Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
While Hugh Grant lookalikes were waking up sleepily, forgetting they had so-and-so’s wedding that day, there were boys who had not slept because they could not forget that their friend’s funeral was the next day, agonising over when it might be theirs.
This was the daily worry that gay men were facing in the 1980s and 90s. While straight men were celebrating “wedding season”, gay men over the country were dying of an unknown illness. Because, as Russell T Davies’ show It’s A Sin demonstrates, getting aids was ‘a life sentence’. On top of horrific homophobia, fewer legal rights, and daily prejudice, gay men had to battle against an unknown virus, armed with little information and often little support. What’s more, the lack of information led to increased scapegoating and scaremongering.
If you haven’t watched It’s A Sin yet, stop whatever you are doing and watch it right now. The actors are brilliant, the script is gripping, its soundtrack is fantastic, but most importantly it shows the horrific reality that so many people suffered under, and that so many today do not know the full extent of. It cannot remain unknown any longer. It is one of the most important series of recent British television history; it is Channel 4’s most binged programme. But for many, this isn’t just another hit TV series – this was real people’s lives and for many of the older generations, it is too reminiscent of one of Britain’s darker and shameful pasts. It’s A Sin highlights just how little we know about the crisis, and how many affected are still recovering from the damage and trauma it inflicted.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, where the whole country was locked down because of an unknown virus that was spreading quickly, I question whether some people were thought of as more dispensable than others. It’s A Sin demonstrates uninformed attitudes to homosexuality. People insisted that being gay was a ‘decision’, a ‘lifestyle choice’, a ‘phase’; thus, if there was a disease apparently targeting homosexuals, surely it was their fault? Indeed, as Jill tells Ritchie’s mother in the final episode, AIDS was “the perfect virus”; it “came along to prove you right”. The disease was used to support heteronormative worldviews.
Further, the show portrays that it did not matter whether you were sexually licentious or had engaged in sex with just one man – it could happen to anyone. But most importantly, It’s A Sin rids the judgement of gay men leading a sexually liberal lifestyle – there is no comparable judgement to sexually licentious heterosexual men. As Ritchie says positively in the final episode, he “had so much fun”. Much like the lockdown now, people risked their lives because as humans we have an innate desire to want to love and to be loved.
If this was a disease that was killing heterosexual boys, I believe there would have been a different response. Davies’ show is instrumental in rightly portraying these homophobic attitudes as abhorrent and repugnant.
I have thought about this show every day. It has left an emotional scar and that is a good thing. Because no one should forget what these boys suffered on a daily basis. AIDS takes everything away from you, it takes your life, your future, your body, your agency. Russell T Davies gives the AIDS victims the acknowledgement, respect and dignity that these men deserved.
It’s A Sin also rightly celebrates the gay community and the individuals surrounding them who worked tirelessly to fight for AIDS victims and support those affected by this disease. The portrayal of Jill, based on a friend of Davies who dedicated her life to helping AIDS victims, highlights Davies’ key message. It’s A Sin exemplifies the importance of compassion, acceptance and kindness, and how the absence of these can have such a devastating impact.