It’s A Sin: Dr Emily Garside’s guide to the HIV/AIDS narratives to read & watch next

Dr Emily Garside’s guide to which HIV/AIDS narratives to read and watch next after Russell T Davies’ acclaimed series It’s A Sin.

There is a vast array of work to choose from. Since the beginning of the AIDS pandemic those affected began telling their stories, both as an act of memorial, remembering those the government was neglecting, and of activism; trying to educate where governments failed to, and later to continue to raise awareness.

NON-FICTION:

In non-fiction there were two works that early on sought to catalogue the history that in many respects wasn’t being reported.

Reports from the Holocaust: The Making of an AIDS Activist (1989)

Larry Kramer, at this point best known as a film producer, in 1983 wrote the article 1, 112 and Counting in the New York Native. It opened: ‘If this article doesn’t scare the shit out of you we’re in real trouble.’ He went on to write regular columns on the issue for The Native, but also wrote Reports from the Holocaust in 1989. In it, he combines his fiery political writing with factual accounts of the early years of AIDS. Kramer used ‘Holocaust’ as a deliberate reference to the US government’s inaction on AIDS, which he saw as a deliberate genocide of the gay community.

Larry Kramer at an AIDS conference in New York in 1987. Photo credit: Catherine McGann/Getty Images.

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic (1987)

San Francisco based writer Randy Shilts had, like Kramer first-hand experience of the early days of the epidemic. And the Band Played On is an extensive, searing work of investigative journalism. Unlike Kramer, who infuses his work with his own political essays and calls to arms, Shilts remains an impartial journalist, presenting the accounts in a matter-of-fact manner, pulling together international stories alongside what he had witnessed in San Francisco. His and Kramer’s work taken together create an account of the early days of AIDS that wasn’t seen in the mainstream press.

AIDS: Don’t Die of Prejudice (2014)

It seems almost wrong to read a book by a former Conservative Party politician on AIDS. It seems even more wrong to come away informed by it, but Norman Fowler’s book AIDS: Don’t Die of Prejudice does just that. In it he provides an insight into the workings of Margaret Thatcher’s government, and their approach to AIDS, and the struggles the British government faced on taking action. He manages to walk as neutral a line as possible, though obviously throughout his involvement and bias are part of the narrative, but he clearly seeks to offer a factual representation, steering clear of offering any defence of the government. Offers an insight into the British government’s response, for better and worse (mostly worse).

Peter Staley in How to Survive A Plague. Photo credit: William Lucas Walker/IFC Films.

How to Survive a Plague (2012)

This was originally a documentary, and arguably the best on the subject. Following the success of that, the information collated, along with new material, was put together in this extensive book. A thorough International look at almost three decades of AIDS, it quickly became the go-to for factual accounts of the time.

Other key non-fiction works:

Patient Zero and the Making of the AIDS Epidemic, Richard A. McKay (2017)

AIDS and its Metaphors by Susan Sontag (1989)

BIOGRAPHICAL:

Oscar Moore’s byline picture from his PWA (Person With Aids) column in The Guardian.

PWA : Looking AIDS in the Face (1996)

Oscar Moore was a columnist for The Guardian, and in March1994 he began writing cataloguing his experience with AIDS. He includes the good the bad and the ugly. It concludes with a postscript by one of his colleagues, following Moore’s death. It’s a beautifully honest account of the sometimes mundane elements of being unwell, along with being a rare British voice in an American-centric set of writing about AIDS.

Austin P. McKenzie, Britt Irvin and Matt Ellis in the ABC mini-series When We Rise. Photo Credit: Eike Schroter/ABC.

When We Rise: My Life in the Movement (2016)

More than just an account of AIDS but in fact of several decades of activism. Cleve Jones began his activist work in the 1970s in San Francisco, and naturally, as the 80s and AIDS hit the city shifted focus from gay rights to AIDS activism. His autobiography is filled with first-hand accounts from that time while also placing AIDS activism in the context of the decades that surround it. It was also made into a four-part TV series in 2017 by showrunner, and fellow LGBTQ+ activist, Dustin Lance Black.

