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David Stuart, queer activist, lecturer, therapist and addiction specialist has died. The globally respected advocate for progressive sexual health strategies and specialised LGBTQ+ approaches to treatment was the leading expert on ‘chemsex’. Often controversial, but hugely admired, his wisdom and insight came from many years of hedonistic excess, struggle and tragedy. His colourful history and honest perspective made David a powerful force and a superb, glittering sister.
My first conversation with David Stuart occurred in ’94. It was an awkward start to what became a long and fabulous friendship. In the early days of QX, the magazine’s office operated from Tony Claffey’s residential flat in Shaldon Mansions on Charing Cross Road.
This Victorian building had the air of Barbary Lane meets Trainspotting, with a dose of Queer As Folk. The actors, Jeremy Sheffield and Charlie Condue lived just below our office. DJ and Bar Code proprietor Troy Wear lived in the penthouse.
House of Shame
Trade’s Laurence Malice owned a studio there, and tragically, Ivan Massow’s partner ended his life in this building. It also housed an eccentric private dentist and a flamboyant theatrical agent. Oh, and David Stuart ran an escort agency from Shaldon Mansions.
Before QX became notorious for its classified section, it had none at all, aside from surreal works of fiction from yours truly. When my Desperately Seeking Susan tactics failed to flame the handbag, I called escorts directly and would pitch QX as the new, hot place sell sex. This strategy proved a huge success, until I accidentally phoned David Stuart.
Pimp up the jam
He worked under a pseudonym, and was utterly unamused that my magazine was technically sabotaging his escort agency. Under my slapdash direction, QX offered tempting opportunities for independent sex work. David’s agency was feeling the pinch, as QX boomed as a weekly, printed bordello.
Until that fateful night, David had never met or spoken to the architect of his empire’s downfall. Unsurprisingly, given the chance, he was patronising, slightly menacing and witheringly cold.
Paying the rent
He showed icy fury at my naiveté, and ended the conversation by informing me that he knew what I looked like, that we were both in the same building, and he knew the exact flat from which I was making the call. Then he hung up.
It was 10pm. I was stoned and became quite paranoid. Terrified, in fact. I’d blindly flirted with a criminal underworld and voila, here were the consequences. Until that conversation, I hadn’t considered the wider implications of our tip-toe into the sex industry, or the legal and ethical issues within this realm. David Stuart slapped me out of that complacency.
He called me a childish, unprofessional idiot. This was largely correct, but David was also livid we were stealing his business, and he was psyching me out.
He introduced himself in person, about a week later, after stepping into the lift with me. He was disarmingly charming, and seemed nothing like the Aussie gangster I’d conjured up in my fevered mind. For the next few months, David would be cordial, but also like a shrewd cat, playing with prey for sport.
Suddenly, David popped up everywhere. On the stairs of our Mansion block. In the local off licence. Drinking champagne at A-gay parties. Striding through Soho’s gutters en route to Randall & Aubin.
Then, in an act of dubious evolution, he gave up being a queer pimp and became a West End coke dealer.
He moved from Fitzrovia, to a flat in Covent Garden. It was a mere mince from the QX office. Escorts would pop into QX to pay for their ads in cash, and then drop into David’s to get chems for their clients, or themselves. David’s milieu, and mine, intersected like a Venn diagram of wrongness, and in that messy overlap, we inevitably became friends.
He trusted few, and for many years, that included me. It’s a wise strategy for a drug dealer. Once one was aware of his life story, his lack of faith in humanity became fully understandable. David’s flat was a sumptuous, bohemian magnet for DJs, go-go boys, Euro gigolos, supermodels, club kids and good time girls.
For me, it was like an annexe to the QX office. David’s plush drug den was where I fled to in times of stress, excitement or boredom. It was rarely a wise choice, but it was one I made very regularly. Sometimes for days on end.
Deep and dark
On the odd occasion where we were alone together, he’d lament the artificiality of the scene we were players in. He questioned his friendships, which he suspected would vanish if he was less generous with cocaine. Was he paranoid, insightful or questioning the sincerity of our friendship?
Definitely, all three.
The late ‘90s and early 00s is what I refer to as his Evil Regal period. David had deep pile, almost fur-like carpet on his walls. We’d stroke those furry walls and bitch for hours at MDMA fuelled chill-outs. During sleep deprived episodes, we thought the Poetry Café next door could hear our post-rave ramblings and used our stolen chatter as artistic inspiration. The endless, colourful chaos was debauched, often noxious, but very compelling.
