Russell T Davies’ new show It’s A Sin has brilliantly captured the horrors of the HIV/Aids crisis of the 80s and 90s in the UK – a moment in LGBTQ+ history that has gone untouched by mainstream television until now.
The record-breaking drama has sparked an important conversation about the stigma and misconceptions around the virus, with many remembering the thousands of lives that were lost.
While the five-part series, starring Years And Years singer Olly Alexander, focuses on a group of young men as their lives are quickly transformed by the pandemic, there was also an army of queer people working in hospital wards and centres looking after fellow queer people dying from the disease and its related illnesses.
London Lighthouse, based in Ladbroke Grove, was a centre and hospice for those living with HIV and Aids. It opened in 1986 and offered help, support and respite for people who had been abandoned because of their status.
Metro.co.uk caught up with three LGBTQ+ nurses who worked at London Lighthouse during the catastrophe to hear about the experiences they endured.
Ricky, who began working on the residential unit in 1993 for five years, said that while It’s A Sin had some good moments and humour, it reignited feelings of anger at the misinformation and ignorant attitudes of the time.
‘It’s A Sin brought back the sadness, the anger and the frustration of political impotence, and the fury at ignorance and neglect,’ he said.
‘If you weren’t in healthcare and if you weren’t amongst the LGBTQ+ community, if you were the general population, you haven’t seen that [the HIV/Aids crisis first-hand]. They don’t have a clue and this programme is the first thing that gives them a clue.’
Ricky, a gay man, lost a number of close friends during the HIV/Aids crisis, as well as colleagues who worked alongside him at London Lighthouse.
‘I rarely look at my photo album of friends from when I was in Manchester, because amongst the gay men I knew half to three quarters of them are now dead,’ he told us.
‘The people who came in over the years for respite would come in for what was palliative. We’d have a long relationship with them. You’d end up having your own friends come in for care. At one stage, one of the people was a member of staff and it was just very carefully planned over who would be looking over them.
‘There was another one of my colleagues I knew he was sick, but we didn’t know he was HIV positive until he passed away.’
Ricky recalled how one time he had to give somebody he had slept with just one week before their HIV diagnosis.
‘I remember going out and calling somebody and it was somebody I had had sex with the previous week,’ he said. ‘I tried to get somebody else [to deliver the news] but nobody else was answering the bleep and I ended up having to break the news to him.
‘It wasn’t fair on him, regardless of how I felt. He knew I was a nurse but he didn’t know where I worked.’
At one point, shortly after a close friend had died from Aids, working became increasingly difficult for Ricky and he began to hope lose hope for his future.
‘I came to think that one day my lottery numbers will come,’ he shared. ‘You took reasonable precautions but nobody’s perfect and even knowing everything there’d still be times… I remember one time, it was after somebody I knew had died and I completely threw caution to the wind.
‘I thought if I get it, I get it. Luckily that particular occasion nothing happened.
‘When people were doing saving for life insurance and mortgages and things like that, I thought, well what am I saving for? I’m not going to see that age. I didn’t seriously consider that I was going to be seeing past 50 because I just considered at some stage, it’s going to happen, however cautious you may be.’
Douglas worked as a psychiatric nurse at London Lighthouse and joined the centre not only because it was important for him to help care for people with HIV/Aids but also so he could work in an environment that would accept him for being gay.
‘I was often met with two distinct reactions, one was, “Oh my God you’re an absolute hero for working in that environment”, and the other was slightly reserved because people assumed everyone who worked there was HIV positive or they thought that because I worked there and touched people without gloves on that I was a massive risk.’
Before he started his career there, Douglas had been in a two-year relationship with a man who later died of Aids. This tragedy, he said, made him confident that he could be around people who were dying from the virus.
‘He wasn’t out at work and he still lived with the person he was living with for over 20 years and there was one night we were having a meal together and I said, “Look, is there any chance you think you could be HIV positive?” and he said, “Well, I hope not”,’ Douglas remembered.
‘But then it became pretty obvious after a while that he developed Aids illnesses. He kept having PCP [pneumocystis pneumonia] but all the time he was seeing a private doctor and it was never brought up. He never had a HIV test and it made his treatment quite difficult because he wasn’t dealt with by experts. He died shortly before I joined London Lighthouse.’
‘There were times when I did [fear I would end up the ward],’ Douglas continued. ‘I caught scabies and I remember the first time I caught it I felt really quite leprous.
‘There was another time when I took a syringe driver out of a patient who had just died from Aids and then bumped into someone in the corridor and the needle bumped into my stomach and that was quite terrifying. I had an HIV test but I still had to wait weeks until I got the result. That was the only time I really feared that I might become ill and that was a truly terrifying moment.’
Lesbian nurse Flick arrived at London Lighthouse in the early 90s and said watching It’s A Sin ‘was like watching my life’.
‘Those stories on It’s A Sin… God, I could tell you dozens of those stories,’ she said. ‘Stories of boys who had been chucked out their homes and became rent boys and whose lives were either living on the street or living with characters like Stephen Fry who just used them and paid for them and gave them HIV.’
Before life-changing antiretroviral treatment was introduced in 1996, Flick saw patients die daily.
‘Sometimes multiple people would die,’ she said. ‘As a nurse, of a shift I would have two live patients to look after and two dead patients to look after and that meant as nurses, we ran the 12-bed mortuary.
‘We had a viewing room that we used to have to set up, it was a nice room that we were responsible for going down and getting the bodies out of the fridge and putting them in a bed for their relatives and friends to come and visit and to sit around. That was pretty traumatic.’
One of the most poignant times for Flick was when she looked after a couple who were both dying.
‘They’d been together for a long time,’ she reflected. ‘They were both in their beds and both really sick. One was actively dying and the other one was in the room and I was sitting holding the hand of the one who was dying and talking to the one who was across the room and just sort of talking to both of them. I remember saying, “he’s gone, he’s gone”.’
‘We’d never let anyone die alone, that just never happened,’ she added.
While Flick attended many funerals, she said she felt privileged being with her patients as they took their last breath.
‘We knew they were going to die, there was no point in pretending. They were young, vibrant gay men, like the guys in It’s A Sin, whose lives were cut short,’ she told us.
‘We would plan the most elaborately fun funerals. They would know what they wanted to wear in the coffin and they would want doves released in the garden. It was always fabulously gay. Some of these things went terribly wrong. I remember trying to dress a dead body in a rubber S&M suit… it was really difficult.’
Despite having sad memories from working during the HIV/Aids crisis, Flick maintained there were also lots of good ones too.
‘It was an incredible time. I feel very lucky to have been part of it and it really saved my life.’
Without medication and treatment, prognosis during the 80s and mid-90s was pretty bleak. But, HIV is not a death sentence anymore.
When taken correctly, PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) is effective at preventing HIV for anyone who is at an ongoing risk of the virus. It works by blocking the virus from replicating within cells.
In addition, there’s also medication that can be taken by HIV positive people which stops the virus making copies of itself. It 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. This treatment helps HIV positive people live long and healthy lives.
It’s A Sin continues on Friday at 9pm on Channel 4 with the box set available to stream on All 4.