It’s a Sin: My experience of working through the AIDS crisis

As part of National HIV Testing Week, Brook’s Assistant Director of Operations Jackie Redding discusses the hit Channel 4 show and reflects on her own work as an HIV counsellor in the 1980s.

Within the first half hour of episode one of It’s a Sin, I was fully invested in the lives of the protagonists. I cared about what happened to them and I was routing for them, even while knowing that Russell T Davies was never going to sugarcoat this, so chances are they wouldn’t all make the final credits. I laughed, I cried, and I found myself tumbling down memory lane… 

I worked in the HIV sector in the time that It’s A Sin is set, when things were really bad. I worked for Terrence Higgins Trust and similar organisations for 16 years in a variety of roles including as a HIV counsellor all the way up to Director of Services. I even won a Pride award once for ‘Services to Gay Men’ – how cool is that?! 

I was a bit of a Jill, I needed to know as much as possible and I needed to help. 

I sat up all night and read the first National AIDS Manual, which was enormous – 3 inches thick of A4 – no online in those days (although if you got it out on the train you were guaranteed a table for 4 all to yourself).

During that time, I shared the happiness of young men who moved away, ran away, or even had a weekend away that allowed that to ‘jump out the closet’ and for a short space of time were able to be young, free, single, and living a life where they could be themselves with all the excitement that brings. That was until the harsh reality of the impact of HIV came calling on them, their friends, and their lovers.  

I worked with young gay men petrified to tell their parents they were gay. They’d ask me when was the best time to break the news, and I’d say there’s no good time but doing it straight after Christmas lunch probably isn’t the best idea (it happened!).  

Families sometimes got all the news at once – “Hi Mum, I’m gay, I’m HIV positive, I’ve got AIDS, I am going to die”.  

Some of these men’s fears turned out to be unfounded and families rallied around them. Others found themselves beaten, shunned and homeless. I spoke to families who had denied their sons were gay, denied their sons had AIDS – they told so many lies to hide the truth and that made the grieving twice as hard. 

Some people didn’t want AIDS on their death certificate – it was pneumonia, it was cancer, it was anything but AIDS. Others were so ‘out’ about their status and had lobbied for years, so they only wanted AIDS on their death certificate. We had strict instructions: I don’t care if I get run over it needs to say ‘AIDS related Road Traffic Accident’. 

I visited men on the AIDS wards in big hospitals, they were usually the oldest and tattiest wards, with dingy paint and peeling paper. I spent many an hour listening to men complaining it was going to be the lack of some reasonable décor that would be the death of them, not the virus, and promising to come back and decorate as soon as they were well enough – they never were. 

And the funerals, so many funerals. They varied from organised by the family, with the partner who he had loved and supported and who had looked after him for years, decades even, excluded completely or relegated to the seat at the back, reserved for distant friends. Then there were funerals organised by other gay men, with wholly (in) appropriate disco tracks, horse drawn carriages and lots of fun. We never quite worked out if it was a tribute or an insult to ‘cop off’ at a funeral. .

‘Lives cut short’ we said, every World AIDS Day as we read the names a list a that kept getting longer. I raged inside, and I raged outside. 

HIV charities didn’t always agree – too much heart, too much emotion, way too much passion. There was a lot of tears and a fair bit of shouting and stropping off. But what we did do well was look after each other because the hate from outside was just too big. We were good at hugging – it was compulsory – there was no problem or fallout that couldn’t be made better with a hug. We hugged everyone, every day, just to challenge the stigma of touching people with HIV.  

The events of the last year will have reminded HIV survivors from that time of when they last felt untouchable and of the importance of touching each other – something we have been robbed of for the last year.  

As someone who still works in sexual health, I’m glad to see the changes that have occurred since then, not just in terms of the huge advancements in HIV treatment and prevention but also in the stigma surrounding sexual health in general. Back then, contraception (or ‘family planning’) was handled separately to STIs, which were dealt with in a hidden away part of the hospital that was always hard to find. It was all very clinical and people were scared to get tested, not least because they expected to be told off. 

HIV made people talk about sex and risk in a way they never had before.

HIV clinics became a place that gay men could go and not be made to feel bad for the way they lived their lives (in most places at least) and slowly that respectful service became more the norm. It’s certainly something we champion at Brook. Having a sexual health need is a good thing, it means you are responsible. 

To Russell T Davies, thank you for sharing your life experiences and your talent and for allowing us a chance to remember, and giving a whole new generation of people a window into a particular part of our history. But my biggest thank you goes to all the men whose lives I was part of, even if it was for far too short a time. 

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