In the run-up to World Aids Day on December 1, The Argus looks back at the history of the HIV/Aids epidemic in Brighton, some 40 years after the virus was first detected in the city.

We spoke to Gary Pargeter, director of HIV charity Lunch Positive, about the work of the charity, a recent award from the Queen, and the loss of his partner to Aids.

In 1992, Gary Pargeter had been in a relationship for around five years when his partner began to fall ill.

“His health had been deteriorating quite rapidly, in such a way that was at the time quite familiar, in terms of what we understood of HIV and Aids,” he said.

“We decided he would need to have an HIV test and, because we had been in a relationship for some time, we both went for a test on the same day.”

The results came back after a wait of several weeks - the couple both had tested positive for HIV.

“The diagnosis wasn’t a shock. We both knew that that was going to be an inevitable outcome, because his health had become so poor so quickly,” Gary said.

“For me, there was actually some relief in knowing that it was a diagnosis and we understood what it was and then, hopefully, something can be done to alleviate the symptoms.”

Gary’s partner began to suffer from Aids-related dementia and he died seven months after his diagnosis.

Gary, 55. who was born and grew up in Brighton, said that the LGBTQ+ scene he spent time in during his early 20s was much smaller and more intimate than it is now.

“It was one or two clubs that were smaller and then lots of small bars. There was a greater social intimacy as well because there was a smaller scene.

“Brighton was still extremely busy and popular as a gay venue, but it was a much smaller one than it is now, so most people knew or recognised other gay men.

“Therefore, inevitably, everybody would know or know of somebody who was diagnosed with HIV or had Aids.”

Despite this, Gary said it always came as a shock to hear that someone else had been diagnosed with the virus, or to see someone’s health dramatically worsen in a short space of time.

“There was no effective treatment, so you knew that when people’s health started to deteriorate rapidly, which was so often the case, there might be only a matter of time before they weren’t with you any more,” he said.

Gary said he feels fortunate he was diagnosed at a time when combination therapies began to become available and that those have proved effective for him in managing his condition.

He recalled how there was a “great deal of activism” in the 80s and 90s among the gay community, with people rallying together to help those living with the virus and get them the support that they needed.

One of the organisations around at the time was Open Door, which offered a place of sanctuary for people living with and affected by HIV, as well as providing meals for people five days a week.

Open Door was founded by Father Marcus Riggs, who also died of an Aids-related illness in July 1998.

“He recognised there wasn’t any place of refuge for people just to come along and to support one another,” Gary explained.

“It was a place of great love, kindness and compassion to come along and share their worries, concerns and also share support with one another as well.”

Gary later volunteered at Open Door and, when the organisaton was forced to close due to a lack of funding in 2008, he teamed up with a group of volunteers to continue the organisation’s important work in the form of the community group Lunch Positive.

He said: “We knew that the lunch service, drop-in and bringing people together in an informal environment was really important to people.

“It was fantastic to welcome people back in - we had people coming along who were using Open Door, but the great thing was we also attracted other people as well.”

The Argus: Lunch Positive provide healthy meals and a safe, supportive space for people living with HIVLunch Positive provide healthy meals and a safe, supportive space for people living with HIV (Image: The Argus)

The charity, now based in Dorset Gardens Methodist Church in Kemp Town, offers a healthy, enjoyable meal as well as a safe, supportive space for people living with and affected by HIV.

Lunch Positive will welcome the county’s Lord Lieutenant later this week after being awarded the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service in June, the highest award a local voluntary group can receive in the UK.

Gary said: “It meant the world to receive that award - everything we do is delivered through volunteers and the whole charity has been built upon volunteering.

“We’ve been around for around 13 years now and that equates to around tens of thousands of volunteering hours. A lot of toil has gone into helping people with HIV, so it is amazing to receive that.”