Pedro and Me: Friendship, Loss, and What I Learned (2000)

Perhaps one for the MTV generation who remembers the Pedro storyline on The Real World as one of their first encounters with AIDS. This book is a touching, if very 90s-MTV, account of Pedro and Judd’s friendship during and following the series.

Without You: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and the Musical RENT (2006)

Not strictly an AIDS memoir, but for anyone interested in Jonathan Larson’s iconic musical RENT (see below) it gives an inside look into the making of the musical, against the backdrop of being a gay man in 90s New York. It is also a beautiful and moving account of Rapp’s personal grief at the loss of his friend Larson and later his mother.

Other Biographies:

Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration by David Wojnarowicz (1991)

Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir by Paul Monette (1988)

City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and ’70s by Edmund White (2009)

NOVELS:

Tales of the City series (1978 – present)

Olympia Dukakis as Anna Madrigal in Tales of the City. Courtesy of Netflix.

A classic that should be on any queer reading list, Armistead Maupin’s stories span three decades in San Francisco and of course touch on the impact of AIDS. Beginning in the 1970s and moving forwards into the 80s there’s a creeping sense of dread reading them retrospectively that wasn’t there when Maupin published in almost ‘real time’ as serialised pieces in The San Fransisco Chronicle. Much like Cleve Jones’ real-life account (and based in Maupin’s own experience) they chronicle the impact on a city and a community. And of all the Tales, the AIDS narratives in Maupin’s remain the most compelling and moving. The serialised nature too, feeling much like TV (which it would of course later become adapted for) and the closeness with the characters lost in the series feels incredibly moving. That Maupin’s stories continue post-AIDS is also important, and in those stories, and the more recent TV adaptation we see how a community mourned, moved on, and healed as well.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt (2013)

Taking a different perspective to many of the stories we’re used to encountering, Tell the Wolves I’m Home follows 14-year-old June’s story. June loses her gay uncle, the only person whom she really feels understands her, to AIDS. After his funeral she befriends his boyfriend and realises not only the whole life he had beyond her family, but how loved he was. It makes for a refreshing take on some of the narratives of families abandoning people with AIDS by foregrounding instead the idea of chosen family and the love and sense of community found within it.

Christodora by Timothy Murphy (2016)

The Christodora is home to Milly and Jared, a privileged young couple with artistic ambitions. Using the building as the centre to this novel, Murphy charts the lives around it including neighbour Hector, a Puerto Rican gay man who was once a celebrated AIDS activist but is now a lonely addict. The story moves between the Tompkins Square park of 80s activists to the hipsters of the 2000s, using the backdrop of this corner of New York to tell the story of AIDS in the city, and the people left behind after those fraught early decades.

Other novels

People in Trouble by Sarah Schulman (1990)

The Darker Proof by Adam Mars-Jones and Edmund White (1987)

To the Wedding by John Berger (1995)

PLAYS:

Theatre was one of the first means by which artists responded to AIDS, both as a form of activism, and as a form of memorial. Protests and activism used performative elements, and due to the already close relationship between the LGBTQ+ community and the theatre community, things like cabarets, benefit performances, and concerts for AIDS formed an early means of response. As did, soon after, writing work about AIDS. Lots of these earliest works don’t survive in their full form, but organisations like Gay Sweatshop in London or theatres like Theatre Rhinoceros in San Francisco staged plays about AIDS from its earliest years.

Lewis Reeves and Julian Ovenden in My Night with Reg, 2015. Photo credit: Johan Persson.

My Night with Reg by Kevin Elyot (1994)

The best-known British play about AIDS. It is, in typical British fashion humorous and self-deprecating. The play follows a group of friends in London, and feels for the most part like a British version of Mart Crowley’s The Boys in the Band, except in this play there is an, unnamed, cloud looming in the form of AIDS.

