‘It’s A Sin’ And The Untold Story Of The Women Of The AIDS Crisis
The character of Jill from 'It's A Sin' is based on the real life Jill Nader, an ode to the women of the AIDS epidemic -- of which there were many.
Russell T Davies’ new show, It’s a Sin, dives into gay London during the height of the AIDS epidemic. While the central narrative follows the vivid experiences of its men navigating the crisis, the show is anchored by Lydia Wests’s Jill. As the decade cycles from 81’ to 91’, we watch AIDS brush against Jill’s life: from terrified carer, budding researcher, and brazen organiser, Jill becomes a staple of allyship to her chosen Pink Palace family.
The character isn’t without fault; her most prominent being that she just doesn’t have any. As Kemi Alemoru aptly summarises, “Jill has no other desires, quirks, or personal battles outside of the Pink Palace clique.”
Even so, it’s perhaps important to understand that Jill was inspired by a real person, Davies’ close friend, Jill Nader, who lost three friends to AIDS in the 1980s.
When asked her opinion of her onscreen character, Nader told the BBC that the two things she related to most were, “frantically searching for information about the virus… and the hospital visits. Walking down the corridors and looking into the rooms and in each one seeing people around my age dying with Aids.”
Nader steps back into the 80’s as Lydia’s onscreen mother: a nod to her long-standing friendship with Davies, and, alongside her fictional daughter, an ode to the real women of the AIDS epidemic — of which there were many.
“I’m trying to find stuff about AIDS… Because there are boys dying all over the world from sex, and I wanna know why… There’s no information anywhere. We’ve got this great big killer disease and it’s happening in silence.” — Jill, episode two, December 1983
Nineteen-eighty-three was the year that Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, a French virologist, co-discovered the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). At the time it was believed that the epidemic was isolated to ‘key populations’ — the four H’s: homosexuals, hemophiliacs, heroin addicts, and Haitians.
“This was a mistake obviously,” Barré-Sinoussi told the International AIDS Society, “The fifth H was missing, the heterosexual population. We really started to realise the magnitude of the epidemic in 1984, and especially in 1985 when we went to Africa and saw what was happening in hospitals across the continent.” Her work garnered her the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Today’s landscape looks radically different for many initial demographics from the 80s and 90s. The reason? Increased uptake and accessibility of antiretrovirals, hand-in-hand with mass public health campaigns for TasP: treatment as prevention. People living with HIV who achieve and maintain an undetectable viral load (as a result of taking their daily antiretroviral therapy) cannot transmit HIV to an HIV-negative partner. This is known as U=U (undetectable equals untransmissible).
In 2021 we also have PreP (Pre-exposure Prophylaxis), an antiretroviral drug that when taken daily can significantly reduce the risk of becoming infected during unprotected sex (by about 99%). The PreP Partners study, co-led by Dr Connie Celum, Professor of Global Health, Medicine, and Epidemiology, was key in unlocking the appropriate regulatory approval.
The search for a cure is ongoing — with many inroads driven directly from Australia. HIV cure scientist and Director of The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, Dr Sharon Lewin, wrote to CNN last December, “the scientific case for an HIV cure has become increasingly stronger over the past decade,” citing two cases where HIV was cured following a stem cell transplant.
“That’s what we’re doing on the 25th. Direct Action. Like they did in America, on the streets” – Jill, episode four, March 1988
In 1988 the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared 1 December “World AIDS Day”, a concentrated annual campaign designed to raise awareness, fight stigma, foster community support and commemorate those who had died of the disease.
The late 80s — marked by successive neoliberal conservative governments in both USA and UK — also saw the imminent rise of direct action groups, understandably furious at the lack of urgency by governments and pharmaceutical corporations in sourcing affordable solutions to the epidemic.
The success of these efforts threads back to the women’s movement of the previous decade, argues activist and AIDS historian, Sarah Schulman in The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination:
“[Men] needed women’s political experience from earlier feminist and lesbian movements, women’s analysis of power, and women’s emotional commitments to them… As men became weak, they allowed themselves to acknowledge the real ways that women are strong, particularly recognising our hard-won experience at political organising.”
