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Scott D. Pierce: ‘It’s a Sin’ that gay shame is still here in Utah in 2021

HBO Max’s British drama relives the horrors of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

(Photograph courtesy of Ben Blackall/HBO Max) Olly Alexander as Ritchie Tozer and Lydia West as Jill Baxter in "It's a Sin."

The five-part HBO Max drama “It’s a Sin” takes viewers back to the early days of the AIDS crisis, and it’s absolutely shattering. Set mainly in London from 1981 to ’91, it follows a group of young, gay men and a close female friend as the disease spreads and the death toll rises.

The title is drawn from the Pet Shop Boys’ 1987 hit song and the lyrics, “When I look back upon my life, it’s always with a sense of shame, I’ve always been the one to blame.” And the narrative, while not overly preachy, makes the point that the shame forced upon gay men made it incredibly difficult for them to even get tested for HIV — and helped the spread of the virus.

But that was three or four decades ago and things have changed, right? Yes and no. Not everything has changed in Utah.

“The shame and the stigma are still heavily present across the U.S.,” said Utah AIDS Foundation executive director Ahmer Afroz. “I think particularly so in Utah.”

(Courtesy of HBO Max) "It's a Sin" starts streaming Thursday on HBO Max.

While HIV is not a “gay disease,” that perception remains. The danger is in not getting tested, not knowing you’re HIV positive and not getting the drugs prescribed today. Not only can HIV-positive people spread the virus, but they risk their own health by waiting to get treatment.

“When you are tested HIV positive, get on medication as soon as possible,” Ahmer said. “The outcomes for an individual significantly increase the sooner they initiate medication.”

The characters in “It’s a Sin” — and their real-life counterparts — didn’t have the medications that are available today. Creator/writer/producer Russell T. Davies (“Doctor Who,” “Torchwood” and the original “Queer as Folk”) weaves a tale of young friends finding themselves in London in this British drama.

Aspiring actor Ritchie (Olly Alexander) comes from the backwoods of the Isle of Wight. Roscoe (Omari Douglas) escapes from his religious father, who threatens to take him to the family’s home country of Nigeria, where being gay could get Roscoe killed. Colin (Callum Scott Howells) is a shy young man from Wales. Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) is the son of Indian immigrants. And Jill (Lydia West) is not just Ritchie’s best friend, but a friend to all.

They’re smart. They’re funny. They’re lovable. They’re outrageous, with the passion of youth. They’re entertaining and hilarious. But death hangs over them, and some will suffer not just from AIDS but from abuse heaped on them by the public and by the British government itself. It’s parallel to what happened in the United States.

It’s a story at least somewhat familiar to those of us who were around 30 or 40 years ago.

“But younger generations don’t necessarily know where we came from with the HIV epidemic,” Ahmer said. “And they’re not getting these conversations in schools, or from other sources.”

In the 1980s, contracting AIDS was pretty much a death sentence. That’s no longer the case.

“Medication advancements have really changed the landscape of HIV,” Ahmer said. With treatment, people with HIV can “live just a perfectly normal, healthy, happy, fulfilling life. ... Get them on medication, get them to an undetectable viral load, and then they can continue on having the same enjoyable sex life that they would like to have.”

If they’re undetectable, they can’t spread the virus.

“On the flip side, it does create a sense of comfort for people that it’s not an issue anymore,” Ahmer said. “It did lower people’s concern about HIV.”

But it hasn’t gone away. According to UNAIDS, in 2019, 38 million people were living with HIV, there were 1.7 million new infections and 690,000 people died of AIDS.

“If you look at the data for Utah, HIV incidence has not declined in about a decade. And that’s a problem,” Ahmer said. “Most people would look at that and say, ‘OK, yeah, it’s fine. It’s only about 120 new cases per year. But we look at that and we say, ‘Why is that not decreasing?’”

(The Utah Department of Health reports the state averaged 118 new cases of HIV per year from 2009-2018. And that number has remained consistent — 129, 88, 108, 122, 112, 117, 123, 139, 118, 122.)

“It’s a Sin” brings the tragedy down to a human level. It’s hard for us to conceive of the millions who have died of AIDS, but easy to like these characters.

(It’s a very adult show, with R-rated language, partial nudity and sex scenes.)

The tragedy of the AIDS epidemic almost hits me harder now than it did then. In the 1980s, the victims were (in large part) my contemporaries. Today, I look back and see that many were younger than my adult children are now. And to think of all those lives cut short — in no small part because of who they were — is almost unbearable.

“I mean, we lost a generation,” Ahmer said. “At UAF, we do want to keep those memories alive.”

He said a series like”It’s a Sin” that draws attention to HIV and AIDs “definitely” helps fight the spread, particularly in a state where a lot of young people aren’t talking about it.

“I was born and raised in Utah,” he said, “and I think I really had a better understanding of a lot of things after I moved to the East Coast. I didn’t get any of this education in Utah. And these are conversations we need to have.

“I’m optimistic about the future. I hope we can get to the point where we can stop the spread, but I think we’re definitely not there now.”

“It’s a Sin” starts streaming Thursday on HBO Max.

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