Jeffery by Paul Rudnick (1993)

This play is an unlikely thing, an almost-romcom about HIV/AIDS. When the title character Jeffery sees the impact of AIDS on the community, he swears celibacy as an answer. Until of course he falls in love. Set a little later, in the mid-1990s, it has the benefit of distance from the worst years that allows it to have a little fun. There are still the devastating effects of the pandemic in full view, but this play in a charmingly sweet way, asks how gay men can start to move from the crisis with how they live their lives.

Brad Davis and D.W. Moffett in The Normal Heart at The Public Theater in 1985. Martha Swope/NYPL for the Performing Arts.

The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer (1985)

No account of AIDS literature is complete without the inclusion of Larry Kramer, and following Report from the Holocaust he turned his hand to theatre. The Normal Heart is based on Kramer’s experience at setting up Gay Men’s Health Crisis and first trying to motivate the gay community to activism. Wrapped up in Kramer’s political diatribes in the play is an incredibly moving look at the impact on the community, from harrowing accounts of deaths in hospitals which didn’t understand what they were dealing with, to eulogies for those lost, to trying to love in the face of the epidemic. Its sequel The Destiny of Me is the better made play, but The Normal Heart forever feels like it was ripped straight from the heart.

Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes by Tony Kushner (1991)

Much like Kramer, no list is complete without Kushner and his sweeping political epic theatre piece that was about, to quote the playwright himself, ‘Mormons, AIDS, and America’ and also Roy Cohn. The latter took on greater political resonance, due to being a lawyer to a certain former American president. Kushner is concerned with another former Republican, Reagan, and his play balances philosophical reflections (and ramblings) on the state and philosophy of America, alongside anger at Reagan’s treatment of AIDS. Similar to Kramer, although the two were in the midst of a long-lasting rivalry, Kushner takes an approach that fuses the heart-wrenchingly human, with the fantastical, and political. But Prior Walter, when he turns to address the audience at the close of the play, much like Kramer’s characters, cuts to the heart of what AIDS meant to these writers; love and loss.

Other plays:

Holding the Man (2006) The Inheritance (2016)

Musical theatre also responded to AIDS, and there were a few break-out hits among those.

RENT by Jonathan Larson (1996)

Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize winning musical about East Village Bohemians. Taking a rock-pop score to the story of La Boehme and transposing it to AIDS and the early 90s this musical mixes gay and straight stories, in an emotional look at young lives impacted by AIDS. Not without criticism—from accusations of Larson stealing the plot, to questions about the representation, and the work of heterosexual Larson’s portrayal of queer people—it however defied all of that and has become one of the most popular musicals of all time, and a defining one for many a musical theatre fan.

The Boy from Oz (1998)

This jukebox musical about Australian singer-songwriter Peter Allen (whose songs you’ll no doubt know even if you’ve never heard of him) who was also best known for being the first husband of Liza Minelli. It got a new lease of life when Hugh Jackman took on the role for the Broadway production. While the book of this musical is a little thin, and it stops short of actually saying the word AIDS on stage, it was an important acknowledgment of Allen’s contribution to music, and the fact Australia lost one of its most influential musicians to AIDS.

Christian Borle and Andrew Rannells in Falsettos, 2016. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

Falsettos (1990)

A fascinating composite piece of a musical in that the story began in the late 70s, with the first part March of the Falsettos being produced in 1981. As a result, by the time part two, Falsettoland (1990) was made, the writers James Lapine and William Finn, had no choice but to incorporate the impact of AIDS into the narrative. So what begins as a story of self-discovery with a man leaving his wife because he’s gay, ends in the tragedy of losing the one he loves to AIDS.   

FILM:

Film has played a huge part in telling AIDS stories too. But so often, as with books and plays, relegated to just ‘the gay section’ of film history. Even early on, films were made that responded to the crisis. These included Parting Glances (1989), An Early Frost (1985), Long-time Companion (1989), and Buddies (1985).

