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Demonised, criminalised and shamed — life as a gay man in the 80s

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B ack in 1990, hitch-hiking somewhere up the M6, a friend and I were picked up by a cockney lorry driver carrying a wagonload of oranges from Seville.  We were two 19-year-old Northern gay boys, knee-deep in the thrills of a new decade. His name was Harry and he had all the patter. I can…
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ack in 1990, hitch-hiking somewhere up the M6, a friend and I were picked up by a cockney lorry driver carrying a wagonload of oranges from Seville. 

We were two 19-year-old Northern gay boys, knee-deep in the thrills of a new decade. His name was Harry and he had all the patter. I can still picture his craggy, almost archetypal East End face, fuzzy mutton chops and pork pie hat, as if three decades ago were yesterday.

After a couple of hours chatting amiably, Harry offered to buy us breakfast at Lancaster Services. As we sat down over a Little Chef full English, he took off his hat and promptly burst into a flood of unexpected tears. Through the wet face of a thousand ‘sorry’s, he explained that only a week earlier he had buried his partner of 25 years. He’d died quickly of pneumonia in the last stages of his Aids battle. More ‘sorry’s. The trip to Seville was Harry’s first job since leaving his bedside. More tears.  

I had a startling reminder of that trip while watching It’s A Sin, the arresting new Russell T Davies drama that details the lives of a gay flat-share, set against the first decade of the HIV/Aids epidemic. Other personal recollections piled on top of it. The year before Harry, I’d met the first gay couple I ever knew. They had a flatmate dying upstairs each time I visited, a domestic set-up I assumed happened in every gay household right up until I found one that didn’t. A couple of years after Harry, a lovely lad who’d been two years below me at school and who’d ended up working as a teenage rent boy, died in the Aids ward of Monsall Hospital, North Manchester, shortly before his 21st birthday. Another friend told me that every time he signed off a phone call to his mum, she’d whisper, ‘look after yourself’, in such a foreboding tone that he translated it as ‘Please, don’t catch Aids.’ Davies’ drama is full to bursting with the emotional retinue of these minutiae, each scene pricking a sharp new memory back to life. Just because they don’t look exactly the same as our personal experiences doesn’t mean that every gay person who lived through the Aids crisis won’t feel their full storytelling heft.  

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Ties that bind: Nathaniel Curtis and Olly Alexander as Ash and Ritchie in It’s A Sin

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In what is already being hailed as his television masterpiece — the drama Davies himself has said he has been waiting a lifetime to write — the brilliant television auteur tackles it all, head on. He hands over the tempestuous lead storyline to Years and Years singer Olly Alexander as Ritchie Tozer, one of five flatmates flung together across class, race and confidence in a cheap London flat in the early Eighties. Tozer has arrived in the capital to study law, the easiest ruse to get away from his repressed home life on the Isle of Wight and live a full gay life. Each episode shifts forward a couple of years, all the more effective to maximise the accumulative devastation piling up around the big disease with the little name.  

For my gay generation and that 10 years either side of it, death and desire made unlikely but unavoidable twins. Davies draws from the pairing a patchwork story drawn from direct personal experience. The government Aids leaflets passed through every British letterbox (SILENCE = DEATH) and the tombstone television ads shown in the commercial break of Coronation Street (DON’T DIE OF IGNORANCE) were as much a feature of my early teenage life as the theme tune to Dallas or Blockbusters. The then health minister, Norman Fowler, had instigated those government campaigns despite prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s warnings against them. She told him scathingly that if they went ahead, he would likely become known as ‘the Minister for Aids’.  

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It’s A Sin traces the virus from our canny group of friends first hearing of ‘the gay cancer’ through several stages of denial, acceptance, panic and loss. Little vignettes turn into something huge and frequently heart-breaking. The cast and crew runs at all their material like a charging bull, andrenalised by the urgency of finally unfolding some of the realities involved in coming out between 1983 and 1993.  

A quick recap. For most of the Eighties and a considerable portion of the Nineties, gay men were Britain’s enemy within. We were scandalised by the tabloid newspapers, ostracised from the church, banned from being taught in schools, invisible in competitive sports, vilified on television and frequently targeted by the police. Our physical intimacy was deemed imprisonable under the age of 21, a tardy gap of five years on our heterosexual brothers and sisters. Legally recognised partnerships between one another were still decades away and lavender marriages still routinely advocated by the rich and famous. We couldn’t adopt children or serve in the military. Our one representative in the Houses of Parliament was Chris Smith, Labour MP for Islington South, later Tony Blair’s Minister for Sport and Culture. During the third Thatcher victory of 1987, Smith was targeted routinely with a doorstep campaign that explicitly suggested gay men were unfit to serve their constituents, not by the Tory Party but his neighbouring Liberal Democrats. Good sense prevailed and he won by an increased margin. But the Aids epidemic was top of a whole shopping list of institutionally designated prejudices gay men walked into the minute they told themselves, then their loved ones, ‘I am gay.’  

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The cast of It’s A Sin Omari Douglas,  Nathaniel Curtis, Olly Alexander, Callum Scott Howells and Lydia West;

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There is a shared gay epithet I heard often during my first active gay years, a notion passed down through generations in real life and swapped in casual conversation around a dinner table in It’s A Sin; that if Aids were a disease that had primarily happened to straight men it would’ve been sorted out in no time. Aids stories would have been shared with all the solemnity and gravitas of those gleaned from the Second World War. Yet It’s A Sin is the first major British episodic drama to tell this human story from the inside, of what Aids did to decimate a generation of gay men. It could not fall into a more pertinent moment. Thirty-seven years and an estimated 33 million deaths worldwide since its identification, there is still no HIV vaccine, lacing the recent race to crown a coronavirus prophylactic a bittersweet victory in some quarters.  

