Few dramas have had such an instant impact as It’s A Sin, Russell T Davies eye-opening take on the Aids epidemic of the 1980s.
The five-episode series focuses on a group of young gay men, and their best girl friend Jill (Lydia West), as they live and love in London. They party, they have sex, they are soaking up everything life has to offer now that they can be their true selves away from their oppressive families and hometowns.
Sadly, a virus is sneaking into their circle, threatening to take all of that away. This unknown virus seems to only be targeting gay men, leading to many, including Ritchie Tozer (Olly Alexander), choosing to believe it’s not real. Only it was real. We watch as members of their friend group are infected with HIV, hospitalised and eventually killed by Aids, some being terrorised by dementia and cancer first as their immune systems collapsed.
Not only does It’s A Sin show us how Aids destroyed lives and robbed a generation, it shows us how little many of us actually know about it. Many viewers have expressed their shock that they never learned about the Aids epidemic in school, or how little information they had on how patients were treated by society.
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks cells that help the body fight infection, making a person more vulnerable to other infections. It is spread by contact with certain bodily fluids of a HIV positive person, most commonly through unprotected sex or sharing needles. Aids is a late stage of HIV infection that occurs when the body’s immune system is badly damaged because of the virus.
Without medication and treatment, prognosis was grim. But nowadays, HIV is no longer a death sentence. When taken correctly, PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is effective at preventing HIV for anyone who is at an ongoing risk of HIV, by blocking the virus from replicating within cells.
In addition to PrEP, medication is available to HIV positive people which also stops the virus making copies of itself. This reduces the viral load – that is, the levels of HIV in the body – to being undetectable in a standard blood test. Undetectable means untransmittable (U=U) – basically, effective HIV treatment resulting in an undetectable viral load means that the risk of passing HIV through sex is zero. And most importantly, this medication can also help HIV positive people live long and healthy lives.
While there is plenty of information available on HIV and how to treat it nowadays, after watching It’s A Sin, you may want to educate yourself further on the history of queer people and how they dealt with the epidemic, as well as how we got to this point.
Ian Green, Chief Executive at Terrence Higgins Trust, said: ‘The stories of early AIDS activists aren’t just inspiring, they’re incredibly important in understanding just how we got the point we’re at today with HIV. It’s A Sin beautifully captures their strength, commitment and bravery – but don’t limit yourself to just one series. There’s such a huge selection of eye-opening resources about HIV, its activists and the history of the epidemic out there just waiting for people to read, listen and watch them.
‘I’ve lived with HIV for 25 years now, and that’s because being HIV positive is no longer a death sentence. People like me can live long, healthy lives because of effective, life-saving treatment, which also prevents us from passing the virus on.
‘The reality of HIV today is a world apart from that depicted in It’s A Sin and it’s important for people to know that. We’re now working towards ending new HIV cases in the UK by 2030, and educating as many people as we can, whether it be through campaigning or media, will be the vital first step towards getting there.’
The Terrence Higgins Trust, the UK’s leading HIV and sexual health charity, has compiled a list of resources for those wanting to learn more about the history of HIV and Aids, from books to TED Talks – the full list can be seen here.
Some of the highlights include:
Angels In America
Angels In America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes is a two-part play by Tony Kushner which examines Aids and homosexuality in 1980s America. . At its core, it is the story of Prior Walter, a gay man living with Aids who is visited by an angel.
The 2018 revival of the play starring Andrew Garfield won the Tony Award for best revival of a play, as well as best actor for Garfield and best featured actor for Nathan Lane.
The play is available to read, or, if you would rather watch it, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Emma Thompson and Mary-Louise Parker star in the 2003 HBO mini-series adaptation, which won five Golden Globes and 11 Emmys, including best mini-series and outstanding limited series respectively.
This Podcast Will Kill You – HIV/AIDS: Apathy Will Kill You
Hosted by disease ecologists and epidemiologists Erin Welsh and Erin Allmann Updyke, episode 12 of This Podcast Will Kill You tells the story of the Aids pandemic through the stories of three people affected.
We hear from Frank Iamelli, who took care of many of his friends throughout the epidemic, Hillel Wasserman, who has been living with HIV since 1987, and Brryan Jackson, who was diagnosed with Aids when he was five years old when his father injected him with infected blood.
This Wild Darkness: The Story of My Death by Harold Brodkey
Novelist Harold Brodkey penned essays and journals from when he was first diagnosed with Aids until he was left unable to write.
The memoir explores his sexuality, relationships and the advancement of the Aids virus which eventually killed him.
This Wild Darkness was published in 1996, the same year Brodkey died aged 65.
A noted author and novelist presents a selection of essays and journals that explore his sexuality, relationships, and the advance and effect of the Aids virus within him from which he eventually died
And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the Aids Epidemic
San Francisco Chronicle journalist Randy Shilts wrote And the Band Played On because the virus was affecting people he knew and loved.
The investigative journalism carried out charts the journey of the epidemic from the first confirmed case of Aids in 1977, to Rock Hudson’s announcement in 1985 that he was dying from Aids.
The book was turned into a TV movie in 1993, starring Matthew Modine, Alan Alda and Sir Ian McKellen.
Let’s talk about sex, baby
HIV advocate Lizzie Jordan staged her TED Talk, Let’s talk about sex, baby, in 2017, and gives a unique perspective on the virus.
In her monologue, she explains how sex turned her life upside down, as she explained that within 18 months, she became a mother, a widow, and was diagnosed with HIV.
It’s A Sin continues at 9pm on Friday on Channel 4, while the whole series is available on All4.