When I was first diagnosed with HIV in 2013, I spent a lot of time telling people the story of ‘How I Got It’ — and who I got it from.
That’s what everyone wanted to know, even if they didn’t ask outright. It’s an instinctive reaction to difficult news: people want a story.
The story that I told them (and myself) about my infection offered narrative coherence at a very confusing time. It assigned right and wrong, villain and victim. It also categorised me as that unlucky someone who’d taken a risk but hadn’t been what you’d call ‘risky,’ which felt at the time like an important distinction to make.
Eight years on, I don’t tell that story very much anymore. I’ve come to understand that the virus is a virus — it doesn’t care about any story.
Over the last few weeks, TV creator Russell T. Davies has offered up his version of the story of HIV/AIDS in Britain with the series It’s a Sin, which has now become Channel 4’s most watched drama ever. It’s based in large part on real people he knew in the 1980s, like his friend Jill who lived in a flat called The Pink Palace and cared for gay male friends as they died, just like the character (also called Jill) does in the show.
By his own admission, Davies himself was late to face up to the reality of the epidemic: ‘I looked away. Oh, I went on marches and gave a bit of money and said how sad it was, but really, I couldn’t quite look at it.’ Like Ritchie, his central character, he says he started out in denial and then spent decades refusing to confront the memories of all that had been lost. Britain’s premiere gay male storyteller couldn’t bring himself to include the words ‘HIV’ or ‘AIDS’ in his groundbreaking series Queer as Folk from 1999 to 2000 — although by that point the antiretroviral ‘cocktail’ was already offering those with access to it a chance to live with HIV as a manageable condition.
With It’s a Sin, Davies is now doing on national television what I did with my own story: trying to make sense of emotions like shame, guilt and regret — except that he’s been wrestling with his for decades. Given the title, it feels like a kind of penance.
The ‘story of AIDS’ has been told many times over the last forty years on stages and screens, in fiction and documentaries. Some of those stories were aimed to galvanise audiences directly affected by the epidemic, others were meant to enlighten an imagined ‘mainstream’ audience. Although it focuses exclusively on white cis men with AIDS (the POC supporting characters remain uninfected), something about Davies’s version has been widely received as ‘untold’ for a British audience:
The imagined TV audience for It’s a Sin seems to be a portion of the population that is unaware of the full extent of the pain and injustice spawned by AIDS, perhaps by virtue of their youth, a lack of proper education or the insulation of their own privilege. Whether gay or straight, they need to know this history.
In 1987, the AIDS activist and video-maker Gregg Bordowitz wrote:
The AIDS movement… creates itself as it attempts to represent itself. Video puts into play the means of recognizing one’s place within the movement in relation to that of others in the movement.
Created collectively to build a protest movement, Bordowitz’s videos with his ACT-UP comrades were intended to help communities affected by AIDS recognise their power. It’s a Sin, on the other hand, is not an ‘activist’ work, even if some of the characters are peripherally involved in protests. ‘They’re ordinary people,’ Davies says, ‘and I’m interested in that because their stories aren’t often told.’
They’re not just people but boys specifically, which was the series’s original title. Cis women, trans women, IV drug users and many others acquired HIV/AIDS (then and now), but it was gay men having gay sex who were most associated with it in the media. Davies’s Colin and Ritchie serve as a matched pair, emblematic of their many lost peers: one a quiet ‘virgin,’ the other a raffish ‘slut’. ‘They’re just horny, stupid boys who couldn’t believe what was happening to them,’ according to their creator. In that sense, they also seem intended to mirror the envisioned young and uninformed viewers consuming the series and learning this history for the first time:
Davies ultimately retitled his show in homage to the Pet Shop Boys hit of 1984:
When I look back upon my life
it’s always with a sense of shame
I’ve always been the one to blame
For everything I long to do
no matter when or where or who
Whilst Neil Tennant’s and Chris Lowe’s lyrics drip with irony and defiance of the moralism they were raised on (‘Whatever you taught me / I didn’t believe it’), Davies’ representation of people with AIDS sadly perpetuates the homophobic logic of shame and guilt it purports to challenge. Victimised, infantilised and complicit in their own destruction, his dying boys of yesterday transmit to today’s audiences a troubling portrait of gay self-hatred.
Back when I was an uninformed and closeted teen, my first representations of gay men with AIDS came not from youth-driven TV shows but prestige Hollywood dramas. Age fourteen in 1993, I went with my family to see Philadelphia (yes, that’s the kind of teen I was), for which Tom Hanks would win the Oscar playing a man with AIDS who launches an anti-discrimination suit against the law firm that has fired him.
