A joyful yet devastating series centred on a group of friends whose lives are changed irrevocably by the HIV/Aids epidemic, It’s a Sin is not only the most talked-about TV show of 2021 so far, but also Channel 4’s most watched drama series in its history. Russell T Davies’s 80s-set series has started conversations around Britain about the realities, both political and personal, of living through the HIV/Aids crisis, led to an increase in people getting tested for HIV, and helped raise awareness about preventive medication (PrEP) and the effective treatment now available for people living with the condition.
To discuss these topics, we convened a roundtable discussion with influential queer figures who lived through the crisis, and those who have grown up in its wake. Taking part in the conversation are Lisa Power, a co-founder of LGBT charity Stonewall who also volunteered for Switchboard during the Aids crisis; the Rev Richard Coles, the vicar of Finedon in Northamptonshire and former member of the pop group the Communards; Marc Thompson, an HIV activist, the director of the Love Tank CIC and the co-founder of PrEPster; Guardian columnist and author Owen Jones; Omari Douglas, who plays the character Roscoe in It’s a Sin; and Jason Okundaye, a writer and the co-founder of Black & Gay, back in the day, a digital archive honouring and remembering black queer life in Britain.
For those of you who lived through the period, what memories did watching the show bring back?
Richard Coles: My first engagement with Aids was through the gay press – there were rumours of this “gay cancer” that was happening in America. It seemed very distant and hypothetical. Then the first person close to me who died was the activist Mark Ashton, who was a very significant person on the gay scene. Looking at It’s a Sin, I was struck by how it evokes that period: it did feel like I was almost watching home movies, except with much higher production values.
Lisa Power: I was there when the first calls were coming in on Switchboard. That was 1981. I remember us moving through the phases: what is this thing that is killing gay men? What is it caused by? And then, how do we do something about it, and what do we do that’s appropriate? Mark Ashton was on Switchboard. He wasn’t our first death, but that certainly hit hard. We kept learning all the time and things kept changing – the ground was shifting under us.
Marc Thompson: I was diagnosed with HIV in 1986 when I was 17, before the characters in It’s a Sin even have their tests. That’s something that was quite triggering for me. Seeing all the death and the neglect, the responses from families … What Russell T Davies also captured was the accuracy of the gay community at the time, in the early 80s: the ropey pubs with dirty dancefloors, snogging boys.
And for those of you who didn’t, did the show add to your knowledge or understanding of that era?
Jason Okundaye: Yes – I think what surprised me was the lack of urgency from some of the characters. I’m 24, and looking at that period I had always thought of it as a dragged-feet response from homophobic governments. But looking at the admitted ignorance of the men who lived through that era – and that’s not in a judgmental sense – made me realise what an existential threat this crisis was. Something that is said in the show [by Olly Alexander’s character, Ritchie] that really moved me was about it being the perfect virus to confirm people’s homophobia. I understand why it would be hard to accept the existence of something that seems to validate those beliefs.
Owen Jones: The series humanised what was, for me growing up, a horror story. I was born in 1984, so wrapped up in the homophobia of the playground at the time was the stigma of HIV/Aids. Being gay was conflated with the inevitability of getting HIV and dying of Aids. That was a time when section 28 was in place and there were anti-gay laws; we didn’t have education about it as it was illegal to talk about LGBTQ issues in the classroom. It’s a Sin injected some much-needed humanity into the crisis.
Omari Douglas: As an actor, I knew from the get-go that there was going to be a lot to immerse myself in. All of my engagement with the epidemic and everything I had seen had been from an American perspective. There were texts like Simon Garfield’s The End of Innocence, which charts how it unfolded and how people tried to deal with it. I’m 26, and looking back I was really struck with how poorly it was dealt with and the prudishness that prevented things from becoming any better, like the way in which common sense public health messages were vetted because of censorship. It was totally astounding to me.
MT: Simon Garfield’s book has been referenced a few times as a text which was used for research, but it’s also slightly problematic. I was doing some research for a podcast and I looked at the index and searched for the word ‘black’. There was one paragraph about black communities and it talked about a black HIV organisation mismanaging funds. That’s the only conversation in the entire book. And black gay men were disproportionately, and continue to be disproportionately, affected by HIV.
OD: That’s really interesting to hear Marc. In doing my research it became glaringly obvious to me that I had to dig to find any documentation of black gay life in the 80s. It opened my eyes to how we actually document black gay history. There isn’t enough of it. We need more ways to immortalise the black gay experience.
