Collage by Finn Souter with images by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay
Barnaby Fournier explores the shadow that hung over his family, and how their acceptance has helped him
I find myself writing this shortly after watching the new Channel 4 mini-series It’s a Sin, which is centred around a group of gay friends living in London during the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s. The show is gripping, funny and very moving. It affected me deeply, in a way I couldn’t have imagined a TV series would.
During each episode, the floodgates opened. It particularly hit me because my Great Uncle Jean was a gay man who died of AIDS in the 1980s. His death has hung, like a dark shadow, over my family. He, like many from the LGBTQ+ community, was taken before his time. His death was a result of the heteronormative capitalist system in which we live.
Jean was born in 1944, when homosexuality was illegal and taboo, especially in a little lost village called Courthézon in the South of France. He was a very intelligent, dynamic and capable young man. He moved to Paris where he worked as a physics and chemistry teacher in one of its most prestigious schools.
He was able to lead a more independent, liberated life in Paris, than in the hills of southern France. However, it was the late 1970s and society as a whole was still very repressive. He joined a movement, the Front homosexual d’action révolutionnaire (The Homosexual front of revolutionary action) campaigning for LGBTQ+ rights.
In 1980, Jean moved to San Francisco, California, which at the time was one of the most liberal states, with same-sex sexual activity legalised since 1976.
Following the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, the first-ever Gay Freedom Day parade was held in San Francisco in 1970. This would eventually become the LGBTQ+ Pride celebration of today. Jean was at last in a place where he could be more fully himself, making it even more devastating when he caught HIV in the early 1980s. He died of AIDS in 1986.
Jean’s relationship with his dad, André, was complicated. André was quite distant and lived a simple life, as a tailor and had trouble understanding his son and his lifestyle. However, Jean was extremely close to his mother, Marguerite, my great-grandmother. She viewed him simply as her son, an adorable little boy, and later a very successful man. She was proud to call him her son.
Photograph of the Fournier family in Courthézon in 1979. Top, l to r: Marguerite, Jean’s mother (my great-grandmother) André, Jean’s father (my great-grandfather) Middle, l to r: Jean, (my Great Uncle), Emmanuelle (Jean’s sister in law), Michel, Jean’s brother (my grandad) Bottom: l to r: Frédéric, Jean’s nephew (my dad). Vincent, Jean’s nephew (my uncle)
When my dad was a teenager he remembers Jean visiting Courthézon, during the summer, with lots of his lively friends who had interesting careers in Paris and California. These people were a far cry from the vineyard farmers of Courthézon.
Most of the family were impressed by the new life Jean had carved out for himself, surrounded by quirky personalities and academics. Although life wasn’t always easy the family were clearly more accepting than the average French family of the time, especially his mother .Marguerite.
When Jean moved back to France, shortly before he died, Marguerite had already passed away and André was living in a care home and had gone blind. My dad was there to look after and support Jean in his final days.
Dad can speak about Jean for hours; he was a big influence on him as a child. My family were completely grief-stricken by Jean’s death. The grief soon turned to anger. Very raw and real anger towards the people who termed the pandemic, the gay plague. Anger towards those who even refused to go near gay men. Towards Western leaders who refused to commit any funding for scientific research into HIV prevention. If the virus affected straight people as much, cash would have been pouring through open floodgates.
Shortly after Jean’s death, hope started to blossom. In 1987 Princess Diana shook hands with an AIDS patient in London without gloves, smashing the idea that HIV could be spread through touch. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, fierce homophobes, were voted out. In 1997 Jacques Chirac, the French president, began funding access to antiretroviral therapy, to treat HIV. Hope was in sight.
Last year I started taking Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a medication which prevents me from contracting HIV
Great Uncle Jean’s death has clearly affected my family and keeping his memory alive has been very important. Too often people in the 80s would have disowned family members who died of AIDS with some not even attending the funeral because of the stigma and shame the virus carried.
I think about Jean very often and speak about him openly with my friends. I think about how it’s such a shame that I never got to meet him.
It was lucky for me that my family were so open and accepting of Jean’s sexual orientation. Knowing I’d be supported, I came out as gay at 14. Being LGBTQ+ in today’s society is still incredibly difficult.
From 14 through to 16 was particularly hard for me, even with my friends and family being completely accepting. It’s a lot harder for people who have homophobic and transphobic families. The process of self-acceptance is long and fragile and society still has a way to go in stamping out stigma.
Last year I started taking Pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a medication which prevents me from contracting HIV. A lot of gay men take PrEP; it’s now freely available in most Western countries.
LGBTQ+ sex education and history weren’t part of the curriculum when I was at school. I had to teach it to myself, both through hearing about Jean’s experiences and my own research. It was like the education system assumed LGBTQ+ people don’t exist. This not only reinforces the feeling of isolation and loneliness that most LGBTQ+ people go through in adolescence but with very little guidance, they’re facing a minefield when starting to engage in relationships.
From September 2020, both the French and British governments legislated for LGBTQ+ education in schools, which is progress. People like Jean fought hard to lay the groundwork and with the baton being handed forward, we have taken on the struggle. Without him and the others before us, we could not have achieved so much. And for this, I will be forever grateful!