in America to educate people around HIV.
“I wanted to save gay men from dying from AIDS, but I also wanted to drag Ireland kicking and screaming into modern times,” he says. “I couldn’t believe that contraception was illegal here for so long, even for married, heterosexual couples, so it was very hard to promote the idea of using condoms for safe sex. I wanted to make sure that people were properly informed about how they could avoid becoming infected. I was the face of AIDS in Ireland for a long time because I talked openly about it, and there were a lot of people who were closeted and wouldn’t be seen talking to me. I was like a leper with bells, so it’s incredible to me now seeing so many openly gay people. To have even a small hand in bringing about that change is just incredible.”
Over the years, Ger became involved in media, radio and TV, and has written books and made several short films and documentaries. These include a short film called Change and a book called Deep End, which both told Paul’s story most eloquently. He still swims, and is the fourth fastest man in Europe for his age group. He is currently working on a book that will include the whole issue of marriage equality.
“Life is good,” he says, breaking into a broad smile that belies the years of struggle and fighting for acceptance. “I have a strong group of friends and we call each other our ‘logical’ family instead of biological family. I’m single at the moment, but more people may come out now so who knows, my potential husband could arrive on the market any day now? When I was in college, Arthur Lee was an older guy who used to canvas for gay rights, and I remember him saying that change was never going to happen in our lifetime. But here we are and it’s truly wonderful.”
Ger Philpott is a writer, director and journalist, and is former director of Aidswise