Marc, you’ve also spoken before about how black gay men and black African women worked together during the crisis.
MT: Communities across the board came together. There was this disconnect between black African communities and gay communities. Occasionally there was a rub-up and there was homophobia, racism and misogyny. But what these two groups eventually found was that HIV was a common enemy. Some of the white gay men that we worked with at the time have certainly learned a lot and are now some of the greatest champions around race issues and gender issues as well.
LP: There was this huge divide in the early days of the response between the gay community, which was largely assumed, completely wrongly, to be white, and the African community, which was equally inappropriately assumed to be heterosexual. There was an absolute assumption that all the black communities were equally affected, when, in fact, in the early days, it was a problem among quite specific African groups who had migrated to the UK. You also had the problem that if someone black was diagnosed with HIV, they weren’t asked about whether they might be gay or have sex with men.
Was there anything you were surprised to see was included in the show?
OJ: I was glad that the sheer violence of the homophobia in the 80s was showcased. There’s that reference by a police officer who quotes the former chief constable of Greater Manchester Police, James Anderton. He said in the mid-80s that Aids victims were swirling around in a cesspool of their own making. At the same time, the Sun printed that readers should forget the idea that ordinary heterosexual people can contract Aids and that anything else is just homosexual propaganda. Admittedly it had to retract that and was forced to apologise by the Press Council because it was inaccurate. But it was violent, establishment-sanctioned homophobia.
RC: You mention the press, Owen. I can remember in 1987, Jimmy Somerville, myself and Andy Bell from Erasure were repeatedly rung up by the Sun, the Mirror and the News of the World. I remember Jimmy once got a call telling him they were going to run a story about him being HIV positive unless he could produce a negative test. That was routine.
How do you think the show handled the political aspect of the Aids crisis?
JO: I think perhaps the show could have done more to acknowledge the way that the establishment response came to dominate and be seen as a singular representation of the fight of the Aids crisis. It could have been an opportunity to show the conversations that were happening that people don’t know about. Some people think that MPs or rich people suddenly became really magnanimous and clued up, but where was that information coming from?
LP: The story with Roscoe [who sleeps with a Conservative MP] has a basis in reality. I certainly know of someone who found that he was offering services to a junior government minister and then proceeded to lecture him about safer sex and the importance of the HIV voluntary sector. The next thing I knew, I was getting a phone call from someone in the Department of Health saying: ‘Why is this minister so interested in HIV all of a sudden?’ The gay mafia operated fully in the 80s.
RC: The other thing to remember is that the activist effort concentrated itself on where it could go, and a lot of that was popular culture. Bands and musicians like Elton John played an important part. But the most weaponised person in that activist movement was the Princess of Wales. It made a huge impact when Diana visited an HIV/Aids unit and was seen touching, and being close to, people with the virus. That was enormously significant in altering perceptions.
The relationship between mothers and their children is an important aspect of the show. How did the familial relationships that make you feel?
MT: I’ll be straight: the first 10 minutes of Roscoe’s story nearly had me throwing my tea at the telly. While I get that narrative of a black man being in a highly religious family, being rejected and being kicked out – and it does happen – it also felt like it was a trope. So I was glad to see that there was [a sense of resolution] to that storyline. I say this time and time again, but I had an incredibly supportive family and they are Jamaican. I may be an outlier, but I think these counter narratives must be told.
OD: Television is a powerful medium and what we see can become ingrained as our idea of what an experience is within a particular culture. But I think the circularity in that storyline is what makes it so powerful. We can tend to go down one path, but there is reconciliation and redemption for Roscoe.
How do you think things have changed when it comes to discussions about HIV and treatment?
MT: We are light years from where It’s a Sin ends. We have treatment, it’s successful and nearly everyone who is diagnosed will lead a good life. I think there are bigger conversations happening, certainly in gay male communities, around HIV. We’ve seen that with U=U [Undetectable equals Untransmittable], which means that a person who is taking effective treatment can’t pass the virus on. But it’s not everywhere. The Terrence Higgins Trust did a survey recently that still showed significant levels of stigma for those living with HIV. The thing is, when we talk about stigma, we talk about it like it’s this big scary monster, which it is, but we also need to recognise the internalised stigma – not just the stigma that we as people who are living with HIV carry, which is 30 years of PTSD – which sits within queer communities. We are also still seeing low rates of testing, and we see late diagnosis in black African communities, in heterosexual communities and with eastern European migrants.