Aids broke our generation only to strengthen, then fortify us. We galvanised ourselves with mercurial community resolve. Sex became as confusingly thrilling as putting your hand directly into the fire or abseiling down a cliff without a harness. As Davies points out (without judgement) some of our shared response to safe sex messaging was to simply hold our breaths, hoping for the best.  

Aids turned us into gym bunnies to disguise the dissipation, drama queens to quantify the theatre, depressives to honour the macabre, drug dustbins to squash the pain and political warriors to aggressively reset the social justice dial. Our pride marches skipped to a more militant beat because they had to. Our nightclubs were better than yours, because every night out was likely somebody’s last. Those who spoke out for us publicly, like Madonna and Elizabeth Taylor, were venerated like holy deities.

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Omari Douglas as Roscoe

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The death toll mounted, taking public scalps of those in and out of a closet medicine did not distinguish between. We lost Middle England’s living room favourites Russell Harty, Kenny Everett and Freddie Mercury; counter-culture titans Leigh Bowery, Derek Jarman and Tony De Vit; international giants of their individual arts, Rock Hudson, Sylvester and then Keith Haring. The reason we remember Princess Diana holding the hands of Aids patients in the saintly Portobello Aids respite resource, The London Lighthouse, is because nobody else did, turning her prophetically into the exact inverse of Boris Johnson at the beginning of the Covid-19 crisis. Davies’ story is infused by all that mad, chaotic, energised urgency, the dedication so many wore like a suit of armour to carry on regardless.  

What Davies pinpoints is the shame doubled down on anyone with Aids back then. The lies that families told their neighbours, friends, kith and kin to disguise an already stigmatised way to die. The funeral directors who refused to bury our bodies. The hospitals that sent us packing from our loved ones’ wards. The police that criminalised and press that demonised us. Without sugar-coating any of our habits, without making paltry excuses for the draconian morality of the day, he picks out his patients with a keen eye for their emblematic worth. Underneath the symbolism, they are recognisably flesh and blood.

For the generations who lived through Aids as it wreaked most havoc, it’s tempting to think that this generational shame has disappeared. The preventative HIV medication, PrEP, was made widely available last year across the NHS after a long, hard slog from campaigners looking to even out the playing field of our healthcare. The ‘undetectable = untransmittable’ campaign to destigmatise HIV has made great headway within the community.  

Yet for every step forward there are two back. These massive medical advancements are counterbalanced by the doorstepping of the family of Gareth Thomas, informed by a tabloid journalist of his HIV diagnosis before the Welsh Rugby hero was able to speak to them on his own terms. Times change. Some things stay the same.

By the end of this weekend, with all five episodes shared on Channel 4’s catch-up portal, It’s A Sin will have entered the pantheon of classic arts that responded to the aids crisis. Russell T Davies, Olly Alexander and the team in front of and behind the camera will become modern heroes in an ongoing story that has defined our times, the toast of those for whom trauma became a tacit feature of everyday life. They are the first Class of 2021. It’s A Sin exists in a place beyond television entertainment. This one is for all the Harrys out there, new and old. 

The great AIDS narratives

The film that many see  as the precursor to 1993’s Philadelphia, the first major Hollywood endeavour to trace the effects of Aids, over a Fourth of July weekend in Fire Island.

Derek Jarman’s experimental film masterpiece, voice overlaid on a single blue screen.

Blockbuster MTV-era stars rework the songs of Cole Porter to raise funds directly for the international Aids charity, turning Neneh Cherry’s tough reading of ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ into an unofficial anthem to the cause. 

David France takes all his work as a young journalist covering the early years of the epidemic and turns it into a patchwork documentary of devastating effectiveness.

Tom Hanks plays the lawyer with an incurable diagnosis in a ground-breaking first, Oscar-nominated tract on HIV.  

Edmund White’s memoir of his entrée into New York forms a startling, personal parenthesis to the city, pre and post Aids.  

Matthew Lopez’s ambitious two-part theatre extravaganza retells EM Forster’s Howards End as his origins of gay history. The first part closes with one of the most evocative, ghostly processions ever seen on stage.  

The most iconic of the early New York Aids activists, Larry Kramer made enemies to make friends with his stark stage depiction of the early years of the disease, due to be revived this spring at The National.  

The unlikely friendship of a young graffiti artist and first-gen HIV survivor in an East Village apartment block forms the basis of Tim Murphy’s compelling book, a brilliant evocation of how HIV and drug cultures collide.

Subtitled ‘A Gay Fantasia on National Themes’, Tony Kushner’s multi award-winning stage play, later TV film, is a two-part epic triumph that traced Aids and the 1980s with metaphysical flair.

A 2011 Sundance film festival documentary smash pieced together from heartbreaking first-person testimonies in San Francisco from the peak of the Aids crisis.  

Russell T Davies’ US television counterpart, Ryan Murphy, chooses the Vogueing ballroom culture of the late Eighties to backdrop his story of Aids in America.

Director Robin Campillo’s forensic, militant and inspired depiction of the beginning of the Parisian arm of the Aids activism network, ACT-UP!  

Tom Eubanks’ wonderful book chronicles the  Aids wing  at New York’s West Village hospital in the context of its historical precedents.

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