‘It’s A Sin’: the AIDS crisis as a class issue

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The recent release of writer Russell T Davies’ new drama It’s a Sin represents another offering aiming to document the material impact of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s, but one which is able to balance both recognition of the structural forces which conditioned the crisis and serves as a joyous exposition of the LGBT community. 

The show is set amid an electric London in the early 80’s, whose soundtrack echoes back to the disco-inspired, synthesised records which characterised much of the gay nightlife scene at the time. Focusing on a group of friends, most of whom are gay, able to explore their identities for the first time beyond the confines of their oft-stifling family homes, the show straddles both an era-defining spirit as well as experiences common to anyone in their early twenties, especially members of the LGBT community. Semi-autobiographical in nature, Davies is able to weave a tale which gives substance to its characters, both flawed and deeply committed to hedonism and liberation, by enlivening their experiences. Though, moments of joy are not without a creeping sense of dread as hints of the distant waves of the epidemic begin to seep into the narrative.

The subtlety of Davies’ writing may at first disguise the point, but of all identities that the show pivots around, class remains significant in defining the indelible effects of the AIDS crisis at its height. Whilst the three main characters come from different backgrounds; ranging from a white, middle-class home to the Welsh valleys and a religious family of Nigerian origin in Peckham, both sexuality and as a result the AIDS crisis itself acted as a leveller of sorts, which comes to affect even the more socially affluent men depicted in the show. 

Moments of joy are not without a creeping sense of dread

But despite the overlapping source of the virus, responses to it and the distribution of the scarce resources made available at the time to tackle it were still designated according to a class-based structure. In the US and other countries without a universal health service, the few treatments that were available (the first major drug shown to improve immune function, AZT only received FDA approval in 1987) were only accessible to patients who had enough money to afford them. Even in Britain, extending quality of life care also relied on access to food and comfortable housing which are less available to those living near the poverty line. Neither can the intersections between race and class be ignored though, especially considering the racial disparities in terms of HIV diagnoses which continue today, with 42% of diagnoses in US being attributed to people identifying as Black or African American as of 2018.

Evidence of class-based prejudice and discrimination continues to haunt the LGBT community

It is arguable that with the disproportionate effects of family estrangement and homelessness on the LGBT community, AIDS was able to be ignored for a time since larger portions of patients were not only stigmatised for their sexuality but were effectively disenfranchised due to class-based discrimination. The noticeable inclusion of a government MP in the list of characters may serve to indicate the paradox that exists between common susceptibility to the virus and the systematic difference that class can make in terms of access to medical care and political resources.

Whilst the HIV virus and AIDS are now treatable and less prevalent within the Western world, its impact can still be felt through stigmatisation, ignorance and misinformation. Evidence of class-based prejudice and discrimination continues to haunt the LGBT community and wider society, whether it be in terms of narrow and demonising depictions of the working class, or systematic lack of access to economic, legal and medical resources. Taking into account the complexity of intersecting identities and individual experiences, Davies creates a humanising depiction of characters which can be used to highlight the nuanced structural forces which shaped their lives, whilst maintaining an undeniable, vibrant sense of life amongst tragedy.

Durham University’s LGBT+ Association’s Intersectionality Campaign continues to run throughout the year, currently focusing on the intersections between LGBT+ identities and classism. To find out more you can find the association on Facebook or Instagram where campaign content is posted weekly.

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

https://www.dunelm.org.uk/donations/palatinate

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