Terrence Higgins Trust’s outgoing chief executive has paid tribute to the “compassionate” nature of Britain’s gay community, saying the horrors of the AIDS epidemic actually helped establish today’s progress in gay rights.

Sir Nick Partridge steps down from his role as chief executive of Britain’s largest sexual health and HIV charity at the end of Wednesday (30 November).

He joined the Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) as its first paid member of staff in 1985 when it operated out of a small London office run by a determined and dedicated group of volunteers.

Sir Nick believes the horrors of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s actually helped establish today’s progress in gay rights.

“Many people in the gay community thought the ‘gay plague’ would be used to roll back the small legal advances that we had made towards equality,” he told the Guardian. “Actually, the reverse happened. The community’s compassionate response to seeing death and dying painted a much richer picture of the lives of lesbians and gay men. It provided the platform for the extraordinary advances to equality that we have seen in the past 15 years.”

When asked about the failure to cut HIV infection rates among gay and bisexual men, Sir Nick said: “We have to be realistic about what is our aspiration? Is it zero new infections? Because that’s a massive challenge for any new infectious diseases, particularly one where transmission happens in the most passionate parts of our lives.”

From 1 November, Paul Ward, currently deputy chief executive at THT, will become acting chief executive.