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New quilt honouring one of the first people in the UK to die of an AIDS-related illness to debut in Sheffield

Created by his partner and close friends, the new artwork celebrates the life of Terry Higgins, who gave his name to one of the UK's most successful HIV prevention projects.

Terry holding cat

Terry Higgins is the subject of a new quilt that will go on display at Millennium Gallery.

Terrence Higgins Trust.

Sheffield's Millennium Gallery will host the worldwide premiere this Saturday of a new artwork that honours the life of the first named person in the UK to die of an AIDS-related illness.

Terry Higgins died on 4 July 1982 at the age of 37. After his death, his friends set up an organisation in his name that went on to become the UK’s leading HIV prevention and sexual health charity.

The new quilt includes pictures of Terry, memorable quotes contributed by his friends, and visual nods to the street he lived on, his time serving in the Royal Navy and his job as a barman and DJ at gay nightclub Heaven.

"The quilt is a testimony to the man and the distance we have travelled – when Terry died, HIV didn't even have a name," said Richard Angell of the Terrence Higgins Trust. "Today we have world-class treatment that saves lives and means people cannot pass on the virus."

The quilt was created by service users, volunteers and staff from the Trust, overseen by some of Terry's close friends and his partner Rupert Whitaker. The designers worked with quilters from across the country, as well as the Quilters’ Guild.

Terry Higgins Memorial Quilt August 2023

The Terry Higgins Memorial Quilt.

Terrence Higgins Trust.

The work is going on display for the first time as part of a new exhibition, Hand, Head and Heart, which celebrates the power of craft through the present-day legacy of Sheffield-linked artist and writer John Ruskin.

The new work celebrating Higgins is part of a rich tradition of quilt-making to memorialise and celebrate those lost to HIV. The quilts were also intended to draw attention to the Thatcher government's slow response to the crisis, as well as bringing people together to grieve through the act of communal making.

Similar quilts celebrate the lives of UK queer rights activist Mark Ashton, whose story was told in the film Pride, as well as pioneering American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and the visionary filmmaker, writer and gardener Derek Jarman.

As well as moonlighting at super-club Heaven, which is open to this day below Charing Cross station, the quilt marks Terry's day job in Parliament producing Hansard reports, with an image of a typewriter and the suggestion that he "typed like the wind".

The eight-panel quilt also references an incident that happened at London Pride in 1980, when Terry was on a float in the parade and saw the police harassing his friends. Terry jumped off the float and confronted the police, shouting, "How dare you bitches attack my friends".

"This beautiful artwork has surpassed all of our expectations, and is an awe-inspiring tribute to Terry as a friend, lover, Welshman, gay man and activist, as well as to his lifesaving legacy through the work of our charity," said Angell.

"Everyone who worked on the quilt has experienced for themselves the positive power of hand making and the space it allowed to find out more about Terry, the HIV epidemic and the incredible progress that’s been made in the last four decades."

Partly thanks to the work of the organisation founded in Higgins' name, the nature of HIV has been completely transformed in the UK.

A new pill known as PrEP, available free on the NHS, has shown to be 99% effective in preventing transmission of HIV if taken every day. For those already living with HIV, treatment is now available that completely suppresses all effects of the virus and allows people to live the same life that they would without it.

People on effective HIV treatment also cannot pass HIV on to anyone else, whether the other person is taking PrEP or not. This is a status known as 'undetectable' and has spawned the phrase 'U=U' (undetectable = untransmissible), which is represented on the quilt.

"The biggest issue facing most people living with HIV in the UK is the stigma," said Becky, a woman living with HIV in Sheffield. "I take one pill a day and HIV doesn’t stop me doing anything I want to."

"Medication keeps me healthy and means I cannot pass HIV onto anyone else. I know that for sure because I have two children and a great partner, who are all HIV negative." Becky added that she hoped people from across South Yorkshire would visit the exhibition to learn about Terry's life, as well as "the positive reality of HIV today."

Despite the fact that HIV is completely unrecognisable from what it was at the height of the epidemic in the 1980s and 90s, stigma and prejudice towards people living with HIV, and those who continue to contract it, is still a major problem in the LGBTQ+ community.

Oliver Sim, a songwriter and bassist with the band The xx, revealed last year that he's been living with HIV since 17. In an interview with Channel 4 News, he said that he had kept his status private until now "due to the shame and stigma".

"It shut me down... it attached itself to parts of me, like my sexuality was something that was dangerous and going to hurt me and something to be ashamed of," he said.

A survey carried out by the Terrence Higgins Trust last year found that 74% of people living with HIV in the UK had experienced stigma or discrimination due to their status, and that 59% has experienced discrimination specifically while accessing healthcare.

Dr Claire Dewsnap, a trustee of the Terrence Higgins Trust and a Sheffield-based doctor, said she was "thrilled" that the city was the first place to host the work, and hoped that it would help shift public attitudes towards the virus and the people living with it in the city.

"As a doctor, I specialise in sexual health and see for myself how many taboos there still are around HIV and sexual health," she said.

"I hope the quilt engages people far and wide in the past, present and future of HIV, including the knowledge that you can live a long, healthy and happy life with HIV. What a way to keep Terry Higgins’ legacy going."

Learn more

The exhibition Hand, Head and Heart opens at Millennium Gallery this Saturday 9 December and runs until 1 December 2024. Millennium Gallery has a fully accessible lift and is step free throughout. You can find more information on accessibility at the gallery on their website.

by Sam Gregory (he/him)

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