What ‘It’s a Sin,’ ‘Pose,’ and other TV shows have historically taught the world about HIV/AIDS

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Bennett Purser

It’s A Sin” (HBO Max) follows young gay men in 1980s London just as the HIV/AIDS crisis comes to disrupt their lives. With actors who identify as LGBTQ, the show comes after decades of HIV/AIDS stories being told on television, many of which were problematic and not always from perspectives of people affected by the virus.

Writer Erik Piepenburg recently wrote about “It’s a Sin” and the history of HIV and its depiction on TV for the New York Times. 

Piepenburg tells KCRW that as a young closeted teen in subruban Cleveland, he grew up with little exposure to what HIV and AIDS were, often learning about the virus after school on TV. 

“I remember television being the only place where I learned about HIV and AIDS. It wasn't in school, it wasn't at home, it wasn't anywhere else,” he says.

Although he remembers conversations surrounding sexuality and HIV/AIDS on “The Phil Donahue Show” and “Designing Women,” one of his strongest memories is watching Rock Hudson announcing on TV that he had AIDS. 

“I remember thinking to myself, well, this is not the dashing, debonair actor from ‘Pillow Talk.’ This is a man who looks very, very sick. And I thought, well, that's what it must mean to be gay. It is that you are going to get this disease because if it affected someone as famous as Rock Hudson … then I'm going to be next.”

Piepenburg says other TV shows like “Dynasty” added to the negative depictions of gay people in the media. 

“When those are the only representations that you have — gay men are either secretive or closeted, or dying, or they're just comedians that everyone laughs at — that's not a very healthy way to look at your sexuality in terms of seeing yourself reflected on television.”

He says it wasn’t until shows like “Tales from the City” and “Queer as Folk” that he began to see positive depictions of gay men. “That's when I started to finally realize, oh, okay, being gay doesn't mean that you're going to die when you're very young. And I wish I had that earlier.”

Once Piepenburg left Cleveland and moved to New York, he says he was able to see past his internalized fears of AIDS, HIV, and living as an out gay man. 

“I saw that there was this gay world out there, that there were gay men who were thriving. And even though there were gay men who were sick, there were people who loved them and cared for them.

A new era of AIDS representation

When watching “It’s a Sin,” Piepenburg says it was like looking into a mirror of his own experiences: young gay men who move to a big city and explore everything that it has to offer. 

But he says that’s where some of the similarities end. “It’s a Sin” starts in 1981, following the most devastating years of the AIDS crisis and its impact on the show’s main characters. "It's no spoiler when you talk about shows about AIDS — it has devastating consequences for these characters.“ 

Piepenburg, who is younger than the characters on “It’s a Sin,” says the show reminded him of how the AIDS crisis could have affected him. 

“I'm also grateful that I came of age a little bit later when I knew how to protect myself, and [it was] something that these characters just didn't have until it was too late,” he says. “As I was watching the show, I couldn't help but think if I had just been born a little bit earlier, I'm not sure if I would have been able to write this piece.”

He points out that shows like “It’s a Sin” and “Pose” focus on the dark but often untold (and diverse) parts of LGBTQ history. 

“There are rich, wonderfully fun stories being told that I think I really value seeing, as I think we are forgetting gay history in ways that I think is unconscionable. We don't want to forget that there were so many wonderful moments and people and memories from that time,” Piepenburg says. “If we don't remember that, then I don't think we have much of a future as a gay community. Because this is still impacting people to this day. This was such a devastating time, and we can't let that time and those memories disappear.”