It's A Sin: "It's important for people to know things have changed"
- Credit: Channel 4
It’s an unhappy anniversary that comes at a time when we’re preoccupied with a different viral pandemic: 2021 marks 40 years since Aids was first discovered.
Those nightmarish early years after the discovery of HIV and Aids have been charted in Russell T Davies’ It’s A Sin, the last episode of which aired on Friday.
Set in London at the start of the 1980s and spanning the decade, it follows a group of young gay men following their dreams in the capital and having the time of their lives – until the shadow of Aids appears.
It’s a series which is both joyful and devastating, Davies charting the territory between the light and the darkness with customary brilliance – it also reminds us of the shocking homophobia which infected Britain in the 1980s.
The first Aids-related death in London was in 1981, the same year that Davies turned 18 and in the show the writer charts every colour of the emotional rainbow, from joy to pain, hedonism to terror, disbelief to denial, shame to acceptance.
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Based on Mr Davies’ and his friends’ experiences in the 1980s, the show was made to celebrate, commemorate and highlight the generation of ‘lost boys’ who died after an HIV diagnosis before effective treatment and preventative measures were found.
He remembered the stories he’d been told by families who arrived at hospital wards to discover their son was gay, that he had Aids and that he was dying, all in the same moment – and it inspired It’s A Sin.
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The show has become Channel 4’s most-watched box set, has won critical acclaim and has been credited with a massive rise in the number of people taking HIV tests which HIV charity the Terrence Higgins Trust called the ‘It’s A Sin effect’.
Fraser Wilson, a spokesperson for Terrence Higgins Trust, said: “It’s A Sin remembers a time in our history we must never forget – when people were dying of a mystery illness and we didn’t know why.
“But it’s also important that everyone knows how much HIV has changed since then thanks to massive improvements in preventing, testing for and treating HIV.
“The AIDS of It’s A Sin is not the same as HIV in the UK today. It looks like that message is getting through and we’re seeing an ‘It’s A Sin effect’ in action with free HIV tests being ordered to do at home at a faster rate than we’ve ever seen before.
“Most people will get a negative result, but it’s always better to know. Because you can live a long, healthy life with HIV – but it all starts with a test so that you can access the treatment necessary to stay well.”
I was at high school when the grim Aids tombstone adverts were on television and my school tackled the issue head on: at a girls-only sex education talk we were told that Aids wasn’t something we’d have to worry about. Because it’s that simple.
I remember the horrific ‘Gay Plague’ headlines from the red-tops and the jaw-dropping interviews with vicars who claimed they’d shoot their sons if they were diagnosed with HIV.
I remember one of my best friends at school telling me he was gay and then in the same breath telling me how ashamed he was to admit it, and knowing then that the only thing wrong about what he’d said was that he was paralysed by fear.
My Mum was an early supporter of The Terrence Higgins Trust and regularly donated money – when my Dad died in 1992, because she had no time for the Multiple Sclerosis Society (disclaimer: I am sure they are great now) in the death announcement in the paper, she asked for donations to go to the THT.
Less than a week after my Dad died, there was a knock on the front door: someone introduced themselves to me as being from a news organisation, told me they were sorry to hear of Mr Briggs’ “tragic death” and then hit me blindsided.
“Mr Briggs was a secondary school teacher, I believe,” he said, “we just wanted to talk to you about his battle with Aids.”
As I slammed the door after an exchange which included several choice swear words, I was ashamed of myself for having pointed out he’d died of Multiple Sclerosis and not Aids – what business was it of anyone’s?
Then I realised the intent behind the question: a high school teacher with Aids would have been a great story in 1992. Thank God we’ve come such a long way.
Fast-forward to 1996 and I was a cub reporter on the Norwich Evening News and interviewed several people living with HIV including a gay man and a heterosexual couple. A friend suggested I wear gloves to the interview.
A quarter of a century later – a frightening thought – I am interviewing Alex Causton-Ronaldson who received his HIV diagnosis in 2014 at the age of 23.
He watched It’s A Sin and couldn’t help but draw parallels between it and some of his own life experiences while also acknowledging the huge gulf between living with HIV in the 1980s and now.
“I moved to London from Norwich when I was 18 and I made the same kind of great friends and was as excited as the men in the show were to start a new life,” he said.
“I had a friend who used to make quite strong jokes about being HIV positive in the 1980s and I told him it made me a bit uncomfortable and he said: ‘I’m the only one left from my group of friends, dark humour was the only way we got through it’.
“He told me that he’d been to 30 funerals for his friends before he was 25. It just hit home for me what he’d gone through, how awful it had been.
“So while I could see comparisons between then and now in the show, there has been so much progress since the 1980s.
“My medication shrinks the amount of virus in my body to an undetectable level, protecting the immune system and stopping me from being able to pass HIV on.
“There’s a medication called PrEP which prevents HIV transmission now…but when I was diagnosed, it was very much not ‘if’ my friends and I got HIV but ‘when’.
“That said, I was convinced that I would be fine. I was the one always telling other people to be careful, the one buying condoms for friends, the one who would tell them off if I thought they’d taken risks.
“And yet I was the one who ended up with HIV.”
When Alex received sex education at school, in 2002, it was during the dark days of Section 28, a law passed in 1988 by a Conservative government that stopped councils and schools “promoting the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.
Margaret Thatcher said at the time: “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay. All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life.”
The law was thankfully changed in 2003.
