The Devastating Power and Beauty of Queer Storytelling

CW: homophobia

Channel 4’s It’s A Sin hit our screens in late January – a hugely successful mini-series following the experiences of a group of queer friends in London, living through the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s and early 1990s. Since the show aired, the demand for HIV testing kits has quadrupled in the UK. This not only illustrates the power of queer storytelling, but also the ongoing importance of raising awareness of HIV/AIDS in modern times.

The dangerous rhetoric that HIV is a problem of the past needs to be combatted, as at-risk groups continue to miss out on crucial testing. For example, women are twice as likely as men to not get tested, despite comprising a third of the HIV population in the UK, while BAME people are also under-represented in those being tested. This highlights the work that still needs to be done concerning the discussion surrounding gender and race in the LGBTQ+ community, stressing just how important the achievements of It’s A Sin are. In the UK, the government is aiming for there to be no new HIV cases by 2030, a target hugely helped by what campaigners are calling the “It’s A Sin effect”. Liam Beattie, a campaigner at the Terrence Higgins Trust, said that he had “never seen such a national conversation about HIV”, noting that after It’s A Sin aired, they experienced the “biggest number of [test] orders [they had] ever had”. 

However, not only does the discussion need to continue to raise awareness concerning HIV-testing in modern times, but we also need to direct it towards the experiences of those who were diagnosed in the 1980s and continue to live with HIV. We need to peel back the blood-soaked bandages of shame that plastered the LGBTQ+ community for decades and start listening to those who spent their 20s attending funeral after funeral, burying their friends and partners, as the world ignored and vilified them. Even today, we continue to isolate those living with HIV by upholding the ignorant narrative that HIV is a problem of the past, and so this needs to be changed if we are to truly begin to compensate the victims of our shameful history.

When discussing HIV, we often rely on a flawed understanding of HIV medication, taking part in conversations through a lens of misinformation. This flawed understanding comes from the inaccurate notion that those living with HIV simply have to take a few pills a day, and as a result they can continue to live their lives, unencumbered. The word “undetectable” is often used to describe a HIV-positive individual on medication that has resulted in a reduction of the virus in their bloodstream to the point where it is no longer detectable in blood tests. This means they cannot pass on HIV through sex and so the general understanding is that they can continue to live their lives, uninhibited. Although this is a medically important and helpful term, and may be the experience of many, for many others it is simply not the case. It can therefore be used, instead, to give insight into the ignorant attitude society has adopted regarding those living with HIV.

HIV has loosened its iron-grip on the youth, and now lurks among the middle-aged – alongside loneliness and depression. The AIDS Community Research Initiative of America carried out a survey in 2006 on New Yorkers with HIV and found that half of the HIV-positive population were aged 50 or older, of which nearly 3/4s lived alone, and 2/3s of the population overall were moderately or severely depressed. The experiences of this population – as well as their doctors – tell us that, although they no longer fear death by AIDS, what they do fear are the health complications that arise because of their life-saving medication, hailed by society as a faultless miracle. In reality, common side-effects of HIV medication include appetite loss, fatigue, high cholesterol, depression and anxiety, nausea and vomiting, sleeping problems, as well as kidney, liver, or pancreas damage. Meaning that if they aren’t suffering from the direct impacts of HIV, they may still suffer from the medication used to treat it. Additionally, a study found that many people with HIV refuse to use senior health centres fearing discrimination, feeling unwelcome as the services are primarily aimed at younger sufferers. This demonstrates that the HIV-positive population is suffering from not only the very medication that society claims eliminated the HIV crisis, but also a crippling sense of dejection at the hands of ageism. This all comes as a result of a world that is rotten to the core with a hangover of homophobia, too afraid to acknowledge it.

What language such as “undetectable” truly seems to imply, is not that HIV is undetectable to those living with it, but instead, that it is no longer a danger to society as a whole – it is no longer transmittable, and so it is no longer a problem to those without HIV. What ensues is a feeling that those suffering from it should simply be grateful for what modern medicine has so graciously done for them – that they should be grateful that society has so admirably decided to stop killing them.

It’s A Sin doesn’t just shine a light on the HIV/AIDS crisis – it also exposes the true insidious nature of homophobia as a whole, and how it exacerbated the crippling effects of the virus by isolating the LGBTQ+ community through shame. The creator of It’s A Sin, Russell T. Davies, powerfully clarifies the importance of campaigning for queer story-telling in modern times, stating that “we’re sitting here with a Tory government […] who are monsters. I think less than half of our current cabinet voted for gay marriage […] So you can’t relax on this stuff and it’s not just reminding people as a history lesson. It’s reminding us that […] these rights are hard won and easily lost”. He further describes his passion for casting queer actors as queer characters, stating “you not only get authenticity; you get revenge for 100 years of straight-washing”. And so with this in mind, it is no wonder It’s A Sin has gripped the hearts of the nation. Russell T Davies has taken a community previously ravaged by shame and showcased their devastating power and beauty with unparalleled pride.

A national campaign rolling out PrEP (pre-exposure Prophylaxis – a preventative medicine used by those at risk of HIV) began in October last year and has ensured their services have remained open throughout lockdown through online consultations and remote testing. To find out more about PrEP, visit: https://www.tht.org.uk/our-work/our-campaigns/make-prep-available

To find out more about test kits for HIV, visit: https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/testing.html

Image courtesy of Clem Onojeghuo

Categories: Article, Opinion

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