There have been a number of documentaries made and How to Survive a Plague (2012) is probably the most comprehensive on AIDS, telling the story of the early years of the epidemic and the activists involved. Following the founders of ACT UP, the documentary follows their struggles to get the US government and medical establishment to approve drug trials, conduct research, and treat those with AIDS. Following elements such as the trade in HIV medication, protests around immigration policy and government legislation, it follows the group towards the creation of the International AIDS Conference in the late 1980s.  Interviewing surviving activists, friends, and family this documentary and the accompanying book provide probably the most comprehensive accounts of the early days of activism. Other key documentaries include United in Anger: A History of ACT UP (2012), Common Threads Stories from the Quilt (1989), and Howard (2018).

There have also been an array of adaptations of books and plays in the past couple of decades. Starting early on with a film version of And the Band Played on which brought to life the stories in Randy Schilts’ non-fiction work. In plays, film versions of The Normal Heart (2014), Holding the Man (2015) and My Night With Reg (1996). Kushner’s epic play, Angels in America, spent years in development as a film before being made into a six-part TV mini-series on HBO in 2003.

Some stories around HIV/AIDS told on film have been more queer than others. In recent years Dallas Buyers Club (2013) became the latest to tell ‘straight AIDS stories’ with its drug-smuggling central character. Other films also told straight stories of HIV/AIDS including Kids (1995), Boys on the Side (1995), Life Support (2007) , and Precious (2009).

Philadelphia (1993)

Regarded as the first Hollywood film about AIDS, this legal drama starred Tom Hanks as a lawyer fighting his former firm for unlawful dismissal as a result of his AIDS diagnosis. He teams up with a Black lawyer (Denzel Washington) who sees parallels in discrimination he has faced. Important in the profile it gave to telling stories about AIDS, the film stays firmly in a ‘safe’ camp of the legal drama around the story, certainly Hanks’ character and his boyfriend played by Antonio Banderas remain in strictly ‘PG’ levels of affection for one another. An AIDS narrative for a mainstream audience, but the taboo-breaking, or at least conversations that the Oscar-winning film sparked were important.

Pride (2014)

While the main focus of this film isn’t AIDS itself, the spectre of AIDS, and its impact, looms large. Set against the backdrop of Britain’s Miner’s Strike (1984-85) and telling the true story of the formation of Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, the unlikely but inspired alliance of a group of lesbians and gay men to support striking miners in Wales. Mark Ashton, founder of LGSM, and central character of the film died in 1987 aged just 26. Also in the film is a cameo from Russell Tovey which in just a few short lines communicates so much about the impact AIDS was already having on the community.

BPM (Beats Per Minute) / 120 battements par minute (2017)

Centring on the early 1990s in Paris, this French film incorporates the political perspectives, the struggle against government censorship, access to drugs, into the personal storylines of the ACT UP activists involved. It focuses on the stories of four central characters and their experiences, and the way they as a community, and as an activist group, cared for those with AIDS. A careful balancing of sharing political history, while maintaining a human story, this film also takes the narrative out of the US and shows the similarities and differences between activism in the two countries, and the sense of worldwide community.

The stories around HIV/AIDS are as varied as the people who experienced the pandemic, and many stories are still untold. But over the last four decades the queer community has raised its voice in various mediums to share these stories and record the history of the period. With Russell T Davies’ It’s A Sin breaking streaming records in the UK, hopefully there are many more stories still to come.

By Dr Emily Garside @EmiGarside

Please get in touch via social media @TheQueerReview to let us know your own favourites and recommendations you would add to this non-exhaustive list.

Read Dr Emily Garside context-setting It’s A Sin article, It’s A Sin builds on a long legacy of HIV/AIDS narratives, James Kleinmann’s review of the series, and our exclusive interviews with the series creator Russell T Davies, and cast members Lydia West, Omari Douglas, and Nathaniel Curtis.

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