It’s National HIV Testing Week and two years since It’s A Sin hit our screens. Activist Nathaniel J Hall (who played Donald Bassett in the show) reflects on the life-changing impact the broadcast has had…
It’s Friday night. I’m sat on the sofa in the attic at my parents’ house in the arms of my
boyfriend, sobbing my heart out as Everybody Hurts by R.E.M. plays over the closing
credits of what is now Britain’s most talked-about show. We’ve just watched my telly
acting debut as Donald Basset in Channel 4’s It’s A Sin, but that’s not why I’m crying.
I’ve lived with HIV for 19 years. Diagnosed at 16 after the first time I had sex, I know the shame associated with the virus well, but unlike the boys in the show, I was lucky enough to be diagnosed in 2003 in the era of medication.
The messages start, slowly at first, then a tidal wave. The show is an instant hit. My boyfriend and I look on with giddy excitement as my Twitter following soars, but soon I’m swamped. I want to reply to them all: “thank you for your kind words, it was an honour to be involved.” But after I’ve pasted it hundreds of times, it begins to feel meaningless.
I receive countless messages from men in particular who lived through the 80s – I sense that this remains raw for Britain’s gay community. I reflect that the show has stamped our history into the record books loud and unapologetically proud. I quietly hope it goes some way to validate what they all went through.
My boyfriend and I chat into the night, overjoyed that HIV has such a prominent place on British telly, but worried that scenes of frantic scrubbing may allow old myths to resurface. We’re concerned the ‘gay disease’ narrative will reappear (over 50 percent of people living with HIV in the UK are heterosexual) and we talk about the emotional labour of my campaigning for HIV awareness. I see the concern in my boyfriend’s eyes as he says he worries about me burning out. He’s right, I am exhausted. So are my Black friends. So are my Trans friends. The need for allies has never felt more urgent.
In the morning, we have sex without a condom. My boyfriend is HIV negative but there isn’t the fear felt in It’s A Sin. People with HIV on effective medication cannot pass the virus on. He also takes HIV medication that adds another layer of protection (PrEP). I lie in his arms afterwards, grateful for scientific advancements, but devastated for those for whom science moved too slowly.
“It must have been hard to portray that story on screen given what you’ve been through,” begins a message from a friend. I want to reply and say it wasn’t, I just turned up and said the lines but that doesn’t chime with the romanticism of the actor’s job or people’s expectations of my own story. I feel like a fraud.
On Monday morning my boyfriend leaves for work. On the front step he looks
me in the eye: “Proud of you,” he says. A feeling swells in my chest. I think it’s pride,
but it might be survivor’s guilt. The heaviness of the weekend has reminded me
that I’m one of the lucky ones.
As I head upstairs, I’m drawn back to the sofa in the attic. It’s where I had
my first kiss with another boy. As I recall that tender moment I’m overcome with
another rush of emotion.
Just look how far I’ve come; I think to myself. Just look how far we’ve yet to go.
Order a free HIV test during Testing Week from startswithme.org.uk