LP: It’s even worse outside major cities. I work in Wales and a lot of people here don’t know that HIV isn’t transmissible if you’re on effective treatment. And although we were really quick to get PrEP [medication which eliminates the possibility of contracting the disease] in Wales, its usage outside the gay community is very rare. People don’t ask for it and doctors don’t think about prescribing it a lot of the time. So there is still a long way to go even in the UK.
RC: A couple of years ago I went to see a parishioner of mine in our local general hospital in the east Midlands. When I got there, he was on a ward but in a bed that was curtained off and I was asked to put on a gown and gloves. I asked why, and a nursing auxiliary said in front of the whole ward, “He’s HIV positive.” I couldn’t believe it. This was 2018! I complained and took it to the top, but I was astonished that in 2018 I could, all of a sudden, be dragged back to 1985.
JO: I think something that also struck me about the show is something that we still don’t have a good grip on now: the conversation around pleasure. Pleasure is something that is valuable, and something that we have a right and entitlement to. One of my favourite theorists, Walt Odets, says that Aids is now called the exchange of fluids, which was once an important part of intimacy for gay men. Early episodes of the series shows Ritchie’s pursuit of pleasure was important. It showed that people were allowed to pursue pleasure, but it was never reconfirmed at the end. The pursuit of pleasure was not the problem. I think sometimes we’re at a risk of conflating what the actual virus is. The virus is HIV. Sex is not the virus.
What do you make of some of the criticism the show has got for its depiction of Lydia West as Jill, and the seeming lack of lesbian characters?
LP: It infuriates me that a lot of coverage of the show has concentrated as Jill as the avatar of good womanhood and being this lovely, soft, supportive person. I want to hear more about the stroppy lesbian solicitor, who most people have not even managed to read as a lesbian. I want to hear it for the women, like Femi Otitoju and I who were on Switchboard, who set up the first legal response to HIV. All of the women who were getting on with doing things, as well as being lovely and supportive. Because actually, there were a lot of stroppy dykes involved in the early days.
MT: We worked with so many stroppy lesbians and cis women. I was speaking to Robin Gorna, a treatment activist who wrote one of the first books on women and Aids, Vamps, Virgins and Victims: How Can Women Fight Aids?, and it was fascinating to speak to her and understand that it was a woman who came along and told the government that they needed to target specific groups with their messaging about HIV. This is when we start to get sexy and talk about the risks in black African communities and in gay communities. So hats off to those sisters who came along.
OD: All the things that people feel like they haven’t seen just demonstrate how much there is still to be told. Russell has spoken a lot about how he imagined this show as being long-running. There are just so many stories that we can tell. This show was shelved for such a long time [Davies has said it was turned down by both the BBC and ITV] but I think because of the engagement that we’ve seen it’s clear that these stories are worthy of being told, and need to be.
What do you think that period can teach us about the ways in which LGBT people are treated today?
LP: There’s a direct parallel between the tropes being used now of trans people and the ones that were used of gay people. One of the most powerful things I’ve seen is a cartoon of the things that people said in the 80s, and you can just swap the words gay and trans. It’s exactly the same moral panic. I think you need to get it out in the open and show exactly what it is. I find it horrifying that people of my generation, people who I worked with for liberation in the 80s and 90s, are now engaging in the kind of transphobia that they were horrified about when it was homophobia. It’s not acceptable.
What do you think the show means to people who lived through that period?
LP: It’s a bit dangerous to binge it if you’ve got personal feelings from that time. But it’s absolutely brilliant and everyone should try, when they feel up to it, to watch it.
MT: I’ve spoken to a few people who just can’t watch it yet. They won’t watch it yet. It is too traumatising. We need to ensure that there is care and support for those of us who lived through it, those of us affected and the young people who carry the stigma on their backs. It’s a celebration and it’s joyful, but it’s triggering.
OD: These are fictionalised characters and yet there’s such a raw truth in it. We’re shining a spotlight on stories that have been pushed aside for so long. That’s the power of storytelling. It’s an overwhelming thing to take in. Hopefully we’ve honoured those people in that sense.
OJ: One thing I really got from it was the gratitude that we owe to those of you who struggled and fought through a really grim episode in the history of LGBTQ communities. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and three of you are here today. Life would be much harder for all of us if it wasn’t for the traumas and the struggles you went through. That gratitude is something that we can never repay. I’m glad that a show like this can emphasise that.
• It’s a Sin is available as a box set on All 4, and airs on Fridays at 9pm on Channel 4. The Terrence Higgins Trust’s Can’t Pass It On campaign aims to end stigma and transmissions of HIV