It’s A Sin is a Channel 4/HBO five-part miniseries created by Queer As Folk screenwriter and television producer Russell T. Davies. It showcases the journey of a group of gay men who have moved to London from other parts of the UK in 1981. Their friendships evolve through the rise of HIV/AIDS in Britain as we follow them for over a decade. As viewers, we share a variety of the characters’ experiences. From living young and fearless to the hardships of losing a loved one and many other rites of passage, much of which is still experienced today.
What is HIV?
The human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), as the name suggests, creates a deficiency in the immune system. As depicted in It’s A Sin, this deficiency can cause opportunistic infections/diseases, such as lymphoma and Kaposi’s sarcoma. However, the latter has been dramatically reduced in present-day health care. Towards the end of the series, the breakthrough drug, azidothymidine or AZT, was approved by the FDA in 1987.
AZT was the first approved for the treatment of HIV and significantly reduced opportunistic infections. Currently, there is still no cure or vaccine, although research continues towards the development of both. As of 2019, it was estimated that 38 million individuals living with HIV. While remarkable medical and pharmaceutical advancements have been made strides, there are still other important factors. It’s A Sin shows that are still prominent today.
The Effects of a Loveless Home
As Jill meets up with Valerie, the mother of Ritchie, she is shocked to learn that yet another one of her close friends has succumbed to complications caused by the virus. Upon hearing the details, Jill boldly tells Valerie why her son grew up ashamed of himself due to her creation of a loveless home. Jill describes the shame the affected men in the infectious disease wards felt, believing they deserved to die, much like her son Ritchie. Of course, Valerie was appalled and denounced such accusations. Like her, unfortunately, many parents are oblivious to the part they play in negatively impacting their children.
It should be no surprise that even a mind as strong as Charles Xavier can be stormed by thoughts of worthlessness. Research shows that HIV stigma and discrimination affect the emotional and mental wellbeing of those living with it. Among those, black men who have sex with men (MSM) experience greater levels of stigma, victimization, and trauma. Most of which is caused by family members. Instead of embracing marginalized individuals, the lack of acceptance and love leads many gay individuals to become swallowed with negative thoughts and imagery about themselves.
Parents need to stop forcing their children to be someone they are not. It’s not healthy. Ritchie was a product of that. He hid his sexuality up until the moment he was essentially on his death bed. As a parent, you should want your kids to be authentic versions of themselves, not forcing them to wear a mask of who you want them to be. Family is where most people begin to shape their identity. Imagine growing up and hearing you don’t deserve to exist, you’re an abomination or going to hell, or that you deserve to die from HIV. There is a need for fewer Valerie’s in the world and more parents like Jill’s who are supportive and foster a welcoming environment.
I Got Lucky: Escaping A Life of HIV
Another revelation in the final episode allows us to see Roscoe and his father reunited again. Before viewing the touching moment of his father asking for forgiveness, he inquires if his son has HIV. When Roscoe gives a simple “no,” his father thanks God, to which Roscoe replies: “Don’t thank God. I just got lucky with who I fucked.” It was a spoken truth many dare not utter and one many never could or will.
Today, individuals with a negative HIV status could consider themselves lucky like Roscoe since they can essentially escape a life of living with a life-threatening disease. This is mainly due to the already developed drug Truvada being approved in 2012 as the first pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). In 2019, the drug Descovy was approved, expanding PrEP options. PrEP is available free of charge in the UK to those in need. Despite being 99% effective in preventing HIV transmission, there are still concerns that arise.
As PrEP continues to gain exposure as the predominant treatment option, condom usage among gay men has significantly declined. While PrEP effectively prevents HIV transmission, it doesn’t stop transmitting other sexually transmitted infections such as syphilis, gonorrhoea, or chlamydia. It should also be noted that some STDs, such as herpes, can still be contracted even while using a condom.
The Roscoe mindset in It’s A Sin still lives on today. Some gay men send nudes by way of introduction. Some meet up for anonymous unprotected sex that may or may not incorporate illicit drugs. I’m not judging in either case, but I do believe gay men as a whole should normalise discussion around sexual wellness. You shouldn’t feel lucky for escaping an STD when the majority of them are preventable. Risky behaviour is just that, risky, so why play Russian roulette with your health?
Granted, there are also Ritchie’s of the world that knowingly infect people and avoid treatment. However, communication can provide invaluable information. Take the time to discuss sexual wellness with those you’re interested in sexually. That way, you can be relatively sure versus rolling the dice and getting unlucky.
Will There Be an End To HIV?
The optimist in me believes that one day HIV will be eradicated. However, until there is a cure, several factors need to be addressed continuously to move forward.
Providing medications to high-impact communities across the globe that continue to see devastation while other communities thrive is one way to start. Access should not be a privilege. Black men who have sex with men continue to account for the highest new diagnosis yet experience a lack of treatment access and severe stigma. While federally implemented programs, such as UNAIDS 90-90-90, have made strides in assisting millions of individuals infected by HIV, there is undoubtedly more work to be done. According to hiv.gov, at the end of 2019, 25.4 million people with HIV (67%) were accessing antiretroviral therapy (ART) globally, while 12.6 million people wait for the opportunity to receive treatment.
While admittedly, I did enjoy It’s A Sin, I’m not oblivious that such shows often don’t change the lives of those residing outside of the entertainment bubble. UNAIDS reports that in 2019, of all people with HIV globally, only 81% knew their HIV status, 67% were on antiretroviral therapy, and only 59% were virally suppressed. Until we can address untimely diagnosis issues, get treatment to all who need it and ensure sustained viral suppression, we will continue to face slow progress in eradicating HIV.
We also have to provide more mentally and emotionally supportive environments for individuals to be themselves without judgment. Stigma and shame need to end. People with HIV who take ART as prescribed and sustain an undetectable viral load live long, healthy lives and have no risk of transmitting HIV to their HIV-negative partners. Working towards true acceptance of others, equal treatment access, and better prevention measures are needed to help end HIV.
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