Russell T Davies’ forthcoming series on Channel 4, It’s a Sin, could not be timelier. This is NOT the first plague in living memory. We have been here before.
For almost a year, I have bored anyone who would listen about the relentless familiarity of the current pandemic’s lexicon. The resonances we have repeatedly tripped over. I am not about to let up. And yet the arrival of It’s a Sin has stopped me in my tracks. I am impatient for it but pulsating with apprehension.
I cannot think of safer hands for a small screen AIDS drama to be in — especially now. It was Davies, after all, who brought us the groundbreaking Queer as Folk, and its discombobulating successors, Cucumber and Banana. More recently he gave us Years and Years which, horribly unsurprisingly, already feels like a great foretelling.
It’s a Sin will, I have no doubt, be brilliant. That’s the easy bit — however tough the storyline is. And anyway, I am heartened — though not surprised — to hear that Davies’ treatment will be far from all doom and gloom. We lost lives back then — but we built them too.
That snippet apart, I am trying to resist the wall-to-wall coverage heralding its arrival. I want to view it, as far as I can, as I would have done back then, unfiltered by 24-hour social media. Once it’s launched, I doubt I’ll be able to resist the streaming service. But I want to watch it with the emotional noise in my head, not the cacophony around me.
It’s not that I have ever thought HIV was my story alone. I don’t own the rights. But I have a tale of those years which, in the end, is just mine. HIV is one of my life’s big fault lines. And that’s something which has only become clearer as the decade I lived with it up close and personal has receded into the past.
But here’s the rub. I survived. And despite more than a few skirmishes along the way I’m still HIV negative. To be here is a blessing, of course. And yet with it comes a sense of unease I’ve never named. A fear that perhaps AIDS isn’t my story to tell at all.
My late partner, Lawrence, was already HIV positive when we met in 1985, having been one of the first few hundred gay men in the UK to be diagnosed a year earlier. I was an early AIDS activist, in a minor way. He told me just weeks into our relationship. I said I would stay. I was 24. It was a decision — made after the briefest of pauses — which upended everything. But, of course, life went on.
From that moment, for all intent and purposes, we set out on a journey together. Yet as he would remind me repeatedly, sometimes angrily, we were actually always on quite different journeys. I would live. He would die.
There was the time he overheard me talking to a friend about the challenges gay men had accessing dental treatment. His problem, not mine, he said.
There was the evening an old friend of his, also positive, came for dinner and asked us if we were going through it all together. ‘No,’ said Lawrence with a firmness that crushed me.
There was the sultry night in Manhattan in 1989, the epidemic’s toll laid bare all around us. We hollered at each other in the middle of a Greenwich Village street, hot tears, warm spring rain hammering down. I was having one of my periodic bouts of insecurity about my HIV status. Lawrence was having none of it. He was the one with the virus, and his symptoms had flared up thousands of miles from home.
I live still with those jarring moments from my story in which I was a bit part — a bystander — in his. Of course, it was more complicated than that. And there were so many tenderer moments. His was the kind of love I’d not known before. But you could scarcely blame him for his refrain — what have I done to deserve this?
Then there’s the guilt about the stuff I did and didn’t do. My shocking fall from grace three years later when I almost reneged on my earlier commitment. I’m not sure I was ever really going to run away — and I didn’t — but it was a bloody mess for a while. However hard it was for him, I wasn’t coping. And he reaped the consequences.
And there were the times I wasn’t by his side in the last few months, just shy of 10 years after his revelation. The times I wasn’t by his hospital bed. Even now, it’s those moments which too often come to mind first. Things I can’t change.
The guilt extends beyond Lawrence to my friend, Tim, who died just a couple of years before him. Of pneumonia, in his bed, alone, undiagnosed. He had been too afraid, too ashamed, to tell a soul what he feared. And I, his closest gay friend who knew all about HIV, had missed all the clues.
HIV killed Lawrence and Tim. It killed two of Lawrence’s previous boyfriends including the man he knew had infected him. It killed other men I knew too. They included men I’d slept with not entirely guardedly — after I should have known better. You’d think, given everything I’ve told you, I’d never have put myself in harm’s way? And mostly I didn’t. But real life back then wasn’t like that. Stuff happened. And yet I was spared.
As the current plague unfolded, I immersed myself in a heap of books I’d read before. Most notably I returned to David France’s How to Survive a Plague which chronicles the extraordinary achievements of AIDS activism. And the thing that struck me even more starkly than it had on first reading was that some — though by no means all — of the heroic characters at the heart of France’s story survived.
These are men who had contracted HIV around the same time as Lawrence and Tim. And not only are they still here, but they are at the forefront of community and scientific activism in the face of Covid-19. It is not the first time I have been reminded of this anomaly with its apparent injustice (to be clear I begrudge no one a life). But the sheer intensity of France’s book hit me like a sledgehammer this time.
At first, I felt I sense of kindred spirit with those men, a desire to know them. But then a familiar feeling crept up. They could lay claim to this story in a way that I couldn’t. The scale of their activism made my involvement in our cause seem puny. The extent of the loss they experienced dwarfed mine in a way that made it almost trivial.
Even as I penned a series of articles about the meeting of two plagues in Covid-19’s first spring, I questioned my right to do so. Wasn’t it almost fraudulent to put my life at the heart of a story I’d emerged from so relatively unscathed?
In his book, In the Shadow of the Epidemic: Being HIV-Negative in the Age of Aids, published in 1995, the year Lawrence died, Walt Odets grapples with some of what I have tussled with ever since those early years. The ‘juggernaut’ of HIV hit all our lives. It made us “afraid of ourselves and of each other…afraid to love and to be in love.”
The truth is, for all I am still here, I have known that fear. It arrived the day Lawrence uttered the words ‘I’m positive’ all those years ago. And it has never entirely left me — even though, as I know he wanted, I made a future after him. A life in which I have loved — and love.
In part that’s because to have done so brings yet more questions. What does it mean to say that the day of my marriage to Allan in 2017 was the happiest in my life and also to say I wish Lawrence had lived? What is to become of the space in the grave beside him — two for one was a bargain — when I know it cannot be my final resting place now? HIV’s shadow is unending.
It is scarcely surprising that both Odets and France reference Primo Levi. As a friend who lived in the States through those years told me recently when I shared my grief, ‘Honey, all my friends died of AIDS.’ And maybe, as France opines, whatever our place in those years, none of us left the camps. Including me.
Even though I lived alongside the virus and not with it. Even though I didn’t do enough. Even though my losses were small enough to be imaginable now. Even though I built a better life beyond them — a life in which I have somehow, fortuitously, evaded HIV. Maybe, despite all that, I too am a survivor of the plague that came before.
One thing I do know is that the reimagining, the retelling, and the memorialising of those years must go on. Covid-19 has made that more urgent than ever. And HIV is far from gone. That’s why, even though I am full of trepidation, I will watch It’s a Sin.