Former British Culture Minister Announces He Has Had HIV for 17 Years, Says Mandela Inspired Him To Speak Out
Former British Culture Minister Chris Smith, who 20 years ago came out as Britain's first openly gay Member of Parliament, on Saturday announced that he has been HIV-positive for 17 years, London's Independent reports (Grice, Independent, 1/31). Smith said he was impelled to reveal his HIV status after former South African President Nelson Mandela earlier this month announced that his son had died of AIDS-related causes, according to London's Guardian (Hencke, Guardian, 1/31). Mandela announced that his son Makgatho, who was 54, died of AIDS-related pneumonia, ending weeks of speculation that he had AIDS. Mandela at a news conference said, "I announce that my son has died of AIDS," adding, "Let us give publicity to HIV/AIDS and not hide it because the only way to make it appear like a normal illness, like TB, like cancer, is always to come out and say somebody has died because of HIV/AIDS, and people will stop regarding it as something extraordinary" (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 1/18). "What Nelson Mandela said very much struck a chord with me," Smith said, adding, "He spoke about how nobody should be ashamed of HIV and said that it should be regarded just like any other illness. He was brave and right" (AP/Los Angeles Times, 1/30). Smith, who said he told British Prime Minister Tony Blair of his HIV status a few weeks ago, said that Blair gave him his "full support," according to London's Daily Telegraph (Alleyne, Daily Telegraph, 1/31).
Smith, who currently serves as a Member of Parliament for Islington South and Finsbury but does not plan to run for re-election, said that he will become a "powerful ally" in Blair's efforts during Britain's upcoming presidency of the Group of Eight most industrialized countries to "persuade the rest of the world to tackle AIDS and poverty in Africa," according to the Independent (Independent, 1/31). Smith said that he has been "encouraged" by Britain's recent efforts to fight HIV/AIDS in developing countries, according to the Guardian (Guardian, 1/31). British Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown earlier this month in Tanzania introduced a $10 billion international plan to fight the HIV/AIDS pandemic that includes dramatic funding increases for every front in the battle against the disease (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 1/13). "We need to tackle the poverty and injustice that gives rise to the grossly differential prospects for people living with HIV in the heart of Africa and in the West," Smith said, adding, "We are starting to get the issue properly addressed with the initiatives our government has taken up in recent months. I hope we will see a lot more of that" (Independent, 1/31).
Smith's announcement that he is HIV-positive is a "milestone" because it is the "first such announcement by a senior British public figure and a rarity in any walk of life," a Guardian editorial says. Such an announcement by a political figure "20 -- or perhaps even 10 -- years ago" would have "created much more of a stir than it has today," the editorial says, adding that the initial reporting on Smith's announcement has been "encouragingly unsensational." The reaction to Smith's announcement shows that the British public is "learning not to stigmatize" HIV-positive people, the editorial says, concluding that Smith "has made a dignified contribution to that process" (Guardian, 1/31).