“You do a good job of forgetting what you felt like. I’m not sure even being hit by a truck quantifies it,” says Nathaniel Hall, star of Channel 4’s It’s A Sin.
The actor – who played Donald Bassett, boyfriend to Olly Alexander’s Ritchie Tozer, in the hit drama, which centred on a group of friends growing up in the shadow of the 1980s AIDS crisis – is recalling his own HIV diagnosis at age 16.
“When I was diagnosed, it was a treatable illness, but it was still in the infancy of medication and a heavy diagnosis,” recalls Hall, now 36. “It was the last appointment of the day. It felt like ages walking down this corridor [to the room]. I felt faint, the nurses made me tea and I cried a lot.”
Speaking ahead of World AIDS Day on December 1, the actor and activist says: “I was still 16. I had grown up in a relatively white middle-class suburban area, I went to a normal comprehensive.
“I was head boy,” he adds, smiling. “A straight A student.”
Another memory that sticks out for him from that time is that it was the year after Will Young famously won the first series of reality TV show Pop Idol, in 2001. Being gay, despite the fact that it was the Noughties, was still tricky to talk about for many people, as Section 28 – the legislation introduced to stop gay issues being raised in schools – was still in place.
Hall recalls how he’d been collecting his outfit for his high school prom, when he first met the man he contracted the virus from.
“I met someone who was older than me on a park bench, after I picked up my tuxedo. He was very early-Noughties gay, with a tan and bootleg jeans. With his high-rise apartment in Stockport, it was glamorous. He was showing me Canal Street and drinking…”.
The man was 10 years his senior and it was Hall’s first sexual relationship. When it ended not long after, Hall says he “got very sick that summer when I came home from holiday. I went to the doctor and they thought it was a waterborne virus from the trip. I started college and I was very sick with chest infections.”
Everything changed when his doctor decided to test him for HIV.
“I had to become an adult instantly,” Hall says, looking back on the day he was diagnosed. “It was November, it was raining, and I came home and put the key in the door and had a choice to make: I can go in the kitchen and tell my family, or go upstairs and hide from it.”
He chose to keep quiet.
“I got on with life. I streaked naked across campus and went missing drunk on a night out in Sydney. I was in a toxic relationship, leaning on drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism, and I was really unhappy,” he shares now. “I wasn’t dealing with the stigma and shame. I was a loud and proud gay man but behind closed doors, I was carrying so much shame.
“I did everything I wanted to do as a teen and in my early 20s, but I had not acknowledged the psychological challenge [of having HIV]. I didn’t tell many people for 15 years, when my life had taken a turn for the worst.”
Eventually, he did start telling people about his HIV status – through his play First Time, and through having conversations with family and friends. Today, he is very open about what the experience was like for him back then.
“When you are told at 16 that you now have something you can pass to someone else [through sex], sex feels like a ticking time bomb, a live grenade,” Hall says. “From those early days, it was all, ‘You must use a condom’, my relationship with sex was quite complicated because I had to think about how I disclosed my status. I had such a fear of rejection.”
The scale of responsibility that came with it weighed heavy. But things changed when Hall found love with his current partner – Sean Taylor, 35 – during lockdown.
Hall explains how when they “started going out, he had seen my show and he knew I was HIV positive, and normally I would lead that conversation.
“But, before anything happened, he came to me and said he was taking PrEP [the drug that makes it far more difficult to contract HIV pre-exposure] and was comfortable not using condoms. He reminded me that it is everyone’s responsibility,” he recalls.
“The best way to be an HIV ally is to check your status and lead the conversation. I am the safest person you could ever be having sex with, but I am not here to educate you,” he says.
Treatment for HIV has come a very long way since the days depicted in It’s A Sin. Providing they have access to testing and treatment, people can live full, healthy lives after a diagnosis. Medication also means HIV levels in the blood become so low (called an undetectable viral load) that the virus cannot be passed on.
It isn’t something that only affects gay men, either. According to data from the Terrence Higgins Trust, there were “106,890 people living with HIV in the UK in 2019” and “of the 4,139 people diagnosed” that year, “41% were gay or bisexual men.”
One thing that does still need work though is ensuring everybody globally has access to treatment. In 2021, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that 650,000 people died of HIV-related causes. Since the beginning of the epidemic, over 40 million people have died.
“People should not be dying from something that is totally treatable,” says Hall. “We need to promote access to medication across the globe and remove that stigma. Silence equals death,” he adds.
Hall points to a tattoo on his arm and reads it aloud: “Action equals life.” It sits on his skin in thick black capital letters.
Without conversation, treatment becomes so much harder to receive, with shame keeping you trapped.
“Without treatment, I wouldn’t be here,” says Hall. “I grab life by the horns. Seeing other people with HIV overcome their own fear makes me so happy.”