Nine important lessons It’s A Sin teaches us about the AIDS crisis

Mortgages were denied to people who had taken a HIV test

It has been widely accepted that It’s A Sin has taught us more about HIV and AIDS than any sexual health lesson ever attempted to. Equally, in a mere five hours, the series taught us more about the 1980s AIDS crisis than any of the many history lessons we attended at school.

More people have died from AIDS-related illnesses since the start of the epidemic than there were fatalities in World War One. So why is there so little worldwide understanding of HIV, the AIDS crisis and the incredible medical developments we’ve had since? Why have there been thousands of films about the World Wars and yet only a handful on the AIDS pandemic?

Russel T Davies has finally educated us all on a devastating part of our past and present that people are still trying to brush under the carpet. Here are some of the key lessons the series teaches us about the AIDS crisis.

AIDS started being noticed after a group of young gay men died in New York

The rumours that were spreading at the beginning of It’s A Sin about a group of young gay men who all died of a “cancer” in the US was very much accurate. Although HIV is believed to have originated in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo around 1920, it wasn’t until the 1980s that data around how many people were infected with HIV started to be taken.

In 1981, cases of a rare lung infection called pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) were found in five young, previously healthy gay men in Los Angeles. At the same time, there were reports of a group of men in New York and California with an unusually aggressive cancer named Kaposi’s Sarcoma.

People with AIDS or a history of HIV tests couldn’t get a mortgage

The scene where Richie lies about his sexuality and HIV test so he can get a mortgage on the Pink Palace was also based on discriminatory laws in place at the time. Before signing for a mortgage, people actually had to state they were straight and had never had a HIV test.

In fact, it wasn’t until between 2003 and 2007 that any legal protection against homophobic discrimination in housing, employment and the provision of goods and services were introduced.

The illness was believed to be a ‘gay disease’

The belief that AIDS and HIV could only infect gay people, particularly gay men, was so deep-rooted the syndrome was initially called gay-related immune deficiency (GRID). Although the names “gay cancer” and “gay disease” were thrown around casually it was actually labelled a ‘gay-related’ illness by scientists and medical professionals.

People believed it could be passed on by touch or through the air

At the beginning of the crisis, it was known that HIV was passed on through sex (initially believed to just be sex between men). However, as the numbers increased and reports of AIDS in children grew, it was hinted that it could be passed via casual contact, food, water, air or surfaces.

As early as September 1983, transmission by casual contact, food, water, air or surfaces had been ruled out and yet this prejudice continued. In 1987, Princess Diana shook the hands of an AIDS patient in front of the media, and spoke about the misconceptions around how HIV was passed on – it was only then that unfair attitudes began to shift.

Patients were locked away in isolation rooms

The experience of Henry and Colin being locked in rooms all by themselves was a very real experience for a lot of AIDS patients in the last moments of their lives. Following rumours that the disease was airborne or passed on through skin-on-skin contact, even doctors didn’t want to be near their patients.

Many people watching It’s A Sin who worked in hospitals during the 80s confirmed that even after these rumours were debunked, the cruel treatment of the patients continued. One Twitter post said: “As a student nurse I worked on the first AIDS ward in London and #ItsASin absolutely shows how it was in London in the 80s; the carefree partying, the stigma of AIDS, fear, the isolation on the wards, gowns, masks and gloves to enter a patients room – sound familiar?”

Another wrote: “Found the hospital scenes with Henry very emotional. As a nurse then, I heard horror stories about nursing care for guys with #AIDS Like the toast diet: could slide toast under the side room door without having to go in. Such sadness.”

There really was a believed link between H words

When Richie attempts to debunk the illness, he argues how ridiculous it is that it seemed to only infect groups of people beginning with H – homosexuals, haemophiliacs and Haitians.

Remarkably, this was actually a belief at the beginning of the crisis. Before people realised HIV was passed on through blood, blood donations weren’t being tested. Therefore, haemophiliacs (people with a genetic disorder that impairs the body’s ability to make blood clots) who need blood transfusions were contracting HIV, even people who hadn’t had sex. There were also a few records of Haitians in the US with AIDS so that further fuelled this ridiculous link between H words.

21 used to be the age of consent for sex between two men

Richie hits his 21st birthday and is teased for “finally reaching the age of consent”. This was because in 1967, under the Sexual Offences Act, the age for consent between men was set to 21, even though it was 16 between men and women. It was only lowered to 18 in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, and then to 16 in 2000. The excuse for the higher consent age for gay men was based on the notion that “young men are seduced and corrupted by older men”.

The dark marks were a common symptom of late stages of AIDS

Many of the patience in the series had dark marks all over their skin. This was a common sign that someone was in the late stages of AIDS. The marks are caused by Kaposi’s Sarcoma (KS) which is a form of cancer that occurs on the skin and in mucous membranes. KS appears as purplish or dark lesions on the skin. Because of the weakened immune system caused by AIDS, KS can spread quickly to other parts of the body, including internal organs.

That AIDS can affect the brain and cause so many different conditions, most commonly cancer

Like with most of the understanding and education around AIDS, the symptoms are barely known. Just like Covid-19, the AIDS crisis was a pandemic affecting millions of people and yet anyone of any age knows the three most common symptoms of coronavirus, but even now people struggle to name the symptoms of AIDS-related illnesses.

Among the most common symptoms are cancer. Although cancer can’t be “caught”, it spreads very quickly when AIDS patient’s immune systems start to breakdown.

However, the list is vast. For Colin, it was an infection in his brain. When the immune system starts to breakdown, all forms of infections and viruses are able to spread incredibly rapidly because our antibodies are no longer effectively fighting them. Therefore, the symptoms of AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) shows up in almost all forms of illnesses that your immune system is no longer able to fight against.

Related stories recommended by the writer:

• 32 million died in the AIDS pandemic but our remembrance is pitiful

It’s A Sin true story: Who was Jill Nalder and how accurate was her character?

• ‘I’m healthy in every sense of the word’: Young men on living life as HIV positive