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It’s A Sin: Scottish lesbian women speak out about the 80’s AIDS crisis

Leanne Mckenzie

Bingeing Russell T Davies New 80’s AIDS crisis drama “It’s A Sin” was tough. 5 hours of crucial and heartbreaking TV history where a group of friends, 20-something outcasts, find each other and family in the Vibrant and hedonistic world of the 80’s London Gay scene. 

Anyone around at that time will know what comes next – AIDS. These characters worlds are destroyed – by AIDS. A disease that by 1995 had, according to a British Academy study, taken the lives of at least 10% of US gay men between the ages of 24 and 44.

One of those men was Queen frontman Freddy Mercury, who died in 1991 at the age of 45. Diagnosed in 1987, he only confirmed his AIDS status the day before his death.

 In the UK – between the years 1984 and 1985, 35% of gay men tested in London were confirmed to be infected

With 11% outside.  Scotland’s first case of AIDS was confirmed in Edinburgh in 1983.

In these early years of the crisis lesbians were at the forefront of patient care.

Russell T Davies in Diva Magazine

Ruth Dorman, who was a newly qualified nurse in Clydebank at the time told me:

“In nursing, nobody talked about it, nobody knew about it… all we had in healthcare was – if someone tells you they’re gay, then you barrier treat them… you treat them as though they’re infectious.”

Elaine McCrorie, an ex RAF soldier and former Pride organiser said of that time:

“There was disgust… It was a disgust of the homosexual sex act and that disgust got worse when AIDS came.’’

This disgust from society and the shame that followed prevented many HIV positive gay men from telling friends and relatives. Ruth remembers:

“My partner… one of the lads she went to school with – who came out at the same time as she did –  committed suicide when he was diagnosed…and one of my colleagues – he was the first that i knew who died of AIDS – he never told any of us, he told us he’d went to take another job – disappeared – we were told by his family that he’d died. It was the shame… the shame was just so overwhelming.” 

The shame Ruth talks about is never clearer in ‘Its a Sin’ as when one young man who is dying of AIDS, appeals to his mother:

“Im not dirty mum, I never did anything bad, I really didn’t.”

Both Ruth and Elaine also talk about the fear present in the gay community in Scotland at the time.

Because nobody got better from AIDS:

“You’d go into gay pubs at the time and there would be bowls of condoms and some leaflets and that was it.. because people didn’t want to know… fear…it was just absolute palpable fear.

The fear of AIDS has lessened in Scotland and throughout the world due to the retroviral drugs now available. Studies show that effective treatment can in fact lower the detectable HIV “viral load” (the amount of HIV in your body fluids) to zero, therefore making patients uninfectious to sexual partners. An HIV self test was also launched in Scotland in April 2020 which Scottish HIV charity Waverly Care has called a success, with 93% of those surveyed by the charity saying they would use the service again and would recommend HIV Self Test Scotland to someone else. 

But Ruth, who is now Chief Executive of the NHS Credit Union believes AIDS has become something of a “silo issue”:

“By the mid 90s – ok we didn’t have a cure – but we had a preventative solution, we had education – there you go job done what’s the next issue? Its almost like HIV has gone underground.”

But she has hope and thinks that “It’s a Sin” will have a positive influence on an issue she so firmly believes has been swept under the carpet in recent years:

“I’m quite looking forward to seeing it. I know I have a lot of gay male friends who’ll be very saddened by parts but will laugh out loud at others. And maybe it will get the message out.”

I ask her what that message is:

People still develop AIDS from HIV, they still get HIV and they still die. It’s still a traumatic illness. We lost people. We lost our friends.”

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