The most notable direct group was the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), founded in 1987 in NYC, with chapters quickly permeating across both state and international borders. Interviewed by VICE, Alexis Danzig maintained that the group’s women brought years of social analysis, a deeper understanding of the intersectional forces impacting the crisis, in addition to skills in organising. “Because I was the daughter of a gay man who’d died from AIDS, because I could see the implications of the AIDS crisis for poor people, sex workers, people of colour, the families of gay men — it was never not my battle. I wasn’t separate from the struggle, ever.”
In her analysis of ACT UP LA, Sociologist Benita Roth explored the rise of the women’s caucus in the 1990s. The sub-group was an attempt to concentrate efforts to women-specific issues: many tending to forget that sex workers and intravenous drug users were also gravely impacted by the crisis.
As most HIV-positive women identified as heterosexual they concurrently lacked the community support systems intrinsic to the lesbian and gay community of the time, and so additional advocacy was necessary for effective outreach and support.
One of Davies’ regrets as showrunner was not paying enough attention to lesbian caregivers: “it was specifically lesbian nurses who stepped forward and did extra shifts, who held those hands and mopped those brows and emptied the bedpans and did the work.”
Indeed, lesbian scholar and historian, Lillian Faderman, argues that the crisis helped patch lingering animosity between gay men and lesbians post gay liberation, a time where separatism was looking attractive to queer women tired of insidious misogyny and unflinching male dominance.
A new book, In The Eye of the Storm, sees historians Robert Reynolds, Shirlee Robins and Paul Sendzuik interview 12 volunteers throughout Australia’s HIV/AIDS crisis. We meet Gay Egg, a proud lesbian and ‘78er’, whose move to Perth in the mid-80s coincided with both a recession and the crisis. Providing deeper nuance to claims of native solidarity, she recalls her activism being met with criticism from some lesbians who believed that her energy should be channeled towards lesbian causes, “those critics ignored the fact that lesbians could and did become HIV-positive.”
Through Trevor Williams, whose brother, David, died only three weeks after his diagnosis in the mid-80s, we learn of women’s involvement in Victoria AIDS Council (VAC) support teams: “There were a number of middle-aged mothers who attended, some of them the parents of gay sons, others not. Indeed, as a rule, heterosexual women substantially outnumbered heterosexual men as volunteers during the AIDS crisis”.
As characterised by Eileen Morris-Jones on It’s a Sin, it was largely the mothers of the boys who died that played an integral role in both care and advocacy: Women like Joan Golding who continued to volunteer and offer support to affected families via the VAC even after the death of her son, Martin.
In her TEDxBrisbane talk, Sister Angela Mary Doyle explains how she secretly funnelled commonwealth funds to the AIDS council via Mater Hospital, where she was Head Administrator. She worked tirelessly for seven years until Queensland saw a change in government.
From scientists to activists, caregivers to money launderers, women played crucial roles throughout the global AIDS crisis, and while Jill’s onscreen martyrdom may flatten her overall character, it provides a perfect springboard to capture these often overlooked achievements.
In five episodes we saw Jill fight cops, commission lawyers, befriend nurses, educate mothers, and, importantly, care for friends without fear or judgement. Within a decade we saw a girl who loved to sing and dance transform into an unsung hero to those who she loved most, finding rhythm with strangers who the crisis left lonely.
But viewing It’s a Sin as a mere time capsule does a disservice to the contemporary struggles of the movement. It erases the large-scale inequity plaguing the costs, outreach and accessibility of medical advancements in both prevention and treatment. It ignores the global demographic shifts observed by the late 80s: where women’s infection rates began surpassing men’s. UN AIDS reports that each week around 5500 girls aged between 15-24 become infected with HIV. In sub-Saharan Africa girls at this age are twice as likely to be living with HIV than men. Globally, women accounted for 48% of new infections in 2019. These figures are in combat to the mainstream imagination of the virus as most popularly depicted in our narratives: white cisgendered gay men.
The fight is far from over. Over 70 countries have forms of HIV criminalisation embedded in their legislation. Stigma is a widespread sickness, a burly barrier to prevention and treatment — and Australia is far from immune.
#BeMoreJill tweeted Russell T Davies shortly after the show’s premiere. A trending campaign to spotlight the chorus of women who showed up and did the work. Importantly, a call to action for us all at home: what we can do to continue the conversation, to commemorate those killed, to carry on the campaign in ending HIV/AIDS.
Dejan is a freelance writer whose words spin around queer history, feminism, pop culture and policy. He enjoys watching RHONY, eating dirty vegan food, skateboarding and crying while refreshing his Twitter feed @heydejan