It’s a Sin: Depicting HIV/AIDS On-Screen

Since the emergence of the COVID-19 virus in December 2019, there have been three vaccines approved for use in the UK. It was labelled as a pandemic by WHO on Wednesday 11 March 2020, just over five months later. A disease as high profile and universally affecting as COVID-19 has received masses of the attention and funding that it requires to tackle the virus. To date, the pandemic has claimed over 2.3 million lives.

In 2019, fourteen years after its peak, the HIV/AIDS global epidemic caused 690,000 deaths with 1.7 million new infections. Since the 1980s, approximately 32.7 million people have died of AIDS related illnesses. There have been medical advancements, such as the introduction of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), which can be effective at preventing HIV from taking hold of the body. Also, antiretroviral treatment (ART) now exists, which can slow disease progression once HIV is contracted and stop transmission, but there is no vaccine. No cure.

My housemates and I sat together in tears as we watched the final episode of It’s A Sin. Whilst the spectre of AIDS looms throughout, each character is more than their sexuality or their illness, and every faceless gay man with AIDS is given a story. The series works to focus first on the joy of expression – in the Pink Palace, in gay bars and clubs, where the heroes finally have a space to be outwardly, explosively themselves. It’s A Sin is a tribute to the victims of AIDS, but it is also a story of friendship, love, and human connection that resonates regardless of gender or sexual preference.

It is a series that reminds its viewer of past prejudice and of the dangers of fear and ignorance. Colin works with absolute dedication at his job as a Saville Row tailor for years, with no ambition beyond stability, despite the predatory advances of his senior colleague. Colin is never shown to have any romantic or sexual relationships until the very end. AIDS was considered a ‘gay disease’, and with that rose further stigma against homosexual men as voraciously sexual, and unclean. In a scene oddly reminiscent of the Black Lives Matter protests, Jill is struck in the head by a police officer during an AIDS march; a stark, violent reminder of minority treatment by the police and the public. She goes and holds hands with AIDS patients who have been left to die alone and questions her doctor about the disease, but he refuses to answer her questions and sends her away. Ritchie, driven by fear and denial, infects people as he does not want to know his sexual health status.

There can be no question that stories like these must still be shared as they inevitably fade from living memory. They are the stories of the silenced and marginalised. They are the stories of the men and boys who died alone in hospital wards from a painful, slow degeneration of the mind and body, labelled and remembered by the disease that claimed their lives. They are the stories of the 38 million people globally still living with HIV today, surrounded by silence. Thise on-screen depiction amplifies the side-lined voices of the past. It forces us to acknowledge and remember.  

In the creation of this series, we do not pay homage to the masses of people with this illness that destroyed them, but rather to the individuals behind AIDS, whose identities have been lost to time. Often, bodies were not claimed, as Hart Island, USA, has mass graves for thousands of HIV-positive people, when the fear was that bodies could be infectious.

Since the show’s arrival on Channel 4 there has been an increase reported in the ordering of free HIV testing kits. AIDS is no longer a mystery illness, and it is much more understood than it was in the 80s. In the Western world, HIV is no longer a death sentence and with the improvements in testing, prevention and treatment, progress is being made. There are home testing kits as well as sexual health clinics where you can get tested in the UK – this should be every time you have a new sexual partner. However, if the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that funding and resources must be directed at AIDS in order to halt this global epidemic’s forty-year rampage.

There is a silence surrounding HIV/AIDS. It is a silence of shame, ignorance and misunderstanding.

Through series like It’s A Sin and more discussions about HIV/AIDS, such silence can and must be broken. HIV/AIDS does not belong to a particular sexuality or race – it’s everyone’s disease, and we owe it to the victims to continue the conversation.

Millie Jackson

If you would like to find out more about HIV/AIDS, get support, or book yourself a self test kit, click here.

Featured Image Source: Still via It’s a Sin official trailer // HBO Max.

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