Labour peer Lord Smith has spoken about the moment when Nelson Mandela commended him over his decision to reveal his HIV status.
The ex-culture secretary, who is currently chair of the Environment Agency, told this month’s GT (Gay Times) that the former South African president, who died in December last year, said in 2005 it had been a “brave” and “terrific” decision.
Lord Smith was one of the first openly gay British MPs, coming out in 1984, and in 2005, the first MP to acknowledge that he is HIV positive.
In 2005, Mandela, then aged 87, announced that his only surviving son, Makgatho Mandela, had died from an AIDS related illness.
Lord Smith said Nelson Mandela’s decision to speak openly about the subject was a source of inspiration.
He said: “At that point I thought, ‘well perhaps what he’s talking about applies to me, not just the people of South Africa’.” A day after announcing his HIV status the peer recalls how he arrived in his parliamentary office to a note saying: “Please ring Mr Mandela”, with a phone number written below.
When Mandela picked up Lord Smith’s call, the peer said he replied: “Ah yes, I want to say congratulations, and thank you. What you’ve done is very, very brave and very good”.
Mandela continued: “I wanted to get in touch to say how terrific it is what you’ve done, and we do need to combat a lot of myths about HIV and AIDS.”
The pair spoke for some ten minutes. Lord Smith said he felt vindicated by the whole experience. “I thought as I put the phone down, I’ve absolutely done the right thing,” the peer told GT’s Benjamin Butterworth.
Lord Smith stood down as the MP for Islington South and Finsbury at the 2005 general election and became a peer the following month.