Written by openly gay screenwriter Ron Nyswaner, the film was controversial even then amongst queer audiences for framing its story from the perspective of Hanks’s wary, straight defense attorney (Denzel Washington). Its agenda is clear: Philadelphia is not aimed at LGBTQ viewers or anyone with first-hand experience of HIV/AIDS. It’s an outreach movie, intended to demystify AIDS and preach tolerance for the shadowy gay people who have it, embodied in the figure of American Everyman Tom Hanks.
The audience for Philadelphia is actually represented within the film itself in the form of the jurors at the trial: a racially diverse cross-section of Philadelphians who listen to the plaintiff’s and defendant’s legal cases with silent expressions of confusion, sympathy, curiosity and revulsion. The testimony takes them through a litany of homophobic abuse and indignity delivered upon the pleasant-seeming Hanks by his former bosses. They are even exposed to the sight of his KS lesions to in an effort to ‘bring home’ the severity of the medical complications he is undergoing.
In perhaps the film’s most infamous moment, the opposing legal counsel (and the filmmakers) finally confront the unspoken question on the jurors’ (and the audience’s) minds: ‘How’d he get it?’
‘Do you take risks?’ Mary Steenburgen’s lawyer asks Hanks’s Andy on the stand, and gets him to admit that he has indeed visited the Stallion Showcase Cinema on 21st Street (‘three times in my life’), a porno theatre where he once had an ‘anonymous sexual encounter.’
Her questioning establishes that Andy had heard something about AIDS but had sex in the theatre anyway, then went home to his long-term partner Miguel (Antonio Banderas). ‘You could have infected Mr. Álvarez at that time, is that correct?’ she asks, trying to establish Andy’s sexual compulsion and to paint him as a lethal spreader of contagion for other innocent partners. ‘Miguel has not been infected,’ Andy replies. Of course, one salacious story doesn’t confirm the chain of transmission: Andy could well have acquired HIV any number of ways before or after visiting the Stallion, but as so often happens when discussing HIV infection, moralistic logic supersedes rational thinking.
No image from Philadelphia imprinted itself more permanently on my teenage imagination than the flashback shot of the younger Andy, with ratty 80s mustache, sitting in the grim porno theatre. Watching the clip again, it lasts mere seconds and shows no explicit sexual act, but the implication of ‘dirtiness’ and guilt is clear.
To accomplish its goal of imbuing Hanks’s character with dignity, the filmmakers must confront head-on the homophobic contention that whilst some people with AIDS (those who received infected blood products, for instance, or were born with HIV) acquired it ‘through no fault of their own,’ others ‘brought it on themselves.’
For all its flaws, Philadelphia effectively details the structures of homophobic blame inflicted upon Hanks’s character and shows him withstanding them. He never directly expresses regret for his past anonymous encounters or begs forgiveness onscreen from Miguel. The filmmakers acknowledge a hunger in their audience that is both narrative and moralistic: viewers expect to be given an explanation, so they can determine culpability. The script teases that prurient impulse, but clearly presents the logic of sex-shaming as reprehensible: even Steenburgen’s lawyer expresses disgust that she’s been forced to employ it, muttering under her breath, ‘I hate this case.’
Andy’s legal case ultimately convinces the jurors to award him damages despite their awareness of his sexual past. Squeamish as this 90s film is about matters of sex, it implicitly resists a homophobic logic of blaming gay men for their own infection. The message is muddy, of course. Fourteen-year old me didn’t know what went on in that porno theatre and this film surely filled me with dread about ever finding out.
It would be decades before I encountered a more full-throated and sex-positive affirmation of the dignity of people living with HIV/AIDS, through the slogans of ACT-UP:
Nearly thirty years later, as someone living with HIV myself, I’m shocked to see the same homophobic logic and prurient narrative impulses uncritically reproduced and perpetuated by a show like It’s a Sin. Even gay creators in 2021 must do the work of deprogramming ourselves from a societal impulse that defines gays as compulsive and blameworthy. Then and now, we must remind ourselves that HIV (like COVID-19) is a virus, not a moral agent.
Episode 3 of It’s a Sin kicks off in 1986: AIDS ‘hits home’ at the Pink Palace with each of the men taking an HIV test and Colin (Callum Scott Howells) acquiring AIDS. First experienced as unexpected epilepsy, the condition is revealed to be caused by AIDS-related inflammation of his brain.
