British Royal Family

Prince Harry delivers moving speech about Princess Diana fighting homophobia

“When ... she shook the hand of a 32-year-old man with HIV, in front of the cameras, she knew exactly what she was doing.”

By Kate Wagner

Princess Diana was famous for being the People’s Princess – a woman who dismissed stigmas and royal protocol to touch people others were scared to even be near.

One of her most impressive legacies was raising awareness for HIV and AIDS at a time when people were terrified of a largely misunderstood disease. She worked hard to prove casual contact, like shaking hands and hugging, would not spread the virus.

Yesterday, she won a posthumous award for her pioneering work from the LGBT magazine Attitude, and her son Prince Harry accepted the award.

“In April 1987, my mother was only 25 years old,” Harry said in his acceptance speech. “She was still finding her way in public life, but already she felt a responsibility to shine her spotlight on the people and issues that were often ignored.

“She knew that AIDS was one of the things that many wanted to ignore and seemed like a hopeless challenge. She knew that the misunderstanding of this relatively new disease was creating a dangerous situation when mixed with homophobia.

“People were ostracized from their communities — and sometimes from their families — simply for being ill. Staff who treated the ill, were themselves often turned away from local barbers and restaurants, even though it was proven that HIV could not be passed on from casual contact.

“And we faced the very real risk that thousands would die in the U.K. – including many young gay men of her generation – without making any progress towards treatment of the disease.

“So when that April, she shook the hand of a 32-year-old man with HIV, in front of the cameras, she knew exactly what she was doing.

“She was using her position as Princess of Wales — the most famous woman in the world — to challenge everyone to educate themselves; to find their compassion; and to reach out to those who need help instead of pushing them away.”

Before Harry accepted the award, former nurse, Julian La Bastide, and former senior occupational therapist, Ian Walker, spoke about their experiences with Diana who visited the hospitals they worked at both publicly and privately.

“She filled the room and she gave off light,” said Walker. “Everyone was immediately put at ease, and just the fact that she would come in, talk to someone, hold their hand, that would mean that maybe the next day they died happy because Diana had spoken to them.”

He added that the moment she shook hands with an AIDS patient seemed to “break down a million barriers overnight with that one simple act”.

“This was a time when people were terrified to touch people with HIV, people would glove, mask and gown up in regular hospitals.

“People were rejected by their families, people would feel really uncomfortable when they saw you walking around. She held that guy’s hand and overnight this dispelled a lot of the stigma.”

“My patients and people I worked with felt that they were important, that someone was taking their cause — their fight — to another level,” La Bastide added.

“Diana wasn’t making that distinction of, ‘These people are more important or less important.’ It was, ‘You are all important.’ And she knew that every time she did an announced visit with the cameras there, that would go mainstream.”