Before he died in May 1994 he asked us to “say something nice about me.” We did, producing a booklet with comments from his many friends, acquaintances, colleagues, carers and others – those who had become better people as a result of knowing him. I was one of those people.
Warren Wiesner was a key figure in lesbian and gay campaigning in Leicester throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. He had been one of the first volunteers on the city’s lesbian and gay helpline, he helped organise the first Pride events in Leicester and get funding for a lesbian and gay centre, he helped set up Leicestershire Aids Support Services (LASS) in 1987, he worked with Leicester City Council to ensure each department took account of the needs of lesbians and gay men and he organised campaigns against Section 28 (in 1988, the Thatcher government brought in legislation banning local authorities and schools from promoting homosexuality, including teaching “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”).
When he discovered he was HIV positive, he made no attempt to hide it despite the intense prejudice that existed at that time. For example, James Anderton, then Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, described gay men with HIV and Aids as “…swirling around in a human cesspool of their own making.” Instead, Warren went public, using his HIV status as another tool in the campaigns for greater awareness of both homosexuality and Aids. Following his diagnosis he worked even harder.
He did all this with a quiet voice, a smile on his face and a wicked sense of humour. He was not interested in the politics of confrontation, preferring to use reasoned debate and work with public and private agencies to achieve changes in attitudes and policies. In the process he showed immense patience.
I first met him shortly after coming out. He encouraged me to get involved and he helped me to develop my telephone and befriending skills when I volunteered for the lesbian and gay helpline. He was one of the tutors on the training programme for those of us who wanted to be LASS volunteers. When I showed an interest in training others, he helped me develop the necessary skills and attitudes. When I was unemployed for a while, he recommended me to agencies looking for trainers. He became a friend, a mentor and a role model.
When his health began to fail, I became one of the team of carers looking after him. Even when he knew he was dying, he remained patient and good humoured. Back then medication was not as advanced as now, there were only limited options available and he was in constant pain and had difficulty eating. Towards the end one of the few things that helped him was marijuana, which eased the pain, helped reduce the nausea that made eating so difficult and helped him sleep. Friends would get him the drugs and his carers would roll joints for him. Health professionals would pretend they hadn’t smelled or seen the cannabis. He is the only person I know who has ever openly smoked a joint in a hospital (and got away with it)!
Since his death both LASS and Leicester LGBT Centre have continued to grow, to attract volunteers and expand services. Many of those he taught, often by example, continue to be activists and volunteers, whether in Leicester or – like me – elsewhere; many of us have attempted to pass on to others the knowledge, skills and attitudes we learned from Warren. In life Warren made a difference and in what he instilled in others he continues to make a difference.
This World AIDS Day, lets remember all those who have gone, and work to make things better for those who are still with us.