This article (written by me) was originally published in The 'I' Paper on Friday 29 January 2021 under the headline: 'Success of HIV drama shows how far we've come'.
As the media whirlwind surrounding It's A Sin begins to settle and the news media move on to the next headline, I wanted to remind us all that true ally-ship is for life, not just for Instagram...
It’s Friday night. I’m sat on the sofa in the attic at my parents’ house in the arms of my new boyfriend, sobbing my heart out as Everybody Hurts by R.E.M. plays over the closing credits of what is now Britain’s most talked-about show. We’ve just watched my telly acting debut as Donald Basset in Channel 4's It’s A Sin, but that’s not why I’m crying.
I’ve lived with HIV for 18 years. Diagnosed at 16 after the first time I had sex, I know the shame associated with the virus well, but unlike the boys in the show, I was lucky enough to be diagnosed in 2003 in the era of medication.
The messages start, slowly at first, then a tidal wave. The show is an instant hit. My boyfriend and I look on with giddy excitement as my Twitter following soars, but soon I’m swamped. I want to reply to them all: "thank you for your kind words, it was an honour to be involved." But after I’ve pasted it hundreds of times, it begins to feel meaningless.
I receive countless messages from men in particular who lived through the 80s – I sense that this remains raw for Britain’s gay community. I reflect that the show has stamped our history into the record books loud and unapologetically proud. I quietly hope it goes some way to validate what they all went through.
My boyfriend and I chat into the night, overjoyed that HIV has such a prominent place on British telly, but worried that scenes of frantic scrubbing may allow old myths to resurface. We’re concerned the ‘gay disease’ narrative will reappear (over 50 per cent of people living with HIV in the UK are heterosexual) and we talk about the emotional labour of my campaigning for HIV awareness.
The requests for free interviews and appearances begin. "Pay me for my time," I think. I feel ashamed, as though just thinking it somehow taints my activism. Social justice shouldn’t be commodified. But as I fill out my Universal Credit form, I remember it’s the artist in me that pays the activist’s bills.
I see the concern in my boyfriend’s eyes as he says he worries about me burning out. He’s right, I am exhausted. So are my Black friends. So are my Trans friends. The need for allies has never felt more urgent.
In the morning, we have sex without a condom. My boyfriend is HIV negative but there is not the fear felt in It’s A Sin. People with HIV on effective medication cannot pass the virus on. He also takes HIV medication that adds another layer of protection (PrEP). I lie in his arms afterwards, grateful for scientific advancements, but devastated for those for whom science moved too slow.
I sneak a quick look at my socials and see that a fellow HIV activist has tweeted about how HIV has changed. It’s been liked 43.9K times and retweeted 3,800 times. I remind myself of the thousands of other activists working tirelessly. I feel guilty many of them don’t get as much of the limelight as I currently have.
"It must have been hard to portray that story on screen given what you’ve been through," begins a message from a friend. I want to reply and say it wasn’t, I just turned up and said the lines but that doesn’t chime with the romanticism of the actor’s job or people’s expectations of my own story. I feel like a fraud.
On Monday morning my boyfriend leaves for work. On the front step he looks me in the eye: "Proud of you," he says. A feeling swells in my chest. I think its pride, but it might be survivor’s guilt. The heaviness of the weekend has reminded me that I’m one of the lucky ones.
As I head upstairs, I’m drawn back to the sofa in the attic. It’s where I had my first kiss with another boy. As I recall that tender moment I’m overcome with another rush of emotion and I’m reminded of one of my favourite quotes by the author C.S. Lewis: "Isn’t it funny how day by day, nothing changes, but when you look back everything is different."
Just look how far I’ve come, I think to myself. Just look how far we’ve yet to go.
Support and advice is also available from many HIV charities across the U.K.
Be a true HIV ally by continuing your support year round. This doesn't just mean donations of money or volunteering (these are both welcome), but includes amplifying the voices of people living with HIV, educating yourself and others both in person and online, challenging HIV stigma and GETTING TESTED.
You can also support me as an artist and activist by purchasing my play about my life with HIV here.