As Colin’s hospitalisation progresses, Davies takes us through a litany of injustices meted out to people with AIDS: dying men locked in hospital rooms with food outside the doors, denied mortgages, fired by employers, shunned by family members, their possessions burnt after their deaths. Poor Colin — already a passive, childlike character — gradually loses his verbal communication skills and must be advocated for at all turns by his friends, family and even by an AIDS activist legal team who pop up out of nowhere (narratively speaking) to spring him from confinement.
Rumbling underneath the narrative, though, is a persistent set of questions, voiced multiple times: Wasn’t Colin a virgin? How’d he get it??
Solving that mystery matters little to his sympathetic mum or to Jill (depicted as such a beneficent, selfless caregiver that she has no other characterisation at all). She’s spent more time than any of the male leads counseling people with AIDS and sagely responds about the route of Colin’s infection: ‘It’s not like that, Ash. Don’t go looking for a villain — it’ll just be some bloke.’
But the question is not ignored by Davies and his editing team, who — immediately after Jill’s pronouncement — serve up two potential villains. As in any good mystery, the clues were there from Episode 1. Earlier in his delirium, Colin had mumbled ‘rugby shirt,’ which attentive viewers would associate with the taciturn lad of the family he lodged with when he first moved to London. If that explanation was too subtle, his former landlady soon strides into the ward insisting that her son Ross, who now has also acquired AIDS, is ‘a normal man, he’s not one of those filthy, dirty queers.’ In this way, Davies satisfies the narrative curiosity that he’s whetted in his audience whilst boldly declaring a thesis that the series will return to: blame for the AIDS epidemic rests squarely with homophobic families (and particularly mothers).
Still not satisfied that we’ve got the point, we are treated to flashbacks intercut into the hospital scenes, tidying up in explicit detail any mystery about chains of transmission. Like the ones from Philadelphia, they zero in on the traumatic scene of presumed infection but this time they show actual gay sex. We see Colin getting forcefully and unceremoniously fucked by Ross, who grunts, ‘Shut up, you bender.’
Even as we’re fed the narrative satisfaction of ‘how Colin got it,’ we’re meant to feel an extra emotional pang at the irony that this virginal boy received such indignity along with HIV. Colin was especially undeserving to die: he only had sex, it seems, with one partner — and he didn’t even get to have a good time.
Rising up like suppressed memories from the homophobic unconscious, Andy’s flashbacks in Philadelphia coded him as a deviant spreader of disease, whilst Colin’s in It’s a Sin present him as a powerless victim. The remaining running time of Philadelphia offers some agency to Hanks’s character and a victory in court. In contrast, the last shots we see of Colin here pair the image of him splayed and sodomised as he receives the virus with one of him lying on his deathbed. Davies’s narrative determinism dooms Colin from the moment he first pursues sexual desire.
Russell T. Davies has tellingly expressed personal relief at not contracting HIV himself during his heady student days: ‘I can’t believe my luck,’ he confesses, ‘because I had a good, old time.’ In this remark, we see a logic that shapes the whole of his series and especially the arc of Episodes 4 and 5, which focus on the diagnosis and death of twink protagonist Ritchie. HIV infection is viewed as part of an economy of pleasure: you have your fun and then you’re expected to pay the price.
As prickly and problematic as Colin is sweet, Ritchie is a sort of gay antihero (even if Olly Alexander’s inherent charm softens the portrayal). Often self-interested and career-obsessed, he is shown to abandon his friends at crucial moments, dismiss concern about AIDS, speak in clumsy racial stereotypes and even vote for the Tories.
Yet Ritchie, like Colin, also ends up passive in bed under the care of a mother — but one who refuses to engage at all with her son’s chosen family. In the end, both these boys are presented as nothing but victims - powerless against the homophobic institutions of family, medicine and society in general. In the early years of the epidemic, such characterisations (even when nominally sympathetic) were strenuously challenged by actual people with AIDS:
We condemn attempts to label us as ‘victims,’ a term which implies defeat, and we are only occasionally ‘patients,’ a term which implies passivity, helplessness, and dependence upon the care of others. We are ‘People With AIDS.’
That is the preamble to The Denver Principles, addressed by people with AIDS to the media, government and medical establishments in 1983 (i.e. sometime between Episodes 1 and 2 of It’s a Sin). It became the Magna Carta of a discourse of self-determination and dignity for people living with AIDS and other chronic conditions and must still be reckoned with today by anyone engaging with the epidemic. (Read it! It’s only one page long.) Contrast those eloquent assertions from real people with the impressions given by their fictional avatars in 2021: as they die, what are both Ritchie and Colin, if not defeated?
