Sarah Middleton-Lee obituary

Other lives: Global campaigner on behalf of people living with HIV

My friend Sarah Middleton-Lee, who has died of breast cancer aged 54, was one of the unsung heroines of the global Aids response.

Born in Tamworth, Warwickshire, one of the four children of Jill (nee Hughes), a primary school teacher, and George Lee, a charity administrator, Sarah hated her time at Shottery girls’ grammar school in Stratford-on-Avon. She loved her first job as dresser for the local Royal Shakespeare Company, but a hefty dose of politics and LGBTQ+ activism, boosted by an MA from Sussex University in cultural politics, catapulted her into a life of campaigning.

In 1988 she joined Amnesty International as assistant press officer, moving on to Greenpeace two years later before a brief stint with Action Aid at the outset of the Rwandan genocide. After volunteering with the Zimbabwean Aids charity Mashambanzou in 1993, she joined the original staff team at the International HIV/Aids Alliance (now Frontline Aids) in 1995. She oversaw policy and documentation and led the first inter-regional programme. Drawing on her compassion and wisdom, she inspired people living with HIV and marginalised communities to deliver quality programmes and campaign for their rights to high quality, well-funded services, in some countries in the face of government-sponsored hostility.

In 2001 she met Su Middleton, and they had two children. Motherhood inspired Sarah to shift to consultancy in the early 2000s. Her brave intellect, exceptional facilitation skills and belief in the fundamental goodness of people helped truly diverse groups to unite forces, changing the lives and fortunes of thousands of people. Whether supporting communities to have their demands heard through arcane UN processes, amplifying the voices of people fleeing genocide, or preparing visionary policy papers on transgender youth for Plan International, Sarah was always ahead of the curve with her careful assessment of complex issues.

Family was her top priority, and work travel meticulously organised around them and their frequent camper van adventures. Her wife Su was the foundation. As in the best lesbian jokes, on their first date they decided to have children together. Six months later they told the IVF clinic they had been together far longer than the statutory two years. Sid arrived rapidly, swiftly followed by Scarlett.

Two devoted rescue dogs – Bandit and Little – completed their family and were at her side as Sarah was cared for brilliantly by the Martlets hospice team, after her sudden diagnosis of Stage 4 cancer in 2017. She loathed the trope of the brave cancer victim yet lived the frustrations of constantly failing treatments with searing honesty, preparing all who loved her for the years ahead. She will be missed by a global family of relatives, godchildren, friends and colleagues.

Sarah’s brother Si died in 2014. She is survived by Su, Sid and Scarlett, and her brothers Tim and Jem.

Robin Gorna

The GuardianTramp

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