HIV and Hollyoaks

GT (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS BEN­JAMIN BUT­TER­WORTH IM­AGE LEE ROBERTS

LAST YEAR, HOLLYOAKS’ KIERON

RICHARD­SON SPOKE TO GT ABOUT PLAY­ING SOAP’S FIRST GAY HIV-POS­I­TIVE CHARACTER. BUT SHOULD IT RE­ALLY BE LEFT TO TV TO ED­U­CATE GUYS ABOUT SEX­UAL HEALTH? THE MAN BE­HIND SOAP’S FIRST MA­JOR GAY CHARACTER, LORD MICHAEL CASH­MAN,

GIVES HIS RE­SPONSE

WHETHER YOU WATCH HOLLYOAKS or not, there’s no denying that the soap is mak­ing his­tory. Kieron Richard­son’s Ste is set to be­come the first-ever ma­jor gay character in a Bri­tish soap to be di­ag­nosed HIV-pos­i­tive.

Ex­cept, when GT broke the news on­line back in Novem­ber, it was met with a great deal of sur­prise.

Many com­mented that Mark Fowler from EastEn­ders had been HIV-pos­i­tive, or pointed to Colin Rus­sell – EastEn­ders’ first gay character, played by Lord Michael Cash­man – as hav­ing also con­tracted HIV.

In fact, both were in­ac­cu­rate. Mark Fowler did in­deed have HIV, but he wasn’t gay. Colin Rus­sell was gay, but his ill­ness turned out to be MS, not HIV.

It was almost a self-ful­fill­ing stereo­type that so many com­menters as­sumed Mark Fowler had been a gay man, purely be­cause he was pos­i­tive. But given that con­trac­tions of HIV are sig­nif­i­cantly higher among men who sleep with men – in 2012, there were 3,250 di­ag­noses – it’s a sur­prise that on TV there hasn’t been any.

The worry is that it’ll give the im­pres­sion that HIV is a ‘gay dis­ease’. But on the other hand, Yusef Azad, di­rec­tor of pol­icy and cam­paigns at the Na­tional AIDS Trust, thinks it’s about time.

“Re­al­ity isn’t stig­ma­tis­ing,” he tells us, “it’s em­pow­er­ing. A sto­ry­line which shows the chal­lenges for a gay man liv­ing with HIV but which also con­founds the stereo­types is per­fectly pos­si­ble.

“The gay com­mu­nity need not and should not be ashamed of how HIV af­fects us. We should only be ashamed if we’re silent on its im­pact and do noth­ing to change things.”

In 1989, Michael Cash­man had the first gay kiss on Bri­tish tele­vi­sion, play­ing EastEn­ders’ Colin Rus­sell. The story was hugely con­tro­ver­sial, with The Sun dub­bing it ‘EastBen­ders’ and ac­cus­ing scriptwrit­ers of be­ing re­spon­si­ble for the epi­demic of HIV and AIDS.

“We’ve got to deal with the re­al­ity that gay men, like les­bians, trans, are like het­ero­sex­ual peo­ple,” he tells GT. “We’re sub­ject to the same con­di­tions in which we live, the same ill­nesses, the same dis­eases. The one thing that we know about dis­ease is that it doesn’t dis­crim­i­nate, un­like ho­mo­pho­bia.

“We were go­ing through a time in the me­dia where it was only por­trayed, and I quote, as ‘a gay plague.’ There was one MP who stood up and said: ‘This is a good thing be­cause it would de­stroy the ho­mo­sex­ual pop­u­la­tion.’”

But un­like Hollyoaks to­day, he was keen that nei­ther of EastEn­ders’ gay char­ac­ters con­tracted HIV, for con­cern it would af­firm the neg­a­tive im­pres­sions of gay men which dogged the 80s.

“I was very keen we didn’t re­in­force that stereo­type that the only long-term gay character in the show had HIV. And in­deed we kind of led the pub­lic to be­lieve that Colin might be HIV-pos­i­tive when he had a se­ries of ill­nesses, but it was re­vealed that it was sclero­sis. So overnight, peo­ple’s prej­u­dices thought they’d been ful­filled, when ac­tu­ally they were chal­lenged.”

Almost 30 years on and the is­sues of HIV have seem­ingly come full cir­cle. Though it isn’t gen­er­ally seen as a ‘gay dis­ease’ any­more, on av­er­age, there’s almost TEN new di­ag­noses for guys sleep­ing with guys ev­ery day. Isn’t it time

th­ese is­sues were tack­led head on?

“We’re fac­ing a real chal­lenge in en­sur­ing that young gay men are aware of the risks of HIV,” says Math­hew Hod­son of the GMFA. “The Hollyoaks sto­ry­line has the po­ten­tial to be re­ally pow­er­ful and also one of the more hon­est de­pic­tions of HIV that we’ve seen.

“Of course HIV isn’t a gay dis­ease. It doesn’t have a sex­u­al­ity – and it doesn’t have a moral­ity; it’s a virus it is trans­mit­ted through body flu­ids and it just so hap­pens that anal sex with­out a con­dom is a very ef­fi­cient method of trans­mis­sion.”

That’s why Michael Cash­man says things have changed since his EastEn­ders days.

“We’ve moved on, there­fore the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the character is right for sev­eral rea­sons,” he tells us. “Part of the re­al­ity is that a lot of gay men are now en­gag­ing in un­safe sex, be­cause of the retro­vi­ral drugs. And it’s still seen as a threat within the gay com­mu­nity.

“We’ve changed our laws in this coun­try and so it’s right that we’ve pushed pub­lic opin­ion and changes in so­ci­ety to a po­si­tion where Hollyoaks now feels it can do it. It’s so easy to say they should have done it ear­lier, any other soaps could be ac­cused of do­ing the same. I’m more in­ter­ested in how we por­tray the peo­ple if they test early and live healthy, ful­fill­ing, full lives, even be­ing HIV-pos­i­tive.”

New con­trac­tions have soared in re­cent years – some­thing Michael puts down to “years of hav­ing to lead the life of a rub­ber nun.” Mean­while the gov­ern­ment de­clined to up­date guide­lines on sex and re­la­tion­ship ed­u­ca­tion; stag­nant for more than a decade now.

Shouldn’t gov­ern­ments – of all shades – have done more? “I think what gov­ern­ments do,” Michael says, “is support in­no­va­tion, they support re­search, they support in­for­ma­tion and ed­u­ca­tion. But in­ter­est­ingly, in get­ting the mes­sage across, soaps are prob­a­bly the best able to do it so, the most ef­fec­tively.”

The Hollyoaks sto­ry­line con­tin­ues to play out on Chan­nel 4. Let’s just hope that the mes­sage – to be se­ri­ous about your sex­ual health – is lis­tened to.

Hollyoaks is on Chan­nel 4 at 6.30pm and E4 at 7pm. The episode when Ste re­ceives his HIV di­ag­no­sis airs on 21 Jan­uary, @hollyoaks, @mcash­mancbe

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