Manchester Pride bared its ‘spiritual heart’ in its finale this weekend for the HIV candlelit vigil.
Thousands of people attended the evening of commemoration in Sackville Street Park, each lighting a candle for someone who has died of an HIV/AIDS-related illness.
The event was comprised of live music, poetry, stand-up comedy, anecdotal accounts of living with HIV/AIDS and informative and inspiring speeches followed by a minute’s silence.
Rosie Robinson, CEO of HIV charity George House Trust (GHT) who organised the event alongside Manchester Pride, said: “Pride is about having fun and partying, but the vigil shows its serious side.
“Although the demographic has now changed, HIV used to only affect gay men, and it is still primarily gay men affected, and that’s why it is so important to the LGBT community to highlight the issue.”
Ms Robinson commended Manchester Pride for being one of the only Pride festivals to donate money to charity; £24,000 of which went to GHT in 2011.
CEO of Manchester Pride, John Stewart, was visibly moved as he gave a speech thanking attendees and volunteers and stated that LGF and GHT volunteers have raised £1million since 2003 for charities and LGBT organisations.
The evening’s musical entertainment included a woodwind quintet, 1980’s Pop icon Alison Moyet singing ‘Only You’, West End star Louise Dearman performing ‘Time After Time’, and Manchester Lesbian and Gay Chorus singing ‘Dream A Little Dream’, in reference to the 1996 film Beautiful Thing about two adolescent boys’ falling in love.
As it was being broadcast live on BBC Radio Manchester, the crowd were able to call out the message of ‘We love what you do’ to a group of Malawian women working to improve prevention, detection and treatment of HIV/AIDS in their native country.
Jonathan Mayor, a highly-acclaimed Manchester comic who delivered a rousing political speech at the vigil, said: “It’s always a very emotional night.
“It’s the part of the weekend that’s very serious and it’s a really crucial part of what Pride is.”
On why he decided to tackle issues like the NHS, benefits cuts and corporate tax avoidance, he said: “Politics has always been crucial in the way HIV has been treated.
“Initially it was treated as a ‘gay plague’ and politicians dismissed it and we still get that attitude.
“It’s still a very political disease and the way in which the people who are HIV positive suffer with the stigma is about politics with a small ‘p’, the way in which we conduct ourselves as citizens and what kind of society we have.”
Actor and comedian Lee Peart hosted the evening, and opened with a story of how he himself was victim of a homophobic attack, he recalled: “I was beaten, spat on, punched in the face and he told me he wished I got AIDS and died…
“And he’s here with us tonight! No wait, he’s in prison.”
Despite the rain, the vigil went without a hitch, Mayor said: “I always love the fact that we don’t care. I have actually hosted this when the rain has been pelting down and everybody’s just there with their umbrellas and their candles.”
Erin Shanagher, an actor from Manchester who has attended the vigil for the last ten years, said: “The rain never puts anyone off, it’s not ideal but everyone just stays and gets soaking wet, it’s great.
“It’s good to close the weekend with such a poignant evening and a mark of respect.”
Jessica Nichols, 29, a schoolteacher from Cheadle Hulme, said: “I’m at the vigil principally because I think it’s important.”
After seeing We Were Here, a film documenting five people’s experience of living with HIV in the 1980s in San Francisco, when 15,000 men died in the space of four years, Ms Nichols was inspired to attend the vigil.
“The Reagan administration was criminally negligent in its response to the virus. We would not have had the pandemic we now have if the response had been met with greater urgency, but that’s the silent homophobia that exists in our world that kept that thing in process.
“And although thankfully this is no longer happening at the speed and scale that it once was, there is an apathy which would suggest that people believe that HIV doesn’t affect them, I would remind them that it does.”
The night culminated with a fireworks display, before people placed their burning candles in plots in the park and had a moment of quiet reflection.
Additional photography courtesy of Instagram.