It’s a Sin

My Twitter feed was on fire last night with reactions to the first episode of the new Channel 4 drama series It’s a Sin. The title is taken from the 1987 hit of the same name by the Pet Shop Boys.

I didn’t watch it. I told a friend that I would find it impossible to watch. He asked “Why, would the memories be uncomfortable?”. I said “No. I can’t get Channel 4 on my television”.

I only have the minimum Saorview you see.

Now I’ve been informed that it is possible to stream Channel 4 for free in Ireland I will definitely watch it, so consider this a prelude to the inevitable commentary when I’ve actually seen it.

The reason why my friend thought I’d find it uncomfortable is that the story of the first episode is set in 1981 and revolves around five characters who were eighteen years old at that time. As it happens I was also 18 in 1981. On the other hand the story involves the protagonists all moving to London in 1981, which I didn’t. I was living in Newcastle in 1981, doing my A-levels and then taking the entrance exam for Cambridge where I went the following year (1982).

Before going on I’ll just mention that 1981 was – yikes – 40 years ago and – double yikes – is closer in time to the end of World War 2 than to today.

Anyway, a major theme running through the 5-part series is the AIDS epidemic that was only just starting to appear on the horizon in 1981. I recall reading an article in a magazine about GRIDS (Gay Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome), which it was what AIDS was called in the very early days. I remember it only vaguely though and didn’t think much about AIDS during the time I was an undergraduate student, although became terrifyingly relevant when I moved to Sussex in 1985 to start my graduate studies.

Although I had been (secretly) sexually active at school and definitely knew I was gay when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge, I wasn’t very open about it except to my closest friends. I also didn’t do much about it either, apart from developing a number of crushes that were doomed to be unrequited.

In my final year at Cambridge I decided that I would try to get a place to do a PhD (or, as it turned out, a DPhil). I applied to a few places around the country, and was very happy to get an offer from Sussex and started my postgraduate studies there in 1985. The reputation of Brighton as being a very `gay’ place to live was definitely part of the decision to go there.

Having been very repressed at Cambridge and mostly unhappy as a consequence I decided that I couldn’t continue to live that way. One of the first things I did during `Freshers Week’ at Sussex was join the GaySoc (as it was called) and I gradually became more involved in it as time went on. To begin with I found it helped to pluck up the nerve to go into gay bars and clubs, which I was a bit scared to do on my own having never really experienced anything like them in Newcastle or Cambridge.

It didn’t take me long to acquire an exciting sex life, picking up guys here and there and having (mostly unprotected) sex with strangers several times a week (or more). I then met an undergraduate student through the GaySoc. Although younger than me he was more experienced and more confident about sex. The relationship I had with him was a real awakening for me. We had a lot of sex. I would often sneak off form my office to his room on campus during the day for a quickie. We never even talked about wearing condoms or avoiding ‘risky’ behaviour. This was in 1986. The infamous government advertising campaign began in 1987.

Then one evening we went together to a GaySoc meeting about AIDS during which a health expert explained what was dangerous and what wasn’t, and exactly how serious AIDS really was. Most of us students were disinclined to follow instructions from the Thatcher government but gradually came round to the idea that it wasn’t the attempt at social control that we suspected but a genuine health crisis. That day my partner and I exchanged sheepish glances all the way through the talk. Afterwards we discussed it and decided that it was probably a good idea for us both to get tested for HIV, though obviously if one of us had it then both of us would.

Having been told what the riskiest sexual practices were, and knowing that I had been engaging very frequently precisely in those behaviours, I just assumed that I would be found HIV+. When I did eventually have a test I was quite shocked to find I was negative, so much so that I had another test to make sure. It was negative again. We were both negative, in fact, so we carried on as before.

It was in the next few years that people I knew started to get HIV, and then AIDS, from which many died. I imagine, therefore, that It’s a Sin will have a considerable personal resonance for me. Even without watching it (yet) a question that often troubles me returned once again to my mind: why am I still alive, when so many people I knew back then are not?

15 Responses to “It’s a Sin”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    That’s called probability theory. A deeper answer lies in realms other than mathematics, though. It must have been a shocking time and I am glad you came through it. How reliable were the tests then, ie what proportion of false + and false – ?

    • telescoper Says:

      The earliest tests were designed really to screen blood donations so were tuned to be very sensitive i.e. to produce low numbers of false negatives; the number of false positives was quite high. The problem was that antibodies only started to show up about 6 to 12 weeks from infection so if you were sexually active it was advised to test more than once. If I recall correctly the second generation tests started to come in during the late 1980s but these also had the minimum six week lag.

      • Note that Isaac Asimov also died of AIDS, as late as 1992, only 72. He had contracted it via a blood transfusion needed during heart surgery.

      • telescoper Says:

        I should say that I know one friend in Brighton who was diagnosed hiv+ in 1989 or 1990 (don’t remember) and is still alive and well. I also remember a young lad who arrived in Brighton in 1987 had – so he told me – the only sexual encounter in his life, and six months later was dead of pneumonia.

    • telescoper Says:

      I am told that I might have the CCR5 or TNPO3 mutations that confer innate HIV-1 resistance. I may try to get my DNA sequenced to find out.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Let me know the procedure if you do. Are you obligated to inform any private health insurers? Do they sequence the whole genome or only the parts of it that code for proteins, and do they give you the result on a memory stick? Do you have to pay a load more to have the consequences of the sequence interpreted (for both personal health and racial ancestry studies)? Can you take the memory stick away and get it interpreted cheaper elsewhere? How much does it cost? (I gather from David Reich’s book that it is below 100 dollars to sequence an entire human genome now, which is why migration studies based on DNA became realistic, but that is for research and I’m sure commercial charges are greater.) How many people offer the service today?

        I’m not expecting specific answers to such a lot of questions but I’d love to hear about it if you get it done.

      • telescoper Says:

        Don’t tell anyone but I was thinking about asking one of the immunologists at Maynooth University to do it. We have plenty of people who know how to do it but I don’t know if it’s possible ethically.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Why shouldn’t universities make money on the side doing sequencing?

      • telescoper Says:

        In principle they could but if the equipment available is funded for a specific research project there may be legal/ethical problems using it for something else.

      • As far as I know dantelabs.com is the cheapest option for commercial sequencing. I paid €400 a year ago for whole genome sequencing with 30X coverage. Right now it looks like it’s €259 (their pricing seems to move around a lot).

        You get the aligned genome, the mutations they detect (Snaps &c) and also the raw sequencer output (useful if you e.g. want to use a different reference).

  2. Denis Boers Says:

    I wonder why you want to view the series, Peter. Definitely, it reminds you of terrible events you’ve lived through. But what does it pay to twist the knife ? Sometimes, there’s a fine line between courage and masochism. Aren’t current times harsh enough by themselves ?

    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t think the way to deal with the past is to hide from it. I rather hope it will remind me that, tough times though they were, there were a lot of love and laughter too.

  3. […] about the TV series It’s A Sin I blogged about on Saturday a couple of things struck me in relation to our current situation trying to cope with the Covid-19 […]

  4. […] I posted a kind of prelude a few days ago I decided that I would bite the bullet and watch the entire Channel 4 drama series […]

  5. […] a month ago I posted some thoughts about the TV series It’s A Sin based on my own experiences back in the 1980s. That post ended with […]

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