17 Feb 2021

In the depths of the January lockdown ‘It’s a Sin’ hit our screens, renowned queer screenwriter Russell T Davies’ take on the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 80/90s in the UK. If you haven’t already binged all five episodes (where have you been), this critically acclaimed series follows a group of friends in their 20s, through the ups and the impact the epidemic has on them. Joyful, heart-breaking, hugely educational, and funny – one of my friends said, ‘this easily could have been our group of friends if we were born 20 years earlier’.

The show serves as a stark reminder of both the devastation the epidemic had on the queer community and the lack of education of what was an important part of LGBTQ+ History both in the UK and around the globe.

Today 1.1M people around the world are living with HIV and estimated 700,000 people have died since the epidemic began in the early 80s. Of course, the HIV/AIDS epidemic does not solely affect the LGBTQ+ community. However, in the 80s when the epidemic broke in the UK, it was heavily associated with gay men and a huge amount of stigma existed around both the disease and the community (some of which still exists today).

HIV/AIDS in the UK – A Short History:

1981: AIDS recognised for the first time by US health authorities
In December of that year, the first AIDS-related death in the UK is recorded.

1982: UK’s first AIDS charity established
After collapsing on the dancefloor at London gay club Heaven, Terry Higgins was taken to St Thomas’ Hospital, where he later dies. His friends set up the Terry Higgins Trust to raise AIDS awareness and research money.

1983: Scientists discovered HIV, the virus that causes AIDS
Identified by French virologists Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier, the virus was given several acronyms before being named HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus) after the virus’ ability to attack the body’s immune system, in 1986.

1986: British government’s AIDS: Don’t Die of Ignorance campaign
A leaflet was sent to every house in the UK, the campaign was defined by the doom-laden TV advert that appears in It’s a Sin. “If you ignore AIDS, it could be the death of you, so don’t die of ignorance,” as a tombstone crashes to the ground. In a recent article for The Observer, Davies wrote that this advert “made a whole generation of gay men scared of sex”.

1987: Princess Diana opened the UK’s first purpose-built HIV/AIDS unit
By shaking hands with a man suffering with the disease, without wearing gloves, she publicly challenged the misconception that HIV/AIDS could be transmitted by touch alone.

1991: Freddie Mercury’s death
When the Queen singer passed away on November 24, around a day after revealing he was HIV positive and had been diagnosed with AIDS, he became its most high-profile victim.

1996: Combination treatment for HIV introduced
Also known as antiretroviral therapy (ART) or highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), it works by preventing the virus from replicating in the body.

2010: Discrimination against HIV patients made unlawful
Under the Equality Act 2010, employers are no longer allowed to ask for a person’s HIV status when they apply for a job. As of 2019 there were an estimated 105,200 people living with HIV in the UK. According to the National AIDS Trust, around 30% of people accessing treatment are women.

2020: Preventative HIV drug PrEP made available on the NHS in England
Already available in Scotland and Wales, PrEP prevents the spread of HIV during condomless sex when taken once a day.

It is important to emphasise the progress that has been made in the fight against HIV/AIDS in the UK, most importantly medically with both the treatment of HIV to prevent AIDS and the access to PrEP in 2020. HIV in gay men in the UK as reduced by a third (from 2009-2019) and continues to do so.

It is important we both learn and teach the trauma and devastation the epidemic has had on the LGBTQ+ community and recognise the stigma that still exists today. The best way to do that? It is National HIV Testing Week so know your status, get tested regularly.

As an ally? Educate yourself, watch ‘It’s a Sin’ and continue to learn and support the LGBTQ+ Community. As said in the opening, a short time ago this would have been the lives of your friends and family members. Be open about what you are learning, speak to family and friends who remember the 80s and 90s.

If you’ve finished It’s a Sin – here’s some further ideas of what to consume next:

Film: We Were Here
TV: Pose
Book: Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
Podcast: LGBTQ&A
Charity: Terrence Higgins Trust & Elton John AIDS Foundation