The clarity of the Denver Principles remains radical even today because negative, moralistic and self-stigmatising ideas continue to infect the discourse around HIV/AIDS, even within the gay community. Since it first appeared, the spread of HIV has been attributed to a pathological recklessness amongst gay men — an explanation that gets a lot of traction in It’s a Sin.
As Ritchie first faces up to the AIDS-related lymphoma that will eventually kill him, he ponders a question we’ve become familiar with: How’d he get it? He suspects it came from Donald Bassett (Nathaniel Hall), whom he dropped when he detected Donald was positive. ‘You don’t know it was him,’ Jill says. ‘Yes it was,’ says Ritchie, to which Ash responds, ‘But that version’s a bit easy, it cuts out the hundreds and hundreds of boys you were having sex with at the same time…’
Ritchie pushes his examination further, asking, ‘Do you think I infected him? Because I did, with others. Because I knew and I kept having sex…’
The speech he gives next presents such a vivid portrait of the compulsive gay ‘super-spreader,’ motivated by an uncontrollable ‘death-drive,’ that it could have been written by the most virulent homophobe arguing for the quarantine of HIV+ people before they harm the ‘general population’:
There were nights when I was stone cold sober and if a boy would look at me the right way, a boy with that look in his eye, I’d fuck him, I would fuck him hard. And he could fuck me, all night, any way he likes. I wonder how many I killed? I knew it was wrong, and I kept on doing it.
Such portraits of horny, amoral men leading innocent partners into unwitting ‘murder-suicide’ are what prompted the creation of unjust laws around the world (many still on the books) that incarcerate people with HIV.
The first right established for people with AIDS (PWAs) in the Denver Principles is the right ‘to as full and satisfying sexual and emotional lives as anyone else.’ Such an idea seems inconceivable to Ritchie. He contrasts deadly encounters where he ‘fucked all night’ with ones where he was able to stop. He tells Ash, ‘A lot of times I stopped, a million times. I stopped with you.’ The dichotomy is stark: on the one hand he can kill his partners and on the other he can… abstain from sex? Any options that could be both safe and pleasurable don’t seem to exist.
The fact that condom use is not mentioned by anyone in this scene, set in 1991, is shocking. Condoms feature barely at all in It’s a Sin, except in the crucial moment when Ritchie and Donald Bassett make the key decision not to use one, linked narratively (if not scientifically) to Ritchie’s eventual infection. ‘Safer sex’ was the landmark set of practices created by queer people themselves as an HIV prevention strategy that also allowed PWAs like Ritchie to continue to have sexual pleasure without infecting their partners. With rapidity, as the critic Douglas Crimp wrote in How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic, the majority of gay men ‘adjusted our sex lives to protect ourselves and others.’
Did some men like Ritchie continue to have unprotected sex after their diagnosis? Surely. Even today, people often respond to news of HIV diagnosis in unhealthy ways shaped by stigma and denial. I certainly did. In 2021, though, it’s frankly irresponsible to represent behavior like Ritchie’s as characteristic of PWAs. Yet that is precisely what Davies’s script does again and again. The series focuses on only two main characters who contract the virus: innocent Colin has sex once and dies, whilst sexually voracious Ritchie berates himself as a serial killer.
In an unconvincing development late in the series, Ritchie is granted a redemptive (and seemingly Platonic?) love affair with Ash (Nathaniel Curtis). The two don’t even kiss when they chastely profess their love in bed together, further reinforcing the puritanical implication that HIV infection, achieved through excess of pleasure, marks the end of all carnal satisfaction for those who get it.
As Ritchie lies dying and essentially imprisoned in his childhood bedroom, past pleasure is all he has to hang onto. He tells his shocked mother not to lie about how he died, because he really enjoyed himself. Though we don’t flash back cinematically this time to re-watch scenes of Ritchie’s sexual experiences, it certainly seems as if past images are flickering across his glazed-over eyes:
…I had so much fun, I had all those boys, I had hundreds of them — and I can remember every single one of them, some boy’s hair or his lips, the way he laughed at a joke, his bedroom, the stairs, his photographs, his face as he comes…
In this strange speech, which turns out to be his last, Ritchie challenges his mother’s attempts to cover up his sexuality but also seals the series’ persistent equation of sex and death. He ruefullly imagines some of his past shags who seem to have settled down: ‘Seeing him across a club six years later and thinking, Oh, that’s him, and he’s with someone and he looks happy and I think, Oh that’s nice, cos they were great.’ Ritchie waited too long to get cosily paired off. Russell T. Davies again offers us ironic circularity: Colin acquired the virus on his first sexual encounter, whereas Ritchie in Episode 1 passed up the chance of a stable relationship. There’s a hint that had he stuck consistently with Ash (the first man he ever slept with) he might he might have made it safely through the epidemic. Instead, he’s alone at the end, with countless erotic memories as the only compensation for the deadly price he’s paid.
