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On the 24th of November it will be 25 years ago since Freddie Mercury died. The lead-singer of the legendary rock band Queen became famous not just for his incredible vocals, but also his flamboyant stage persona.

Mercury was and continues to be a true legend. He wrote some of Queen’s biggest hits, including Bohemian Rhapsody and We Are the Champions. He put on mesmerising performances and people got to know him as an extravagant personality.


Off stage, however, Mercury was not the extroverted man many knew. He was keen to keep his private life out of the public eye. In fact, Mercury carried a big secret with him, which he tried to hide from the outside world for many years: his diagnosis with HIV.

In light of the 25th anniversary of Freddie Mercury’s death, UK’s Channel 5 is airing an intriguing documentary this Sunday. Freddie Mercury: The Great Pretender Revealed shines an interesting light on Mercury’s artistic life and his struggle living with HIV.

Mercury is said to have been tested positive for HIV in the late 1980s and later developed full-blown AIDS. At a time when there was relatively little known about the virus and no life-saving treatment was available, misconceptions and prejudices about the disease were widespread. Mercury didn’t tell anyone but a few close friends and relatives about his status until a few days before his death in 1991.

Freddie Mercury: The Great Pretender shows how Mercury tried to keep up appearances until the very last moment – he didn’t want his disease to dictate his life. The show must go on, as he sang himself. This became more and more difficult as his health deteriorated and he started to look increasingly frail.

What’s most shocking, however, is the way the media treated him. The British tabloid press was intent on exposing Mercury. At one point in the documentary, Mercury’s former driver and bodyguard Terry Giddings recalls how the paparazzi were lined up in front of the singer’s home in West London, only a few days before his death. ‘They looked like a pack of wolves waiting for the carcass to come out,’ Giddings says.

The British press continued to haunt Mercury even after his death. One day after his cremation, a Daily Mirror columnist made an extraordinary attack on the singer, describing him as ‘sheer poison’ and ‘a man bent on abnormal sexual pleasures, corrupt, corrupting and a drug taker’, before calling AIDS ‘a form of suicide for homosexuals’.









Thankfully, things have changed since then. HIV is now no longer a death sentence and people living with the virus can live long and healthy lives. However, much of the ignorance and stigma that surrounded HIV and AIDS in the early 1990s unfortunately still persists today.

In many places across the world, people living with HIV and those that are particularly at risk of it – including LGBT communities, sex workers and drug users – experience stigma and discrimination on a daily basis, sometimes to such an extent that their lives are in danger. The horrific attacks that a number of African newspapers have made on members of the local LGBT community in recent years echo the way in which some of the British press wrote about Freddie Mercury.

Today being gay is still considered a crime in 74 countries, making it difficult (if not impossible) for many young LGBTs to access relevant information on HIV. And because of the stigma attached to HIV, many young people are too embarrassed to get tested, let alone to be open about their status. Unfortunately, too many young people still have to keep up appearances and pretend to be someone they’re not.

At MTV Staying Alive we’re working hard to change this. We find, fund and train young leaders from across the world and help them set up their own HIV awareness projects in their local communities.

Take the Men Against AIDS Youth Group (MAAYGO) from Kisumu, Kenya, for instance. With our funding, they have set up a support network for young gay men, transwomen and male sex workers and their impact has been astonishing. In less than four years they have educated nearly 4,000 young LGBTs about their sexual health and rights and tested hundreds of them for HIV.

Staff and volunteers of MAAYGO (Men Against Aids Youth Group) in their headquarters in Kisumu, Kenya.

Perhaps most importantly, MAAYGO have created a safe space for young gay men and transwomen to meet, access free condoms and counselling and simply be themselves. It’s a safe haven, a place where they don’t have to hide or pretend, if only for a while.

There is still a long way to go and the fight against the spread of HIV, as well as against the stigma and discrimination attached to it is far from over. Unfortunately, Freddie Mercury was by no means the last pretender. But organisations such as MAAYGO are making a real and important difference. It is vital that we continue to support organisations like theirs.

If you would like to support the amazing work that our youth-led grantee partners are doing, then please click here.

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