It’s A Sin—Russel T. Davies’ recent record-breaking miniseries for Channel 4—is the first major British drama to deal explicitly with the AIDS crisis. But there is a wealth of fiction, film and drama that has explored HIV among gay men and queer communities, both at the time and, like It’s A Sin, looking back from a time when HIV is no longer the diagnosis it once was.
The Prettiest Star by Carter Sickels is a revelation: after a diagnosis of AIDS, a young man returns to rural America from New York, where he reconnects with his family and faces up to small-town homophobia. It is difficult and startling, like most of these works, but has a wondrous heart. The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai and Tim Murphy’s Christadora both explore a network of friends and families in Chicago and New York, respectively, as lives are ravaged and ruined by HIV. They both deal simultaneously with 80s and 21st century storylines, too, examining the legacy of AIDS on their communities.
David France produced a documentary and accompanying book, both called How To Survive A Plague, which does a brilliant and thorough job recounting the history of AIDS and associated activism, primarily in America. The first history of AIDS in America, And The Band Played On by Randy Shilts, is an interesting historical text, but problematic in many ways, not least its reliance on a patient zero narrative, attempting to trace the arrival of HIV in America to a single individual. Richard A. McKay has tackled this issue head-on in Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic, described as “myth-smashing revisionist history at its best.”
In terms of contemporaneous writing from the late-80s and early-90s, I can’t not recommend Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz, his “memoir of disintegration,” that beautifully marries mourning, rage, and poetry; it was rereleased by Canongate in 2017 with a new introduction by critic Olivia Laing. Sarah Schulman’s incredible memoir, The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination brings to life the Lower East Side and how it changed during the AIDS crisis, roughly from 1981 to 1996. Later this year, Schulman is releasing a political history of ACT UP—the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power—one of the most important and impactful international AIDS activist groups, which Schulman was personally involved with.
The best British writing from the AIDS crisis that I’ve come across is by filmmaker and artist Derek Jarman: At Your Own Risk is part memoir, part polemic, which savages Thatcherite policy and institutional homophobia. His diaries from 1989 until his death have also been published in two volumes, Modern Nature and Smiling in Slow Motion, both offering meditations on art, recording the development of his peculiar and exquisite garden in Dungeness, and documenting his deterioration from AIDS. Blue, his final film, a single static shot of a vivid blue with a voiceover documenting his illness, is essential viewing for anyone interested in this period of history. Jarman also directed the Pet Shop Boys’ music video for their single, It’s A Sin, from which the show takes its name, which is well worth a watch and demonstrates Jarman’s exceptionally creative talent.
For anyone who was particularly enchanted by Jill’s story in It’s A Sin—#BeMoreJill trended on Twitter after the show aired—this year saw the publication of Ruth Coker Burks’ memoir, All the Young Men. A young mother in the conservative South of the US, she looked after dozens of men infected with HIV and dying of AIDS, at a time when they were often abandoned by their families and even by the medical community. She kept her story secret for years, out of fear of repercussions to this day within her deeply conservative community—but it’s a powerful and necessary piece of memoir.
There are many important and celebrated plays about HIV/AIDS: Angels in America, for example, or The Inheritance. HBO made a miniseries of Angels in America back in 2003 and the National Theatre’s 2017 production, which won multiple awards in London and on Broadway, is available to stream now via National Theatre At Home. The National has also programmed Larry Kramer’s A Normal Heart for later this year—the first major play that dealt with AIDS—which will hopefully come to fruition.
120 Beats Per Minute is a phenomenal French film about the work of ACT UP in Paris: it’s deeply moving and true to life, having been developed in collaboration with activists involved at the time. It’s also incredibly sexy—one of my criticisms of It’s A Sin was the lack of safe sex depicted, the erasure of eroticism after the characters were diagnosed with HIV. Philadelphia was the first major film to deal with AIDS and is an interesting historical work, but is not without its problems. Dallas Buyers Club, a similarly big-budget, Oscar-winning movie, tells the true story of Ron Woodroof and touches upon some of the specific issues faced by those living with HIV with brutal realism.
We lost a generation of artists and creatives to AIDS: Robert Mapplethorpe, Keith Haring, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, David Wojnarowicz, Peter Hujar, Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Leigh Bowery, David Robilliard, David McDiarmid—the list, sadly, goes on and on. For more information and resources, check out Visual AIDS, an American charity that originated the red ribbon as a symbol of AIDS awareness and runs an annual programme of events for World AIDS Day, entitled Day With(out) Art: “Visual AIDS utilizes art to fight AIDS by provoking dialogue, supporting HIV+ artists, and preserving a legacy, because AIDS is not over.”
The Terrence Higgins Trust do brilliant work providing education and support for HIV and sexual health around the UK. “Don’t let the ‘AIDS’ of It’s A Sin be your view of HIV today,” writes Fraser Wilson from the Terrence Higgins Trust. “Because we’ve come a long way in the fight against HIV since then and worked too hard, with too much still to do, to be taking even one step backwards now.”
There are some wonderful HIV-positive writers and poets working today: I want to mention Danez Smith and Jericho Brown, both incredible and award-winning poets. Brown won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his collection The Tradition, which includes the stunning little poem ‘Cakewalk’—it starts, “My man swears his HIV is better than mine, that his has in it a little gold, something he can spend if he ever gets old…”