‘It’s a Sin’- COVID-19 and the AIDS Pandemic of the 1980s

This blog post is by our undergraduate student Joseph Price.

Image from It’s A Sin

The recent Channel 4 drama series ‘It’s a Sin’ directed by Russel T Davies offers a terrifying and heartbreaking insight into the experiences of gay men in the 1980s. The series follows the lives of a group of friends where the audience live through stages of denial, ignorance, regret and grief. Though the show provides a multitude of avenues that could be explored, for this blog at least I’ll unpack the emotional scenes that strike a great resonance with the events of 2020.

Following the one year anniversary of Boris Johnson announcing a hopeful 3 week lockdown to battle the rising curve of Coronavirus cases, memories of fear, moral panic and the absence of toilet roll came flooding back. The nation was ultimately brought to a halt in an act of unison with the rest of the world to combat a virus which was ripping through populations. Together we scampered into our households, our neighbours became strangers, our friends were only friends from afar or through a screen and your own family became a risk to yourself. But, like the British soldiers of 1914, the UK gripped tightly onto the dream of hope that it would be over in a matter of months. Hope that their government would come through and rescue them. And hope of a vaccine. The feeling of the unknown was terrifying to say the least but I can’t begin to comprehend what it was like to be a gay man in the 80s watching your friends die in silence, not knowing if you were next.

40 years ago, in the thick fog of hostility and homophobia that surrounded the world, the first cases of ‘Gay-Related Immune Deficiency’ (GRID) were identified in America. From there it travelled into Europe and to the UK and a year later Terry Higgins died and the Terry Higgins Trust was set up. GRID was then renamed ‘Acquired Immune DeficiencySyndrome’ or AIDS.

From those who were dying from or had been diagnosed with HIV (after a test had been developed in 1985) a great sense of shame seems to have been a significant side effect. Shame that perhaps not only the individual had to confront the fact that he was homosexual but of stigma both inside and outside the gay community of being labelled a ‘Slut’. In an incredibly emotional scene, Colin, who had only had sex with one man and contracted HIV reassured his mother that he was ‘not dirty’. I suppose similarities could be drawn out to those who were diagnosed with COVID-19 in the early stages of the lockdown. Some felt that those who caught it were ‘irresponsible’ or ‘breaking lockdown rules’, you must have done something wrong to have caught it. You couldn’t post anything that perhaps wasn’t following to the guidelines because you knew you would be judged so you kept it hidden away. Likewise, in ‘It’s a Sin’, Gregory/Gloria only tells Jill out of pure necessity since he is too scared to go shopping for himself as he’s not sure if he’s contagious- sound familiar?

Obviously people at the time didn’t know what this ‘disease’ could do or how it could be spread. The scenes where Jill cares for Gregory are very poignant. She wears gloves up to her elbows, wipes down surfaces, maintains a distance and scrubs herself in the shower diligently after every visit. Need I mention the policy of keeping a 2 metre distance and washing hands that we were told. Though Jill was safe from catching HIV, her concern is understandable and is perhaps a memory to those who had friends suffering from the virus in the 80s. AIDS patients were treated as prisoners, especially in the smaller cities and towns. Locked away in wards, unable to see anyone, unable to use the same toilet out of fear of this contagion.

Although there are those who question why men didn’t just stop having sex when they heard about it or why they didn’t use a condom every time they had intercourse, and hypothetically and retrospectively I can see why they would think this. However, if we take our experience in this pandemic, perhaps we should not be too quick to judge. The virus was certainly here by January 2020, cases were popping up but it was definitely on the peripheral of conversation, just as AIDS was. Yet serious measures weren’t taken till the end of March, our own Prime Minister admitted to shaking hands to the patients in the Corona virus wards and face masks weren’t made mandatory until the 24th July! Although there’s no competition as to which government acted better in response to a deadly virus (since ours actually did something), the idea that gay people didn’t help the situation is slightly hypocritical. I guess that’s part of the human condition, to look back and say you would have done things differently when the truth is you probably wouldn’t have and this pandemic has shown this.

A safe banana! Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Just as it was inconceivable that there could be a virus that only targets gay men and so reinforce the homophobic rhetoric of the time, it was likewise inconceivable that a 21st century global power state could be so heavily hit with one. This blog has by no means meant to battle the two pandemics but has been done in an attempt to gain perspective. When Looking back in history the most frequent comment is ‘that must have been awful’, but now with the series and our experiences we can look back and appreciate how they must have felt. We have friends, family and the government. But some gay men in the AIDS pandemic had no one.

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