Historical Heroes

Remembering the heartbreaking story behind Princess Di’s visit to the AIDS ward

Stigma around folks living with HIV/AIDS has a long, unpleasant history, and until we can put that stigma firmly in the past, it bears repeating.

“A short time ago,” one Guardian writer explained, “I was asked by a medical consultant if they needed to get a test after touching an HIV-positive patient. I have seen nursing staff put two pairs of gloves on when dealing with patients. I have even witnessed administrative staff put on gloves just to handle the paper notes of those with HIV. Why do people continue to think and behave in this way?”

You might imagine that this excerpt was written at the very beginning of the AIDS crisis in the UK, but you’d be wrong. This article was written in 2017, a mere seven years ago, long since scientists first debunked the idea that HIV could be transmitted through skin-to-skin touch. In fact, this process of debunking was helped along by Princess Diana, a humanitarian who did something, in 1987, that opened the world’s eyes.

Princess Diana shakes hands with an AIDS patient without gloves, 1991
byu/zadraaa inHistoricalCapsule

In April of 1987, Princess Diana helped open the UK’s first dedicated ward for the treatment of HIV and AIDS at London Middlesex Hospital. To honor the occasion, Lady Di spent time with the patients themselves, shaking hands with a young man named Ryan White, pictured above. During a moment when HIV stigma was at its highest, Diana’s gloveless handshake with White showed a country what it looked like to treat those living with HIV with dignity and humanity.

“If a royal was allowed to go in shake a patient’s hands, somebody at the bus stop or the supermarket could do the same,” said a nurse who was present during Diana’s visit. “That really educated people.” Lady Diana’s “hands of hope,” as they were called by the Daily Mirror at the time, showed people that their fears around HIV/AIDS transmission were not only unwarranted, but stigmatizing.

At a moment when half the respondents surveyed in a 1985 poll said that they felt people living HIV/AIDS should be “quarantined,” this was a big deal. And Ryan White never forgot it. At the time, White was a child with hemophilia, whose HIV diagnosis came as a result of blood transfusions. When he would dine out with his mother, waitstaff were instructed to throw away the dishes they’d eaten from—that was how deep the stigma went. Though White died at the age of 18, Diana’s visit inspired him to fight hard for visibility and recognition until the end.

Diana’s influence over public opinion during an especially ignorant time can’t be understated. As one Redditor explained on a thread: “There was A LOT of misinformation, fear, and stigma around HIV/AIDS. Diana touching AIDS patients with her bare hands might seem ridiculous by today’s standards, but it was absolutely radical back then (source: am Gen X). This is one of the reasons Diana was loved so much and seen as the “people’s Princess”.”

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