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Tom Matthews

Tom Matthews, born 1947


Tom Matthews is a long term survivor of HIV, he has lived in Birmingham for almost twenty years and in this interview talks about the various HIV agencies that have existed in the city and the impact the virus has had on him personally. He talks about Body Positive and about ABplus and how the charity came about. He also discusses his first impressions of Birmingham and his thoughts on the gay scene and the city in the early 1990s.


Early HIV services in Birmingham – 20
statement regards AIDS deaths - 30
Body Positive - 40
ABplus - 130
AIDSline West Midlands - 140
Terence Higgins Trust - 150
Thoughts on the gay scene - 80
Racism on the scene- 90
First Pride - 100
The Jester - 110
World AIDS Day – 50 60
Boots Bar – 120
Powerhouse – 70
Misogeny on the scene – 90
Media coverage of gay issues - 150

10 Why he came to Birmingham

Tom was diagnosed with HIV in 1986. He came to Birmingham to be with a partner so they could be in the same city, they both worked in the fledgling HIV sector in the city and his partner was the city’s first HIV worker. Tom applied for a job with the Regional Health Authority in 1989.

20 HIV services in Birmingham in 1989

He worked in Leeds before that and he found that when he came to Birmingham in 1989 the city was more advanced and more open about the HIV epidemic. “When I was interviewed for the post in Birmingham, out of a budget of about £3.3 billion they were spending about £750,000 a year at the Queen Elizabeth on people with haemophilia and HIV. Three months later when I took up post we had £6.9 million.”

“When I came in 1989 in HIV terms there was AIDSline West Midlands and also AIDSline which was run out of Lancaster Street, a central Birmingham Health Authority initiative run by a guy called Rod Griffiths. AIDSline had been going for quite a long time, but there was very little money. Suddenly though all this money was available.

Tom says in his first major meeting with the strategic planning group of the Health Authority he managed to get extra money to strengthen the voluntary sector in the city and to develop a response to the crisis.

“Compared to Leeds where I had little or no resources at all suddenly I had the resources to go around and try and get people to develop a response.”

30 Shocking Statistic

“By 1989 I had lost 50% of my peer group to AIDS.”

40 Body Positive

“Body Positive came out of AIDSline West Midlands, when they moved from Hurst Street to Smithfield House in Digbeth, Body Positive took over the room they had used at the Nightingale in 1987, on Thorpe Street. I had attended occasionally before I moved here as I was down most weekends. The money became available, I became chair and we moved to George Street in the Jewellery Quarter. George Street was owned by a group of developers who specialised in restoring buildings to community use, it was beautifully kitted out, it was perfect, we had eight car parking spaces.”

“There were problems for me at Body Positive with certain people there, Rod Griffiths, my line manager at the Health Authority, had received an anonymous phone call saying it was inappropriate for me to be involved in a group like Body Positive due to my position as a commissioner. I had to resign from the group, I challenged the man I thought had made the call and he owned up and said he thought it was in the best interests of the group.”

They decided to move because the building was under-used and due to a rent renewal they decided to move premises to Princip Street by St.Chads Cathedral in the beginning of 1995.
The building had lots of potential but needed a lot of work “I said this will test people’s commitment as to whether they want to make it work, rather than them having it handed to them on a plate, which George Street was”.

“When Body Positive moved to Princip Street, Ray the chairman had to stand down to look after his partner, I was no longer working for the Health Authority so became a trustee. In September 1995 we had twelve board members but by November we were down to four as three of the trustees were being so abusive and tyrannical in the way they ran the organisation.” The group had been given an £85,000 National Lottery Grant, some to refurbish the building and some to appoint a fundraiser. The group could not pay the rent and ended up surrendering about £80,000 of the groups assets to the landlords. The group of three then sent nasty letters to members of Body Positive saying they were responsible for the group’s debts. Body Positive crashed spectacularly at the end of 1995.

50 The first World Aids Day

In 1988 Birmingham held a religious service in the cathedral to mark the first World AIDS Day, it was organised by Professor Rod Griffiths plus others he knew.

60 The first Candlelight Vigil

“In 1989 the World Aids Day Committee was formed and has organised whatever happened since. The first candlelight vigil was in 1989 in Chamberlain Square, followed by an "underground" march to St Martin's. After that it was held outside either in Chamberlain, Victoria or Centenary Squares, then it went to ABplus, for I think 2 years, then 1 year at the Council House and then back to the cathedral for the last 3 years”.

“When it was held in Chamberlain Square, even though there was usually less that 100 people standing on the steps in front of the fountain, I thought it was visually the most impressive.”

70 The Powerhouse

“Before I lived here I travelled down from Leeds to the Powerhouse on a Thursday night, I loved the music”

80 Closeted Birmingham

Tom says he found Birmingham very closeted in the early 90s. “At the Nightingale everyone was very proper in the queue outside, but as soon as the outer clothes came off they were gay, then when they left and put the clothes back on, the same. Very closeted”

90 Racism on the Scene

“I did not like the frequent displays of misogyny, although initially it was refreshing to see black and Asian faces in the Nightingale, but there were also many racist comments. I did not like the white gay men’s attitude towards them. In the North, say Leeds or Manchester, you rarely saw black and Asian.”

100 First Pride

“I did not go on the scene much until the first Pride (1997) and remember Angels particularly, with its plate glass windows. I was amazed when I saw the gay community in the open as I always thought gay people in Birmingham were vampires.”

110 The Jester

“The Jester amazed me, I’d never been in a bar like that, it reminded me of the bar you get in railway station. It was ideal for cruising as you could see everybody in the bar from anywhere.”

120 Boots

“I liked Boots when it first opened, I thought it was like a little bit of Amsterdam in Birmingham. I was unofficially told that smoking pot was not allowed, although I smoked it to give me an appetite to take my anti retroviral drugs, I thought f**k it when there were a lot more outrageous things going on than smoking a bit of pot.”

130 ABplus

ABplus began life out of the ashes of Body Positive, founded by Tom and Ray, the former chairman of Body Positive. It originally met in peoples houses and then in 1996 they got rooms in the Gazette Buildings, Corporation Street. Abplus was formed to be a group for people living with HIV.
ABplus moved to its current premises in 1999 and there was a lot of animosity to the group from the HIV sector, due to feuds that rumbled on after the demise of Body Positive.

140 AIDSline West Midlands demise

AIDSline West Midlands closed a year after Body Positive folded in 1996. “They were providing support services and buddying, but they had a big internal squabble as some of the original founders thought the telephone line they operated was the most important service rather than the other services. Whilst this squabble was going on the Health Authority took the opportunity to remove their funding and they closed. That’s the danger with voluntary sector groups, they have to realise time does not stand still and they have to adapt. It’s a shame as AIDSline provided a very good service”

150 Terence Higgins Trust

Terence Higgins Trust arrived in the city in about 2002 and came with headline grabbing news stories of an epidemic in the city’s gay clubs. “They launched on World AIDS Day with the most outrageous claims that there was more unsafe sex amongst gay men in Birmingham, it was on Midlands Today and the director of public health had to deny the claims.”

160 Tom then made some political points about safe sex and HIV.