'Those boys were very young and very brave, condemned for having casual sex, as opposed to being praised for trying to fight HIV as best they could.'
When Channel 4’s It’s a Sin – a television drama series about a group of friends living in London through the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980s – was launched at the beginning of the year, it was an unprecedented success. Not just in terms of record-breaking audience figures (18.9 million streamed views by March) but also in its legacy of positive change: the sexual health charity Terrence Higgins Trust reported a surge in HIV testing and suddenly there was open public discussion of a topic that had been avoided for years.
To actress Jill Nalder, who was the inspiration for the character Jill in the show, this discussion is certainly a good thing. ‘It seemed to me that before the series, many people didn’t really know what had happened. Those boys were very young and very brave, condemned for having casual sex, as opposed to being praised for trying to fight HIV as best they could. Now they are being remembered with love and understanding, which is so important.’
Jill was in her third year of an acting course at the Mountview Academy, living in a rented flat with friends (dubbed the Pink Palace), when the rumours about a new disease first began. ‘I distinctly remember reading a small article about gay men in San Francisco showing flu-like symptoms; it became known as the gay flu, then gay cancer,’ she recalls. ‘We started to believe it was real when a few people disappeared. There was a Canadian boy in the cast of West Side Story who we would see in the piano bar after a show and all of a sudden he was never there again. Then someone in my college group got sick.’
'These men were so sweet and kind and sick, and there was no-one else to look after them. We loved them, but they also loved us and took us into their community.'
Ruth Coker Burks
Many of the events in the series Jill recognised from her own life: ‘the parties, the testing, the secrecy, going to look after a friend who doesn’t want to tell anyone, the cooking and cleaning... I used to be absolutely paranoid about cleaning, not for my sake but for theirs. Food poisoning was very common for someone with AIDS and far more devastating,’ she says. Boys were terrified of being tested because there were so many rumours that they wouldn’t be able to rent anywhere or get insurance. ‘Even if the result was negative, it was on their record that they thought they might be at risk, so they used false names.’
It was a similar story in the US, where Ruth Coker Burks was witnessing young gay men returning to her home state of Arkansas, from cities such as New York and San Francisco, to die. ‘The problem was that their families had thrown them out because they were gay to begin with,’ recalls Ruth, whose memoir about how AIDS shaped her life, All the Young Men, was released earlier this year. Her introduction to the disease came when she was visiting a friend at the University of Arkansas Medical Centre and noticed a biohazard sign on a patient’s door and food trays piled up outside.
‘The nurses were drawing straws to see who would go in and I had a suspicion that it might be someone with AIDS,’ she explains. ‘I snuck inside and asked the young man, Jimmy, if there was anything I could do. He said he wanted his mother, but when I called her, she hung up on me. I went back in, washed his face, fixed his hair, and gave him some dignity back. I ended up sitting with him for 13 hours until he took his last breath.’
'I was part of the LGBTQ+ community who were trying to put information out there and create solidarity while living with so much stigma.'
For Ruth, that was the beginning of a decade when all her spare time was spent caring for those with not long left to live. ‘Word got out that there was this insane woman in Hot Springs who wasn’t afraid of AIDS and I started getting calls from people who needed help.’ She found young men places to live; cooked meals for them; and realising early diagnosis meant a longer lifespan, learnt to take blood, getting samples tested under false names. She estimates that she visited around 1,000 men in hospital and buried over 40 of them, in secret, on her family’s plot in the cemetery. ‘I was afraid if people found out, they would vandalise it,’ she says.
It was a valid concern: the Ku Klax Klan burnt a cross on her lawn three times, and she was thrown off the church finance committee for her association with AIDS. ‘I would say to my daughter, the preacher says we should take care of the sick, the poor and hungry, and that’s what we’re doing. These men were so sweet and kind and sick, and there was no-one else to look after them,’ says Ruth. ‘We loved them, but they also loved us and took us into their community.’
Back in London, in 1985, Jill was also visiting young men in hospital. ‘I didn’t know anybody on the ward in Westminster hospital, but I joined as a volunteer. At the time you couldn’t get much real information about the disease; I thought I was helping these boys who had no other visitors whilst finding out what the truth was.’ After college, she began working in West End shows, and co-founded West End Cares, which raised over £2 million in its first few years to fund research. ‘It was really quite an emotional, intense time with a lot of hospital visits and trying to find out what new alternative treatments were available. These boys were guinea pigs for drugs with shocking side effects.’
'I would say to my daughter, the preacher says we should take care of the sick, the poor and hungry, and that’s what we’re doing.'
Ruth Coker Burks
It’s only looking back now that she realises how all-consuming that period in her life was. ‘I was part of the LGBTQ+ community who were trying to put information out there and create solidarity while living with so much stigma,’ says Jill, who describes a Richer Life as being surrounded by people she loves, harmony with nature and a world that is tolerant of diversity. ‘I loved the people that were around me at that time and, like you do when you love people, you get involved. I think it comes from love and then a level of responsibility; once you commit to the care of someone, it’s hard to not commit fully, especially if you are one of only a few who know that they are sick. I just got more and more involved, and it became part of my everyday life.’
One message that shines through in It’s a Sin is that the 1980s was a time of fun too, and, says Jill, that’s exactly how it was in reality. ‘When these boys first moved to London, they thought they were coming to a tolerant place where they could be gay and accepted, so there was such a happy start to the 1980s. Full of freedom, they didn’t realise all the stigma that was out there. It was short lived, like a bright fire, but they did have an amazing time and together, we were a family.’