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How to Survive a Plague
How to Survive a Plague

The most poignant and powerful depictions of HIV and Aids in film

From tender snapshots of black queer communities to the untold stories of women campaigners, activists pick faithful on-screen moments

Last Saturday marked World Aids Day, an annual day of awareness which saw celebrities don their red ribbons and news broadcasts discuss Aids as though it’s a thing of the past. Luckily, to some extent, it is. ART (anti-retroviral therapy) has advanced to the point that HIV+ people can suppress their viral loads to undetectable levels, meaning they can’t transmit the virus and they can control it, stopping it from ever developing into Aids. Preventative drug PrEP, which is currently being rolled out as part of an NHS trial, has also made it easier than ever for people to protect themselves.

There are still problems – reports of NHS trial oversubscription are worrying, to say the least – in even wealthy, Western countries, but regions in East and Southern Africa are still being hit extremely hard by the virus. As for representation on-screen, it tends to ignore the fact that black and trans communities (trans women in particular) are also disproportionately at risk. This is a remnant of the homophobic, fear-led media campaign of the 1980s, which heightened stigma around the virus and planted the seeds for bigots – and even the NHS – to insinuate that PrEP is a “gay lifestyle drug” some thirty years later.

But there are some sensitive, comprehensive portrayals of HIV on-screen, and they’re vital. Russia is a cautionary tale – its notorious ‘gay propaganda law’ launched a crackdown on representation, and they’ve resulted in a spike in new transmissions. There’s a long way to go, but to commemorate World Aids Day we asked activists what films, shows and documentaries we could watch to educate ourselves. Some humanise HIV+ characters – a vital step in tackling still-pervasive stigma – and others celebrate those who fought for the progress we have today, but they’re all exemplary of how HIV should be represented on-screen.

PHILADELPHIA (1993)

According to QX writer and HIV activist Jason Reid, “Philadelphia is the seminal mainstream film that tackles the starkness of HIV/Aids.” He continues: “I watched it before and after becoming HIV+ and even though I saw the film in a different light, having been through a period of Aids defining illness myself, both times I was moved to tears. Times have changed and the disease has become manageable, but the stigma that is portrayed in this film is still very much real.”

Reid also can’t resist a cheeky dig at recent big-budget films which perhaps didn’t depict HIV so comprehensively: “It’s a real shame Bohemian Rhapsody didn’t properly highlight Freddie Mercury’s illness too, but never mind! It was a jolly old sing-song. Wouldn’t want to put the heteros off, would we?”

TONGUES UNTIED (1989)

A semi-documentary film set in 1989 New York, activist Philip Samba chose Tongues Untied for its black queer represenation, and for its nuanced depiction of the fear attached to gay sex in particular during the years following the AIDs epidemic. “I chose it because black queer men have the highest rates of HIV worldwide,” explains Samba, who works as a health improvement specialist for leading HIV charity Terrence Higgins Trust. “In 1989 (these characters) were complaining about the same issues we have today: a heteronormative white society, and a lack of honest visibility and representation.”

UNITED IN ANGER (2012)

Sophia Forum is an organisation which advocates tirelessly for women living with HIV, so it should come as no surprise that Trustee Jacqui Stevenson chose her representation based on its inclusion of the women so often erased from queer history. “Unlike many films, plays and documentaries about the early days of the epidemic, United In Anger tells a diverse story including women activists and women living with HIV,” says Stevenson of her selection.

“Women played a central role in (Aids activist movement) ACT UP (and in) many different movements, but often they’re missing from the stories told now. Women spent – and spend – so much energy to be included, so I really appreciated United In Anger for telling that story.”

EMPIRE (2015 ONWARDS)

According to Louie Ortiz-Fonseca, who founded New York-based ECHO, the first ever youth-led national council of HIV+ activists, strong HIV representation can be found on the silver screen too. “FOX’s show Empire currently has a story arc featuring Jussie Smollet’s character, Jamal, dating someone living with HIV,” he says.

“While other primetime shows have had similar story arcs, they don’t usually centre the story around black or brown queer men. My 16-year-old son watches the show religiously and I, as someone living with HIV, am glad that he and his friends are getting a more complete and affirming narrative in mainstream media. The conversation it’s inspiring around HIV prevention and treatment shouldn’t be discounted – I’m seeing it first-hand.”

POSE (2018)

To call Pose groundbreaking would be an understatement. Not only does the series spotlight a record number of queer and trans actors of color in well-written, comprehensive roles, it tackles vital conversations with care – no doubt a consequence of placing trans people behind the camera as well as in front of it.

For Tyreese Taylor, a founding member of ECHO and a representative of the iconic vogue House of Revlon, the show “embodies not just the life of someone living with HIV, but also the everyday struggles that shadow over the LGBTQ community. As a young, bisexual man living with HIV I can relate to almost every scene – even the ballroom scenes!” He credits the series with dismantling stigma, and reiterates that this should be a key focus. “HIV stigma is bogus – if I could wave my magic wand and change it overnight I would. But Pose is great. It’s simply just great!”

NO FILM

It’s crucial to note that not everyone we asked felt any positive or comprehensive on-screen representation of HIV exists. Women are still often overlooked, although organisations like Sophia Forum and campaigns like Invisible No More are working to tackle this, and trans representation tends to be scarce.

Queer Sex author and activist Juno Roche recently highlighted this in a Twitter thread which drew attention to the invisibility of key demographics, and she similarly argues that HIV characters are often stereotyped on-screen. “I think that most films still use the person with HIV or Aids as the victim, and therefore we constantly expect their demise. If a film was made that showed success and normality without that central need to have an ever-diminishing (HIV+) character then it would be true to life, which is what films should be.”

NOAH’S ARC (2008)

Despite running for just two seasons before being abruptly cancelled, activist Jacen Zhu credits Noahs Arc with giving a voice to black queer communities. Zhu does this himself: not only does he speak openly about life as an HIV+ porn performer, he recently founded initiative Takedown Tina to raise awareness of crystal meth usage within queer and trans communities of colour in the US.

Noahs Arc talked about life on the DL (down-low), HIV/AIDs and femininity and black queer men, and in my opinion it gives a voice to black queer communities,” he says. “The in-depth focus on HIV stigma comes through characters like Ricky, whose sexual activities lead to risk. He falls in love with an HIV+ doctor named Junito, and for me that dynamic was really powerful.”

HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE (2012)

Activist and Porn4PrEP founder Jason Domino admits that he struggles to find positive HIV representation (although he does highlight plays like The Chemsex MonologuesThe Inheritance and The HIV Monologues), but he eventually settles on 2012 documentary How To Survive A Plague. “It highlighted how lackluster pharmaceuticals were at the start of the epidemic and respected real people’s efforts.”

The problem still exists: medication has advanced exponentially, but those who need it can’t always get access. A long-awaited NHS trial is already facing oversubscription, and minorities that need PrEP the most can’t always access it.“Pharmaceuticals still owe the world to make PrEP as cheap as it can be,” explains Domino. “They owe it because activists had to make their research happen in the first place. (Fellow activist) Greg Owen put me onto this, and I’m really grateful for the controlled rage it gave me.”