Others think of his mustache, his dashing outfits or his piano-accompanied rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Mercury’s posthumous contributions to the worldwide fight against HIV/AIDS would shape critical discussions about the disease for decades to come.
While his life was cut short, the anniversary of what would have been Mercury’s 75th birthday on Sept. 5 shines a spotlight on the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS in our communities.
Introducing the World to Mercury and Queen
With a discography spanning 15 studio albums, 10 live albums, 16 compilation albums and over 72 hit singles, Queen and Freddie Mercury were at the epicenter of experimental rock throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s.
Part of what made Queen so successful was the combination of four talented individuals often considered to be the best in their respective fields: Brian May on lead guitar, Roger Taylor on drums, John Deacon on bass and Freddie Mercury as lead vocalist and occasional piano player.
However, what differentiates Queen from other rock bands is its history of philanthropic activism to bring visibility to HIV/AIDS in honor of its fallen lead singer.
Mercury lived with HIV/AIDS in secret and continued to make music until his death in 1991. While the band played in London’s record-breaking Live Aid benefit concert in 1985 to raise money for those suffering from AIDS in Africa, Mercury did not disclose his positive status to the public until the day before he died.
Matthew Jones, author of “Popular Music Making During the AIDS Crisis, 1981-1996,” said Mercury’s announcement of his diagnosis was a significant moment for awareness of HIV/AIDs..
Since then, Mercury’s journey has brought visibility to the disease that was, and still is, ridden with homophobic connotations.
What is HIV/AIDS?
HIV, which stands for human immunodeficiency virus, is a virus that attacks blood cells that help the body fight infection, making a person more vulnerable to other infections and diseases.
Contrary to many harmful myths of the ’80s and ’90s, HIV doesn’t occur exclusively in gay men; anyone can contract HIV, regardless of their gender or sexuality.
HIV cannot be transmitted through touch, another homophobic assumption that was challenged when Princess Diana, a well-known advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness, shook hands with an HIV-positive patient at a hospice facility in 1987.
It is most commonly spread during unprotected sex or by sharing unsterilized drug injection equipment like needles. Some people are even born with HIV or contract it during infancy by breastfeeding from an HIV-positive mother.
When left untreated, HIV leads to AIDS, which stands for acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. It is important to know that the two are not interchangeable, as not everybody living with HIV has AIDS or is guaranteed to get AIDS.
Mark Langthorne, author of the autobiography titled “Somebody To Love: The Life, Death, and Legacy of Freddie Mercury,” cites homophobia and the dangers of being a gay man during the height of the AIDS crisis as one of the reasons why Mercury never revealed his condition to the public.
“I would like to think by now that Freddie would have come out of the closet,” Langthorne said in an interview with The Advocate. “The world has changed so much. He was a recording artist in the ’70s and ’80s, two decades when the level of homophobia is difficult for anyone born after 1980 to fully comprehend. In particular, Britain and the USA were scary places for gay people, and the onset of AIDS gave license to the religious fulminators and right-wing zealots.”
According to amFAR, there were an estimated 38 million people living with HIV worldwide in 2019.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, 75.7 million people have become infected with HIV and 32.7 million have died of AIDS-related illnesses, proving that, despite significant medical advances, the disease is still very much prevalent.
Currently, antiretroviral therapy, or ART, is the only way to stop the progression of the virus from damaging other organs, as there is no cure. ART prevents those with HIV from spreading it to their partners by reducing the disease to an undetectable state, allowing the infected to lead long and gratifying lives.
ART was not yet a viable option for those suffering from the virus in the beginning, as it wouldn’t receive its first clinical trial until 1986 — three years after it is suspected that Mercury first contracted the illness.
Despite the groundbreaking research during this time, accessibility to this experimental and expensive medical treatment was few and far between for the populations most affected by the disease.
In 1999, the World Health Organization announced that HIV/AIDS had become the fourth biggest killer worldwide.By 1994, three years after Freddie Mercury’s death, the American Psychological Association reported that the leading cause of death for Americans ages 25-44 years old was AIDS.
Living In Secret
While the world knew Mercury as the odd-looking guy with the big teeth and the great voice, there was something that nobody would know until about 24 hours before the singer’s death.
On Saturday, Nov. 23, 1991, Mercury partnered with his longtime friend and manager Jim Beach to issue a public statement that rapidly circulated the world’s top newspapers.
“Following enormous conjecture in the press, I wish to confirm that I have been tested HIV positive and have AIDS,” Mercury said in The Guardian. “I felt it correct to keep this information private in order to protect the privacy of those around me.”
Mercury’s last public statement ended with a monumental call to unite the world against AIDS.
“However, the time has now come for my friends and fans around the world to know the truth, and I hope everyone will join with me, my doctors and all those worldwide in the fight against this terrible disease,” Mercury said.
On Sunday, Nov. 24, 1991, he died due to bronchopneumonia-related complications of AIDS.His legacy, however, would live on forever.
Jones said Mercury was part of an influential generation of music which included artists like David Bowie, Sylvester and Elton John who influenced other artists’ willingness to play with identity norms, but his legacy didn’t revolve around his sexual orientation.
The Legacy of Freddie Mercury
In 1992, May, Taylor and Beach established the Mercury Phoenix Trust in his memory. The Mercury Phoenix Trust has since given away over $17 million and has personally funded hundreds of projects to fight HIV/AIDS all over the globe.
The Mercury Phoenix Trust keeps Freddie Mercury’s legacy alive by spreading awareness and educating people on the stigma surrounding people living with HIV or AIDS.
According to the trust’s official website, “the greater part of our funding goes direct to small grassroots organisations which the bigger charities tend to overlook, and where we feel the recipients will achieve value for money.”
The Mercury Phoenix Trust is most known for its “Freddie For A Day” initiative.
Launched in 2010 and held every subsequent year on Mercury’s birthday, the initiative brings Queen fans together to dress up as the singer to celebrate his life and raise awareness about HIV/AIDS.
The Mercury Phoenix Trust’s website boasts photographs taken all over the world, from restaurants honoring “Freddie For A Day” with house specials to people riding public transportation wearing the iconic Mercury mustache.
Today, only May and Taylor are still touring under the name “Queen,” with Adam Lambert as the lead vocalist. Deacon retired from the music industry shortly after the tribute concert following Mercury’s death, finding it impossible to continue playing music without him.
A new generation of Queen fans emerged when the Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” was released in 2018. The movie was a box-office success and earned lead actor Rami Malek an Oscar and Golden Globe for his portrayal of Mercury.
Mercury’s dying words were a brave plea for the world to put aside their differences to fight against a deadly disease that has the potential to affect anyone, anywhere.
Mercury once said, “I won’t be a rockstar. I will be a legend.”
Now each year, when Sept. 5 rolls around, the world honors Mercury’s wishes by celebrating his legacy through song, dance, celebration and, most importantly, education.
Jones said the impact of HIV/AIDs on the LGBTQ community was an important moment in history for queer people;
“Before the introduction of effective therapies for the management of HIV, an entire generation of people was lost,” Jones said. “And not just really famous people like Freddie Mercury, but people that many of us never had the chance to meet with, never hear of, but who were nevertheless mentors for queer people in local contexts.”