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More than 30 years since Aids emerged, Britain is to have its first gay soap opera character with HIV. In January, Channel 4’s Hollyoaks, which next year celebrates its 20th anniversary and which is aimed at young people, will launch a major, long-running storyline following Ste Hay (played by 28-year-old Kieron Richardson) as he comes to terms with the diagnosis. Viewers will witness Ste receiving the results and coping with the social, medical and psychological aftermath.
Although soaps have tackled the issue before – most notably EastEnders’ Mark Fowler, played by Todd Carty, during the nadir of the Aids crisis, and Emmerdale’s Val Pollard (Charlie Hardwick) this year – neither character was gay. This is perhaps surprising, given that around half of new infections each year occur from sex between men, with a continuing rise in infections among young gay men.
“I was worried about telling this story – that it would amplify a long-dead belief that HIV is a gay disease,” says Hollyoaks producer Bryan Kirkwood. “But then I started reading the shocking statistics that 2012 was the all-time peak of new diagnoses among gay men and I thought by not telling this story we’re doing the gay audience a disservice. We want to convey the message that HIV hasn’t gone away, but is no longer a life-threatening illness – as long as you get tested.”
Ignorance, fear and silence around the issues are of particular personal resonance to Kirkwood.
“I was brought up by my gay dad in the 1980s when Section 28 [which prevented teachers from discussing homosexuality] was all around and that affected my childhood profoundly. My dad forbade us from mentioning he was gay to anyone for fear of us being snatched by social services and I think that fear of talking openly about gay sex in schools still lingers.”
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