It would be easier to dismiss this perverse sexual economy as the by-product of one self-hating character’s mind were it not for the mind-boggling scene that follows, in which the series’ saintly spokesperson, Jill, advances Ritchie’s same logic as a unified theory of the entire epidemic.
Smilingly embodied by actress Lydia West, the character of Jill is intended as a tribute to Davies’s real-life friend, who actually appears onscreen as fictional Jill’s mother. Since the series aired, #BeMoreJill has started trending, flattening out the admirable history of an actual AIDS advocate to a bland, meme-ified message of caring for others in an age of pervasive narcissism:
Many uninfected allies have supported and fought alongside people living with HIV, then and now. These have included large numbers of women and, very prominently, lesbian AIDS activists. It’s important to recognise their vital role in combatting the epidemic, but could Davies not have given them an avatar with any additional personality traits besides being caring? Also, in a show that presents itself as something like the long-overdue, definitive portrait of the British AIDS epidemic, does it not seem strange that the climactic confrontation scene — laying out its vision of the AIDS crisis as a whole — is played out between two uninfected women, whilst queer people and PWAs are either offstage or dead?
It’s hard to read Jill’s final tirade against Ritchie’s mum (Keeley Hawes) as anything other than Davies’s summary of the story of the AIDS, and it’s another whopper of simplistic, circular irony:
Actually, it is your fault, Mrs Tozer — all of this is your fault…
Right from the start. I don’t know what happened to you, to make that house so loveless, that’s why Ritchie grew up so ashamed of himself — and then he killed people! He was ashamed, he kept on being ashamed, he kept shame going by having sex with men, infecting them and then running away. Cos that’s what shame does, Valerie, it makes him think he deserves it.
The wards are full of men who think they deserve it. They are dying, and a little bit of them thinks ‘Yes, this is right, I brought this on myself, it’s my fault because the sex that I love is killing me.’
Out of loveless households came stunted men who didn’t know how to properly love and were therefore so compulsive, so ashamed, that they couldn’t care for their own kind but could only run away. Rather than unraveling the homophobic assumptions of Ritchie’s ‘serial killer’ psychology, Jill repeats it and directs it at a new target. The Denver Principles offer an essential recommendation for the uninfected population: do ‘not scapegoat people with AIDS, blame us for the epidemic or generalize about our lifestyles.’ Yet that is exactly what our ally Jill does when she psychologises all those ‘wards full of men who think they deserve it.’
If we accept Jill’s — and Davies’s — ventriloquism at face value, gay men with AIDS were forever crippled by their upbringing, incapable of agency or solidarity. In generalising this experience (whilst erasing the thousands of non-queer people who also died), Jill is engaging in the same form of reductive infantilisation as Ritchie’s mum. As with so much of It’s a Sin, this expression of sympathy is inexplicably entangled with dangerous pathologising of gay men’s behavior.
Like my first attempt to tell the story of my own infection, Davies’s story desperately seeks to assign villains and victims. Ritchie’s mother gets multiple dressing downs for her culpability (why not the Dad???) but Thatcher’s Conservative government gets off with just a bit of piss slipped into their coffee. Ascribing the spread of the virus to a lack of maternal love doesn’t even stand up to internal scrutiny within the series. Colin, for instance, came from a loving household but still felt the need to keep quiet about his sexual activity. Even if he and rugby shirt Ross had made beautiful, supportive love with full approval from their parents in 1981, the virus could’ve still been transmitted.
Perhaps the simplest yet still most difficult thing to accept about HIV is that, when divested of all moralising and psychologising, the virus is just a virus.
