It’s a Sin: The Role of Lesbians During the AIDS Crisis

COVID-19 is an appropriate context for It’s a Sin, a heart-wrenching British miniseries about the AIDS crisis in the UK. It follows five 18-year-olds, from both conservative and progressive backgrounds, that move to London in 1981 and are greatly affected by the AIDS epidemic.

The beginning of It’s a Sin depicts the freedom of moving to the big city as young gay men. AIDS isn’t well known in the UK yet, the gay scene sees it as a “mystery flu” that only affects American gay men. Once it does make it to the UK, shame, internalized homophobia, family and systemic oppression – especially in the field of medicine – are explored as key issues.

Ritchie Tozer, played by Olly Alexander, battling police at an AIDS protest in It’s a Sin. Courtesy Stan.

The close-ups of hand-shaking, close dancing, strangers kissing and touching public transport poles are strange to watch during COVID-19. We know now that AIDS is most commonly spread through anal or vaginal sex and sharing drug equipment. However, in 2021, we are familiar with the panic and public ignorance of pandemics, let alone epidemics like AIDS. It’s a Sin shows how world-wide homophobia prevented help and information sooner.

Ritchie Tozer and Jill Baxter, played by Lydia West, in It’s a Sin. Courtesy Stan.

When Gregory Finch, played by David Carlyle, contracts AIDS in It’s a Sin, the image of Jill Baxter bringing the grocery shopping to his door is all too familiar. Jill Baxter, played by Lydia West, is loosely based on long-time ally Jill Nalder. While Jill Baxter’s support is disrespected and denied by Gregory’s homophobic family, who end up burning all of his things after he dies – as if he never existed – she continues organizing and advocating for many other patients.

Sisters and Brothers

Jill represents the women who supported, advocated for, and took care of gay men who contracted AIDS during the 1980s. While Jill Baxter’s sexual orientation isn’t discussed in It’s a Sin, lesbians played a pivotal role during the crisis.

I interviewed lesbian Jen Roway, 52, who spoke of society’s view of gay men in the 1980s: “gay men were [called] “queers.” Dirty, sexual animals with no morals…AIDS was [seen as] a gift to rid the world of gay men. They were boiled down to one sexual act and their humanness was removed. That is what the president and his party implied and that is what much of society, churches and some media blatantly said.”

Jen Roway said about her experience: “As soon as I graduated and moved to Iowa City, with 5 gay men in a three bedroom apartment, I became very active. My sister adopted (unofficially) a gay man, Steven, when he was 16. He was nearly beaten to death when his bio dad found out he was gay. He was late 20’s when I graduated college. My best friend Shawn, a gay man my age, loved and looked up to Steven. We spent weekends visiting Steven in his apartment and he came to visit in the summer. Shawn was almost star struck because he was seeing a handsome older gay man living a happy and successful life as an interior designer. He might have had a crush, but mostly he was just seeing an older happy version of himself. The role model he was seeking.

I don’t remember the year but I was likely about 23. Steven asked us to come to his apartment and meet his dog, a Doberman. We visited and what we saw was not the happy energetic, handsome Steven. We saw a thin, pale dying man. He had hardly anything in his place. He had sold or given away most of it. He slept on a chaise lawn chair because it was easier on his lesions and sores. His dog slept nearby and he kept it dark because the sun hurt his eyes since he rarely went out. He told us he had AIDS and would die soon. He asked us to not come back because he would only get and look worse. He would not let us hug him, telling Shawn he didn’t want him to get sick.

He passed a few weeks later. That fast from healthy to dead in several months. My sister paid for his stone. I still put a rainbow flag on his grave most Junes, gay pride month. Months he really didn’t get to celebrate as an out gay man. His passing drove me to join the Iowa City AIDS advocacy group. I trained and visited men in hospitals, knowing I was often the only or last person they would see. Death was 100 percent and fast. I knew I was a lesbian and even if not out I knew that we were not getting HIV or AIDS. I also learned safe sex and helped talk to people seeking that information on the phone or at events.

Supplied by Jen Roway: some names of people who died of AIDS in Iowa City.

Denise Krejci, 63, lesbian, was involved in RAPID AIDS PROJECT (RAP) during the 1980s. I interviewed her about her experience during the AIDS crisis in the US. Her work included participating in annual fundraising galas, envelope stuffing, and running a copy machine. She says about the fundraising galas, “[it was] a huge sit down dinner, black-tie, auction event. There were always several hundreds of people in attendance. The money raised helped in supporting folks regarding caretakers, homes, meds, doctor visits, transportation, and food.

As for attitudes, Denise says: “Ignorance of this disease and how cruel mankind is was devastating to their minds. People I worked with were afraid they were going to catch it from me or a coworker that would visit my house. Men were afraid to shake my friend/coworker’s hand. Our little town lost over 100 of the gay population and I had known them as well as guys from other towns that visited our place. This pandemic today was like the virus was 30+ years ago. The mortuaries wouldn’t embalm the guys. Almost all were cremated, the exception being one friend that was Muslim. He wasn’t embalmed either.”

Denise says, about the pain of losing friends: “Month after month I was told about guys that were dying or had died…It’s ridiculous to think that thinking of someone was like an omen, so I stopped…I would just wonder out loud, “hey, has anyone heard from Penny?” The response was “he passed last month.” Couples were dying days and weeks apart. There was a feeling of survivor’s guilt for some. There was tremendous (testing +) denial. “If I don’t get tested, I won’t be sick.

My best friend Farley, stood up for my wife and I when we married, was a wonderful friend. I would visit him in the hospital when I’d get off work at night, 11:00 pm or 3:00am. The nurses were glad to see that guys had visitors even during unconventional times. They were compassionate to the nth degree. But the general population was f*cking cruel. There are very few guys remaining from the 1980’s through early 2000’s. Some committed suicide after finding out they were positive, some were so debilitated before getting a medical confirmation they survived for only days after. Much of this I blame on our government. Ronnie Reagan didn’t think the people dying were important until his buddy Rock Hudson died. I miss my friends, my brothers, my school mates, the boys my brothers hung out with, the boys we all grew up with, the guys that called me girlfriend with an emphasis on ‘friend’. I miss them terribly.”

Future Lesbian and Gay Solidarity

Lesbian scholar Lillian Faderman states that there was a “huge split” among gay men and lesbian women during the 1970s, but the AIDS crisis united them. Jen Roway saw evidence of this: “lesbians, many who abandoned the bar scenes for lesbian land or to housing coops or other places without men were coming back to care for the men, [work] others were not willing to do. Old high school friends moved in with each other so the men could die and the lesbians cared for them. Party friends became caretakers.”

The historical relationship between gay men and lesbian women is extraordinarily important. Whether it be coupling up throughout history to avoid homophobic suspicion, as seen on the TV show Ratched, or bathing each other’s skin when the rest of society won’t even shake your hand, it’s essential such loyalty continues in the face of new homophobic concerns.

AJ Kelly

Contact AJ at [email protected] or view the rest of her work on

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