‘I lost a lot of friends’: What uni during the 1980s AIDS crisis was really like

‘You would be in a nightclub and the police would come in with torches’

It’s A Sin showed us the lives of five young friends in London, exploring their queer identities and the raging AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Since the beginning of the epidemic, 32 million people have died to the virus which stems from an initial diagnosis of HIV.

AIDS was dubbed by some at the time as a “gay cancer”, and the crisis happened under the watch of notoriously homophobic Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. Queer people at the time were subject to prejudice, stigma and shame, as seen in It’s A Sin.

The 1980s was not a safe time for LGBTQ+ people, as we see in the hit Channel 4 series. The Tab spoke to queer men who lived through the crisis, about what it was actually like:

‘You were supposed to go away and hide your AIDS’

Stewart at a party in 1987 at the heart of crisis

Stewart studied drama at the University of Liverpool from 1989-1992 and said the AIDS epidemic impacted him throughout the 90s. Stewart tragically lost an ex-partner to AIDS.

Stewart grew up in Kingston upon Thames and describes his upbringing as as “almost like a joke for a representative of suburbia”. Growing up in suburbia and studying drama resonated with Stewart who observed parallels between his life and that of It’s A Sin protagonist Ritchie Tozer.

Stewart remembers throughout his time at university, despite not getting overly involved in student politics, it was hard not to be queer and political because of the societal “witch hunt” against gay people throughout the AIDS crisis.

The epidemic began to impact Stewart in 1989 when his boyfriend asked him to come to London with him to say goodbye to a dying friend who had been disowned by his family for having HIV. Stewart accompanied his boyfriend because he knew he was going to encounter AIDS at some stage and felt lucky it had not yet impacted him.

He says: “My conclusion after my teenage years was that HIV and AIDS were going to be a big part of my life. I knew I was gay and so I knew it was going to be a part of my life and there was the potential at 19 where I thought, I might die of this too”.

Stewart remembers a party he attended with a different boyfriend named Greg where he had his first encounter with Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS) lesions. These are a form of cancer caused by very advanced HIV, and are the red or purple skin lesions we see on characters in It’s A Sin.

Stewart pictured with pals Vicki, Neil and Stu in 1989

Whilst It’s A Sin may have been the first introduction to KS for many of us today, Stewart said this was something which you would have hidden in the 1980s because of the witch hunt around HIV patients at the time.

He said: “This Queen came down the spiral staircase with KS lesions all over her face. Literally all the chatter in the clinking of glasses stopped oh and this Queen came down the stairs and you could hear could actually hear the hinges of peoples jaws falling over because this Queen was like ‘I’m not hiding. You bitches are here drinking champagne and having a nice life and you think that I should stay at home, so you don’t have to look at this face? Look at it’. She came down the stairs and people were gossiping and horrified because you weren’t supposed to.

“You were supposed to go away and hide your AIDS”.

However, it was a few years later when the realities of the epidemic caught up with Stewart, who was now editor for QX Magazine, when he found out news of his ex-boyfriend Greg. Stewart said: “A guy came in to place an obituary. I was typing out I was like ‘Greg?! Is that Greg the stripper?’ And he’s like yeah. So Greg died aged 38 of AIDS and that’s how I found out he died, typing in his obituary”.

‘I lost a lot of friends’

Professor Chris Townsend is bisexual and graduated in 1981 when “AIDS was only a distant rumour”. Chris is now a Royal Holloway academic.

Chris said it wasn’t until the early/mid-90s when the crisis began to impact him personally, when at this stage he “lost a lot of friends to AIDS”. Given how socially normalised gay shaming was, Chris said a positive diagnosis led to a “horrible way of coming out” for some of his friends.

‘Police would come into clubs to make sure there was no kissing’

Dr. David Hughes is a psychiatrist who studied medicine at the University of Leeds from 1981-86. David says AIDS started to be discussed in his second and third year of uni. The atmosphere of targeting LGBTQ+ people at the time of the endemic had a massive impact on David as he didn’t come out until 1986 when he had graduated and qualified as a doctor. The “stigma around AIDS” as David describes it, also influenced his decision not to come out to his parents.

David wasn’t the only who strategically chose not to come out. He recalls there were 180 medical students, “and I think there was only one person who was openly gay”.

David says he “was known as being gay” as he was “the only gay psychiatrist in Leeds for quite a long time”.

Stewart pictured with friends Sally and Siobhán in 1988

However, things may have improved since the 1980s but the legacy of gay shaming is still impacting David’s colleagues. “I know a surgeon who is my age and has still never came out because he said he would have never got on in surgery”, he says.

David says he had to use a pseudonym ‘Peter Phillip’ and make up an address when he was going out with this flat mates, because if he gave his real name it could have impacted his profession. “The police would often come in and go round to make sure there was no kissing. You would be in a nightclub at 1am and all the lights would come on and the police would come in with torches”.

The reality for David and his friends was tragically symmetrical to Ritchie and the other characters from It’s A Sin. “I had a friend who came out just before me, had several boyfriends and died aged 28. Between 1987 and 1992, I probably knew about 10 people who died of AIDS. The expectation almost was if you were gay you were going to get AIDS”.

If you or someone you know has been affected by this story, please speak to someone or contact Samaritans on 116 123 at any time. You can also contact Switchboard, the LGBT helpline, on 0300 330 0630 or find out more information here.

Living with HIV is no longer a “death sentence”, and early detection is survival.

Related stories recommended by this writer:

The gay shaming on It’s A Sin isn’t a thing of the past, it’s happening to students today

It’s A Sin taught me more about LGBTQ+ history and sex education than school ever did

The real Jill from It’s a Sin has spoken about the ‘fear and shame’ of the AIDS crisis