“It’s difficult to teach about safe sex for gay men when you can’t say that being gay is OK,” he said, “so whole generations failed to get vital information about being safe.
“Meanwhile, medicine was getting better and better and treatment more effective, but
Section 28 did nothing to stop young people feeling that being gay was shameful.”
Back in Norwich in 2014, Alex started to lose weight which he put down to a healthy new regime (“I thought: my personal trainer is AMAZING!”) but when he found ‘gravity bruises’ appearing for no reason, he went to the doctor and began a battery of tests.
The HIV test he took at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital on June 6 was a formality – he’d had a negative result in January and had not been in a position to contract the virus since.
The next day, he moved back to London ahead of starting a new job on Monday June 9 and, after a successful first day, he was starting his journey home when he received a message. It was a nurse at the clinic where he’d taken the test.
When he spoke to the nurse who asked if he could come in to the clinic the next day and he told her that he’d moved, he said he would have to give him his results over the phone.
Almost 33 years to the day after the first clinical report of a new virus in America, Alex was told he was HIV positive.
“I passed out,” he said, “I thought ‘I’m going to die, no one will ever love me’. All these emotions raced through me – fear, disbelief, shame.”
Other than his boyfriend of the time, Alex told no one: the next day he went to work and popped out at lunchtime for a second test. As he was speaking to a nurse, a doctor told him he needed to speak to him urgently.
“My blood platelets were so low that a paper cut could have killed me,” he said, “suddenly I was in a wheelchair with a blanket over me and being rushed to A&E.
(It’s A Sin spoiler alert!)
“When I saw the scenes of Colin in the ward on his own, I was taken straight back to the tropical and infectious diseases ward and feeling so alone there.
“You also can’t help thinking that if this was the 1980s, I wouldn’t be here now. I would have died. But today, HIV does not need to be a death sentence and this is a virus that we can stamp out entirely.”
Alex praised the medical team who treated him and remembered the kindness of a healthcare assistant: “I was all on my own so he would come and sit with me every single day, bring me trashy magazines, talk to me about boys, he was amazing,” he said.
“Most people have time to process their diagnosis but with me it was ‘you’ve got HIV, you’re really ill, you’re going to hospital’. My brain told me it was a manageable condition, my heart told me something completely different.”
For a year, Alex stayed silent about his condition: only his boyfriend of the time knew – but when the couple split, he came home to Norwich and told his parents.
“My Mum was so upset – not about the diagnosis, that I’d felt too ashamed to tell her. She said ‘I could have been there for you in hospital’. My parents, my family and my friends have always been so supportive.”
For a while, only five people knew Alex’s HIV status. Then there was a brush with the Channel 4 legal department about an appearance on First Dates and a rather public interview at a rally.
“I went from five people knowing to the world knowing in a day!” Alex laughs, “but speaking out against stigma, encouraging people to be informed and letting them know that there is no shame in being tested or being HIV positive has made such a difference to my life.
“Today, I am in a really good place.”
Alex now takes three tablets a day – he’s well, he’s enjoying spending lots of time with rescue dog Bob, has a new job as head of education for a branding organisation and is looking forward to lockdown lifting.
“I am so grateful to It’s A Sin and Russell T Davies for starting so many new conversations about HIV. It’s important people know how much things have changed but also that they still need to make sure they’re informed,” he said.
“One day, hopefully we’ll talk about HIV as something that used to be a problem, but that was eradicated. I look forward to that.”
1981: Aids first noted in America where five people showed symptoms of a rare infection. On December 12, a gay man dies in London due to an Aids-related illness: he was a frequent visitor to the USA.
1982: Terrence Higgins becomes one of the first people to die of an Aids-related illness in the UK and a trust is formed in his name.
1985: Yorkshire TV hires a temporary venue for its discussion programme Where There’s Life when technicians refuse to work with HIV-positive guests.
1986: A national survey suggests 95 per cent of the public think people with HIV should carry cards showing their status.
1987: Aids is a worldwide epidemic with cases across the globe. The first antiretroviral drugs were approved and a needle exchange opens in Dundee. The Government’s ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ TV ad campaign begins. Princess Diana shakes hands with an HIV-positive person in London.
1988: Section 28 prohibits local authorities from “promoting” homosexuality.
1991: Freddie Mercury becomes the first high-profile person to die of an Aids-related illness, a day after revealing he was ill.
1996: A combination of antiretroviral drugs becomes standard treatment for HIV meaning the progression from HIV to Aids is increasingly rare. It also prevents the transmission of HIV between same sex and opposite sex partners as long as the HIV-positive partner has an undetectable viral load.
2010: The Equality Act makes it illegal to discriminate against an HIV-positive person.
2014: UNAIDS establishes the 90-90-90 goal (to have 90 per cent of all people living with HIV diagnosed, receiving treatment and achieving viral suppression). The UK met and exceeded this target.
2019: It is estimated that 105,200 people are living with HIV in the UK, 94 per cent of whom are diagnosed. This means one in 16 people are undiagnosed.
2020: It was announced that PrEP, a drug that prevents the transmission of the HIV virus, would be available free in England from April. This could help eliminate new HIV infections within 10 years.
2021: It is estimated that around 38 million people across the globe with HIV/Aids – approximately 81 per cent of people know their HIV status. South Africa has the highest number of people living with HIV in the world.
* For more information, visit the Terrence Higgins Trust at www.tht.org.uk