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Dr George Severs is a historian of HIV/AIDS, sexual violence and sexual health in modern Britain. He is currently a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Geneva Graduate Institute in Switzerland where he is working on a history of sexual health and race.

To celebrate the publication of his new book, Radical Acts: HIV/AIDS Activism in Late Twentieth-Century England, we talk to him about the importance of oral history archives and how his work engages with the NHST film archive held at LMA.  

Radical Acts draws on activist campaign literature and materials, broadcast media, and new oral history interviews, to reconstruct and discuss the overlooked world of radical AIDS activism in England. The book breaks new ground by studying the radical alongside the everyday, presenting a diverse constellation of activist responses to the epidemic.



Can you provide a bit of background on yourself and your work?

Absolutely. I’m a historian focusing on Britain, with a particular interest in queer experiences. Initially, I studied the far right in Britain and its cultures of homophobia. This led me to explore the queer activist response to various forms of oppression, including HIV/AIDS. My PhD, which evolved into my forthcoming book Radical Acts: HIV/AIDS Activism in Late Twentieth-Century England, examines the diverse and radical political responses to the AIDS crisis in England.

How did you first learn about the NHST collection at the LMA?

During my PhD, I was part of the LGBTQ Special Interest Group of the Oral History Society, which often met at the LMA. The NHST collection wasn’t available then, but I heard about it through conversations and the efforts of individuals like Jan Pimblett, who were instrumental in bringing the collection to fruition. Post-COVID, I revisited my project and found that the NHST collection was now accessible, enriching my research with its diverse experiences.

What are the pivotal themes in your book, and how did the NHST film interviews at the LMA help underline these themes?

Radical Acts is divided into two parts: ‘Radical’ and ‘Acts.’ The first part argues that England had a very diverse and radical political response, often overlooked compared to places like New York and Paris. It examines the natures of this response through examples such as the imaginative campaign against Texaco for their discriminatory policies, and the activist organising that took place across borders through organisations such as the International Coalition of Women Living With HIV.

The second part expands the definition of activism to consider expressions which may have been eclipsed by the more radical forms of politics. Drawing on the religious studies scholar Melissa Wilcox’s definition that activism is about trying to ameliorate the injustices that communities are facing, it considers expressions of ‘everyday activism’. For example, an individual working on their own to influence health and safety policy formation in a university to protect students with HIV, or someone working to present communities in rural parts of England with information about the virus.

The NHST interviews provided rich, diverse narratives that highlighted these themes. For instance, the experiences of activists like Rebecca de Havilland and Juno Roche helped illustrate the personal and communal impacts of the activism discussed in my book.

Can you speak to the importance of archives for historical research and representation, particularly regarding the NHST collection?

Archives are crucial for preserving and accessing diverse historical narratives. The NHST collection is particularly valuable because it captures a wide range of experiences related to HIV/AIDS, many of which might not leave a traditional archival footprint. This diversity is essential for a comprehensive understanding of the era. Moreover, oral histories, like those in the NHST collection, provide a depth of personal experience and emotion that traditional documents often lack. They allow historians to listen to and engage with the past in a profoundly intimate way, capturing nuances and silences that other sources might miss.

What challenges did you encounter in using oral histories and archives in your research?

One significant challenge is the interpretation of oral histories when you’re not the original interviewer. You miss out on the interview’s context and dynamics. Additionally, diversifying archives remains an ongoing task. While the NHST collection is relatively diverse, there’s always more work to be done in representing all voices and experiences accurately.

Are you working on any new projects related to HIV/AIDS or other areas?

Yes, I’m involved in a project which explores the sexual and reproductive health experiences of people of colour in post-colonial Britain. This five-year project aims to fill gaps in the historical record and includes a comparative analysis of oral history collections, including the NHST archive. We’re committed to listening to and sharing these vital stories.

What advice do you have for those interested in working with oral histories and archives?

Engage directly with the materials. There’s no substitute for the experience of listening to oral histories yourself. This practice helps you learn to listen for what’s said, what’s unsaid, and the silences in between. It’s a privilege to witness these exchanges and a powerful way to understand and interpret history. Oral histories, like those in the NHST collection, offer a unique and deeply human perspective that enriches our understanding of the past.




Dr. George Severs’ book Radical Acts: HIV/AIDS Activism in Late Twentieth-Century England is available here

On 20th March 2019 at the City of London’s Guildhall, the National HIV Story Trust deposited with the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) 100 filmed interviews, amounting to more than 150 hours of filmed material. The deposit represents a vast archive of first-person witness testimony: from men, women, friends, lovers, clinicians and activists as well as long term survivors themselves. All 100 interviews are now available for public access as part of the LMA’s “Positive History” collection. For LMA visitor information please visit here.


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