Flashback #3 / Flash-forward
A few friends have said they wish It’s a Sin had found a way to speed ahead to the present to represent advances in treatment that make HIV today a manageable condition (for those with access to medication). In the absence of that, HIV charities have been capitalising on the show’s popularity to advance updated messages about PrEP and U=U:
National HIV Testing Week, just concluded, saw a four-fold increase in requests for free at-home test kits, which many are attributing to It’s a Sin. (Although this is the first Testing Week since the COVID lockdown has forced everyone to stay home, so it’s not exactly possible to make one-to-one comparisons.) The national awareness of HIV/AIDS in Britain is surely being influenced by the show, but advocates and experts have had to fill in some of the blind spots in the script:
I’m lucky to live at a time when my HIV infection is not fatal, and to have access to a health service that makes antiretrovirals freely available. These advances are part of the reason I don’t fixate any longer on the story of my infection or blame the partner I contracted it from. I’ve been given the privilege of time, health and psycho-social support from the NHS and other sources to come to peace with that. I’m also happy to know a huge range of people living with HIV — activists and ‘normal people’ alike — who give me a sense of community that helps combat the deeply negative feelings that can and do still arise over my status.
Watching It’s a Sin did not inspire similar feelings of solidarity. I’d say it deliberately traffics in a sense of abjection about AIDS, as evidenced by online reactions that lead with comments like, ‘I’m a wreck,’ ‘I’m in tears,’ ‘I’m in bits’:
Watching It’s a Sin in a vacuum would leave almost anyone feeling depressed, demoralised and full of fear about gay sex. These issues are so ingrained in its storytelling that they could not be solved by a simple ‘That Was Then, This Is Now’ epilogue.
One could argue that the show is historical and its pessimism is simply accurate to what it felt like ‘back then.’ As we’ve seen, though, debates about PWAs being represented with dignity and agency date back to the start of the epidemic, as does the fight to preserve sex-positivity in the face of plague. For Davies not to represent those forces is a narrative choice, an interpretation of history that emphasises powerlessness, pain, isolation, shame and self-hatred over the countervailing forces of solidarity and communal struggle. Moving beyond the shame of the those years will only come after de-programming ourselves from a moralism of pleasure; it was then and is now possible to be a person with HIV and continue to have hot, safe sex.
To show a way toward that type of representation, I want to cite one more flashback, from the recent French film 120BPM. At its heart is a sero-discordant relationship between two young activists, Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart), who is infected, and Nathan (Arnaud Valois), who is not. Having cruised one another in an ACT-UP meeting and protested together, they eventually end up in bed. In one of the film’s more accurate sexual observations, Nathan is too tired and drunk to stay hard with a condom on, so they engage in a bit of pillow talk that eventually gets round to the ‘How’d you get it?’ story.
Like Colin in It’s a Sin, the character of Sean was infected from his first sexual encounter, with a closeted maths teacher. The flashback to that experience is handled elegantly, without a cut, as the camera pans over Sean’s body and his first lover appears to be in bed with him and Nathan, giving Sean a rim job and fucking him. This is the ‘primal scene’ of transmission that we’ve become accustomed to seeing, but it’s presented here with complexity and even eroticism. Nathan, new to the politics of HIV, suggests that Sean’s older lover is at fault for infecting him. ‘You can’t split responsibility,’ Sean replies. ‘When you infect someone, you’re 100% responsible. And when you get infected too.’ Everyone With AIDS Is Innocent.
The scene is notable for its politics, its realism and, frankly, its heat. After sharing intimacy and a bit of political education, Sean and Nathan proceed to fuck (with a condom) and it’s pretty damn sexy.
Not every fictional character living with AIDS or HIV needs to be a perfect exemplar of right-on political messaging. In my role as a theatre-maker myself, I’m struggling with how to represent my own 21st century HIV experience in ways that feel true to the psychological complexity of life with an undetectable virus. And yet, we must think critically about which episodes, characters and psychologies have been selected to represent the history of the epidemic. As AIDS activist Sarah Schulman has said, ‘The AIDS Story has been distorted from the beginning, in part because of the chaos of figuring out what the hell was going on, in part because of bias, but now these distortions are being entrenched.’ (Her new political history Let the Record Show looks like essential reading.)
It’s a Sin is a painful account of some very shame-filled characters. It is a work of penance and mourning from a writer only recently coming to terms with his ongoing feelings of survivor’s guilt. For that reason, it may elicit a powerful emotional response in some audiences, but we must recognise how specific and subjective its ‘untold stories’ actually are. Yes, the preponderance of AIDS narratives do focus on affluent white American men. Audiences seeking out British stories of people living with HIV from the 80s and 90s should dive into resources like the National HIV Story Trust, Season 2 of the incredible podcast The Log Books or the new Instagram account Black And Gay Back in the Day.
However much Davies’s fiction has been birthed from real feelings of guilt and confusion, it would be a shame to let those feelings replicate once again.
And it would be a sin for our AIDS education to end here.