By Ian Green, Chief Executive at Terrence Higgins Trust
I didn’t just watch It’s A Sin – Russell T Davies’s brilliant new ‘AIDS drama’ – I could taste the vodka on my lips and feel the cigarette smoke in my lungs. The oppressive heat of the dingy London pub. The powerful bass of Tainted Love blasting so loudly you have to shout or not be heard.
The indescribable feeling of another man’s lips finally pressed against my own and hormones surging through my entire frame – not a child anymore, but not quite a man yet either.
I was suddenly both 55, sitting on my sofa with my husband Paul, and 18 again, standing on the edge looking in at what my life as a gay man could be.
Because Russell has recreated the 1983 of my youth. Where my sexual awakening happened in parked cars and local cruising grounds before graduating to the gay scene of Earl’s Court ahead of Soho becoming the place to be.
The hedonism, the freedom, the music. We see the vibrant characters – away from the prying eyes of parents and childhood friends – finding who they are, how they want to dress, what they want to listen to and, importantly, being free to shag who they want to shag.
But It’s A Sin invites us to the best party in the world to make it even more tragic when it ends. When the music stops, the fun’s over and the young boys you used to kiss and shag get ill and die – without an invite to their funeral.
For those who lived through it, you feel it coming in your bones. For me, I had tears in my eyes in anticipation of the devastation lying ahead in episodes three, four and five. I couldn’t just look at Ritchie, played wonderfully by Olly Alexander, and see a young man living as his authentic self for the first time. I found myself think ‘enjoy it while you can,’ ‘God, I hope he lives’ and ‘why was I so lucky’.
I used to feel so ashamed, so regularly. The see-sawing of committing to never having sex again before a few weeks later ‘giving in’ and feeling terrible about myself. Wracked with guilt that I probably, definitely, must have contracted the virus and it was all my fault. And for many years access to reliable testing wasn’t straightforward so you couldn’t know for sure you were ‘safe’. That meant there was no escape from the paranoia, shame and the question ‘what will my mum say?’.
Then, for those spared the tragedy the first time round, it’ll come like a punch to the stomach. And for a young gay audience, the message is clear: this would’ve been you.
But, though a drama, I can assure you It’s A Sin is firmly rooted in truth. In fact, our former policy director at Terrence Higgins Trust, the incomparable Lisa Power, was the programme’s fact checker. And if Lisa knows anything, it’s her LGBT history – her own life indistinguishable from that of our charity, as well as Stonewall and LGBT Switchboard before that.
Families really did burn the beds their brothers and sons died in while excluding the dead’s chosen family of gays and girls from the funeral. Young gay men were forced to come out to their mums and dads as both gay and dying of AIDS at the same time. And the Government absolutely did bury its head in the sand while newspapers called it a ‘gay plague’ and hysteria grew and grew.
Which meant it was over to the LGBT community and our allies to respond. Following the death of Terry Higgins – one of the very first to die of an AIDS-related illness back in 1982, our charity was set up by his partner Rupert and their friends. Ours was a grassroots movement to learn more about the virus and share that information to ultimately give gay men a chance of living.
But It’s A Sin shouldn’t be seen as 1980s nostalgia and HIV mustn’t be written off as a problem of the past. Because while there’s been huge medical progress in preventing, testing for and treating HIV, stigma remains a huge issue. No, not as bad as in the darkest days – but all that 1980s hysteria has a cast long shadow and out-dated views remain more prevalent than those grounded in fact. Our patron, singer Beverley Knight – whose best friend Tyrone died of an AIDS related illness – once said to me: “The killer is the stigma, it kills people inside.”
And we all have a role to play in overcoming that abhorrent stigma. I was eventually diagnosed in 1996, after more than a decade under the weight of dodging HIV, and so I speak openly about my life with the virus to challenge the idea that it is life limiting. I say loudly and proudly that effective treatment keeps me healthy and means I unequivocally cannot pass HIV onto my husband. I do this to try and create a better world for all of us living with HIV, including in countries where the stigma and discrimination is even more virulent.
Because HIV has changed since the 1980s, but far too many people haven’t been paying attention. So please don’t see Jill in It’s A Sin smashing the cup drank from by someone dying with AIDS into tiny pieces and think that HIV is spread that way – it isn’t and never has been. Instead, please use the discussions that are happening about this groundbreaking show to educate yourself and others about the realities of HIV in 2021. Because, by doing that – and only by doing that – can we end the stigma for good.
National HIV Testing Week starts on 1st February and that opportunity to get tested quickly and easily is a privilege that so many lost in the 1980s never had. So, for the Ritchies and Rocoes and Colins – and the Jills – of It’s A Sin, as well all of those lost too soon on whose shoulders we stand, please celebrate how far we’ve come and order a test. Don’t put it off and don’t be afraid.
You can order a free HIV test kit for National HIV Testing Week via the It Starts With Me website. For any questions about HIV or advice, please contact THT Direct on 0808 802 1221.
It’s A Sin starts Friday 22nd Jan, 9pm on Channel 4. All episodes will be available on All4 after the first episode has broadcast. Learn more about the It’s A Sin true story.
If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV Guide.