HIV and Hollyoaks
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