‘It’s a Sin’: Books to read about the 1980s Aids epidemic, as recommended by the Terrence Higgins Trust

Tara Breathnach
·4-min read
<p>From fictional accounts to investigative reportage and critical theory, our round-up includes books on the crisis for all interested readers</p> (The Independent)

From fictional accounts to investigative reportage and critical theory, our round-up includes books on the crisis for all interested readers

(The Independent)

The new Channel 4 TV series It’s A Sin, which follows on a group of gay friends in London in the Eighties, has, for many, brought the Aids crisis of the era back into focus.

The five-part miniseries by screenwriter Russell T Davies (Queer as Folk, Cucumber, Banana, Tofu) is a highly autobiographical piece, with The Independent’s reviewer Ed Cumming describing it as “a look back at its author’s youth that mingles horror with nostalgia”.

It follows a group of gay friends who move into a house together – the “pink palace” – at a time when the world was just learning about HIV.

This timeline of the crisis recounts how Aids was first clinically reported in the US on 5 June 1981. A year later, in 1982, Terrence Higgins became one of the first men to die of an Aids-related illness in the UK.

His partner Rupert Whitaker, along with a group of friends, set up Terry Higgins Trust, now known as the Terrence Higgins Trust.

For anyone who’s watched It’s A Sin, or plans to, there’s no doubt the show may well bring up a lot of questions about this time in recent history.

Fans of the show have deemed it as essential viewing, and it’s easy to see why given the importance of the subject matter. Ian Green, chief executive at the Terrence Higgins Trust, says: “Early Aids activists fought tooth and nail for government action, gathered information to save lives in a time before Google and Wikipedia, and fundraised for research to get us to where we are today. We stand on these people’s shoulders and their stories deserve to be told. That’s why I would urge anyone to watch It’s A Sin – but not to stop there and to keep reading, listening, watching and learning.

“And while It’s A Sin centres on a group of young gay men in 1980s London, we’re privileged to work with a whole host of different people as HIV can, and does, affect anyone of any age, sexuality, ethnicity or gender.”

With this in mind, and with help from the Terrence Higgins Trust, we’ve put together a rundown of books that will shine some light on these events.

You can trust our independent round-ups. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections. This revenue helps us to fund journalism across The Independent.

‘And the Band Played On: Politics, People and the Aids Epidemic’ by Randy Shilts, published by St Martin’s Press: £14.26, Amazon


This book of investigative reporting by journalist Randy Shilts chronicles the discovery of the Aids epidemic. Noted for being the first openly gay reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, Shilts extensively covered the disease in his reporting during a time when it was little understood.

Shilts looks at how Aids was ignored or denied by many national institutions in the US. His words hit home: the book became an international bestseller and was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Buy now

‘Close to the Knives’ by David Wojnarowicz, published by Canongate: £9.60, Blackwell’s


Close to the Knives is a collection of essays in which the author writes about his violent childhood and being homeless in New York before he went on to become one of the most provocative artists of his generation.

In this book, subtitled A Memoir Of Disintegration, Wojnarowicz covers street life, drugs, art and nature, family, Aids, politics, friendship and acceptance, all while challenging the reader to look at their own life.

Buy now

‘Tales of the City’ by Armistead Maupin, published by Penguin: £3.49, World Of Books

World Of Books
World Of Books

Written in 1978, Tales Of The City is a novel about a group of people living in a complex in San Francisco owned by their eccentric landlady, Anna Madrigal.

One character, Michael Tolliver, is an HIV-positive gay man who watches his friends die of Aids, and struggles with what his own future might hold.

Maupin went on to write Michael Tolliver Lives in 2007, revealing that his beloved character had survived his illness for 20 years.

If you’re keen to watch rather than read, you can find an 11-part series from 1993 on All4 now.

Buy now

‘Tell the Wolves I’m Home’ by Carol Rifka Brunt, published by Turtleback Books: £21.99, Blackwell’s


Tell the Wolves I’m Home follows the story of 14-year-old June, who is heartbroken when her gay uncle, the only person she feels really understood her, dies of Aids.

After the funeral, June forms a friendship with her late uncle’s boyfriend, and realises how loved he was beyond his own family, by his partner and the art community he left behind.

Buy now

‘Aids and its Metaphor’ by Susan Sontag, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux: £28.64, Amazon


Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor is a work of critical theory in which the author wrote about the metaphors attributed to cancer (Sontag had breast cancer herself in 1978).

In this companion book, Aids and its Metaphor, Sontag looks at the metaphors central to the Aids crisis and tries to deconstruct how attitudes to disease are formed in society.

Buy now

National HIV Testing Week begins on 1 February. Find out more on the It Starts With Me website

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