Meth in the madness
David wilfully created tense, unhinged situations with his cast of visiting characters, who he’d often manipulate with drugs and mind games. It wasn’t always fun. Sometimes we deserved it. There were Hellish episodes, sinister trips and untold damage, but it was never boring. Then he got busted.
David’s descent into crystal meth psychosis had largely gone unnoticed by yours truly, but it was hard to ignore his arrest. There were many who said he had it coming. A few were glad to see his downfall.
‘I know David’s your friend, Stewart, but he wrecked lives. They should throw away the key,’ said a friend who was really in no position to judge. Some said he deserved prison for the crime of selling low-quality cocaine. The glittering circus of disco sisters, muscle boys and K-queens disappeared overnight. The party was OVER.
After David was arrested, everyone who’d danced in his shadows, fled into the light, or to even darker corners. Fear of guilt by association was rife and the bulk of his cronies had plenty to hide. It seemed unwise to pay David a visit or to call his phone, in case he was under surveillance, so I sent him postcards.
I kept it cryptic, brief and surreal, but wrote to him often. It was hard to know if he was reading them, or if the Met were analysing their content for clues to his narcotic coven.
Comedown to Comeback
He emerged after a quiet hiatus, and it was a different David Stuart who braved the salons of Soho. It was the dawning of a David Stuar,t who’d later be globally celebrated for his insight, care and wisdom in the fields of sexual health and substance abuse.
His spiritual and professional evolution was challenging to many of his previous relationships. He’d gone from someone who’d fuelled and profited from their destructive antics, to a man who wished to minimise the mayhem and guide them to a safer place. He won over many doubters and garnered a new crew of aficionados.
In a truly bizarre, but epic twist to this story, in 2015, David Stuart collaborated with Paddy Cash and 56 Dean St. to produce a play, set in a sexual health clinic. One of the characters in this production was loosely based on David Stuart and they asked me to take that part.
The Clinic had an extended run at The Kings Head and it was an honour to be part of a show that was so ground-breaking and personal. The rehearsal process was an absolute hoot, creating friendships and a surreal, affectionate unity between myself and David.
Life’s a stage
My character, like David, had survived the AIDS crisis, lost friends in the jaws of that pandemic and was a recovering drug addict. We had both survived those tragedies in real life; often while gurning in his living room.
It was cathartic, provocative and strange to mine this shared experience, for a play in a pub, for an audience who thought it was fiction. The reality, the blood and razors truth, was deeper and darker, but also way more beautiful and complex.
G & T guru
A brief glance online will rightfully conjure up a wealth of testimonies from people who say that David saved their life. He changed their trajectory and brought comfort to people when they most needed it.
It’s impossible to measure the positive impact and affirmative influence he’s had on our community, healthcare and the how we view queer subcultures.
He wasn’t entirely comfortable with the applause he received for this work. 56 Dean Street is a team operation and swabbing nurses are as vital as a bespectacled and engaging figurehead. He felt the weight of responsibility and a loss of anonymity.
It wasn’t easy for him to have glib fun like he used to. His clients were everywhere, he’d become a role model, and despite the plaudits, he had some very vocal critics.
Over our regular drunken lunches, he’d share astute perspectives on the mess of my life, and in return, I’d help him navigate the byzantine challenges of Being David Stuart.
The medicine we gave to each other consisted of honest reality checks, brutal humour and hysterical laughter. It was always priceless, hugely entertaining and very healing.
That powerful combination of wisdom, wine and LOLs was a gift that never failed to delight the pair of us. It’s beyond my comprehension that it will never happen again.
Of course, we were pseudo-synchronised, so in any given situation, I KNOW what David would say- as a therapist AND as my sharp tongued sister. It was the double-punch of both angles that soothed my soul and revived my shrivelled heart.
David taught me mafia manners, tricked me into K-holes, and dazzled with cutting wit. He was also my biggest champion, a shoulder to cry on and my Number One Long Lunch Bitch.
He wasn’t always an ideal friend in the early days, but became the super loyal, loving gold standard that I judge other friendships by.
The LGBTQ+ community has lost another champion and the world is poorer without his insights and rebellious spirit. He saved lives and shook the establishment, but I have lost a rare and treasured sister. That particular tragedy is almost unbearable.
He wouldn’t want me to be sad, but he was a consistent supporter of my writing and he especially enjoyed my obituaries. And here we are.
So, this one’s for you David. Wishing you peace and heavenly hedonism in that after-party with the angels. You’ve earned your halo, grrrl.