Princess Diana always possessed the ability to see beyond the surface. Before her untimely death in 1997, the forward-thinking royal had her hands in as many causes as she could manage, from anti-landmine activism with The Halo Trust to bringing awareness to the homeless epidemic in London. But of particular notice was her passion for ridding the world of HIV/AIDS stigma and advocating on behalf of the LGBTQ community – both subject to shame and misunderstanding during her time as the ‘People’s Princess.’
And all it took was a simple handshake, during a time when the lack of education surrounding the disease caused people to be afraid of the those who had it – fearful that even such a simple, everyday exchange could pass HIV or AIDS along. Diana knew this not to be true. “HIV does not make people dangerous to know, so you can shake their hands and give them a hug,” she famously said at the Children and AIDS Conference in April 1991. “Heaven knows they need it.”
"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," said Prince Harry in a moving speech as he accepted the Attitude Legacy Award on his mother’s behalf in 2017. "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."
And the communities she showered with her love were thrilled to embrace her right back. In addition to calling icons like Gianni Versace and Elton John, two pioneers in the LGBTQ community, her closest friends, “gay people particularly felt more and more protective – more and more wanting to be her champion, the way she was ours,” Howard Berman, a Boston rabbi and gay-rights activists said in an interview with the BBC. Here are some ways the stigma-shattering royal defied the thinking of her time.
She opened Britain’s first AIDS ward
In April 1987, Princess Diana was responsible for opening Britain’s first-ever AIDS ward at London Middlesex Hospital, which provided support exclusively to those living with the disease. During this historic moment, she shook the hand of a patient without gloves, an act even nurses at the time were afraid to do. “If a royal was allowed to go and shake a patient’s hands, somebody at the bus stop or the supermarket could do the same,” nurse John O’Reilly, who was there, told the BBC. “That really educated people.”
She spent time visiting those living with AIDS
Throughout her time as a royal, Diana was rarely resting. Between being a loving mother to Prince William and Prince Harry and wife to Prince Charles, she always found time to pour her heart into important causes – and this included traveling the world to spend time with those in need. Aside from her most iconic handshake photo, Diana made many bedside visits to those living with the disease, including abandoned children in Rio de Janeiro and a hospice in Toronto, according to Harpers Bazaar. When she died, Gavin Hart of the National AIDS Trust said to the BBC: “In our opinion, Diana was the foremost ambassador for AIDS awareness on the planet and no one can fill her shoes in terms of the work she did.”
She had a strong connection to Toronto
Back in 1991, the Princess of Wales travelled across the pond to pay a visit to Casey House, a Toronto-based AIDS hospice with only 12 beds. During this time, many still feared that touching could transmit the disease, so even the family of patients were often seen with distance between them, Casey House founder June Callwood wrote for Maclean’s in 1997. But not Diana. She spent time going from room to room, “sitting on beds and holding the sick person’s hand in hers.” One such person was Kenneth Roe, a former principal whose daughters Mary Lou Roe and Nancy Luder kept scrapbooks of Diana’s wedding photos, the magazine reported.
She passed her passion down to her youngest son, Prince Harry
In a conversation with Prince Harry, Diana’s close friend Elton John opened up about why the princess was seen as a gay icon. “[AIDS] was considered to be a gay disease. For someone who was within the Royal Family and who was a woman, and who was straight, to have someone care from the other side, was an incredible gift,” the legendary singer gushed of his late friend. Diana’s son added that, “You look back to these days, when actually the reality was doom and gloom. Yet everybody in that photo is smiling.” It seems Princess Diana could make anyone happy.
In 2016, Prince Harry traveled to Rihanna’s home country of Barbados to take public HIV tests together. The act, which aimed to help reduce stigma and encourage people to seek help and educate themselves, was to raise awareness on World Aids Day. And clearly, he and his wife, Meghan Markle, have the same causes close to their hearts – the duo visited the Terrence Higgins Trust World AIDS Day charity fair in November 2017, just days after announcing their engagement.
Earlier that month, Harry visited the Trust again to help launch the ‘It Starts With Me’ campaign, where he demonstrated how to self-test for HIV – a medical advance that surely would have thrilled his late mother. When she tragically passed away, there was little hope for the HIV and AIDS patients she cared so dearly about. “She wanted to get to know those who were dying not as statistics or patients, but as people,” Harry explained in his Attitude Awards speech last year. “In the year before my mother's death, the first truly effective anti-retroviral treatments were developed for HIV and AIDS. She did not live to see this treatment become widely available and save countless lives in the UK and around the world." If only she’d been able to see just how much a simple handshake helped to change the world.