Why Mainstream AIDS Drama It’s A Sin Is Right To Provoke Tears Of Rage

Remembering what it was like to grow up in the shadow of AIDS, Luke Turner argues that Russell T Davies' moving drama It's A Sin provides an overdue opportunity for society to recognise its complicity in the crisis, as well as similar injustices today

There’s a shot in the first episode of It’s A Sin, Russell T Davies’ intensely moving new drama about the AIDS crisis, when 18-year-old Ritchie Tozer takes the box of condoms his dad has given him to take to London and, laughing, throws them off the Solent ferry. Why would a gay man need condoms? It’s a poignant moment that says so much about what the AIDS crisis did to a generation of gay and bi men who, in the early 80s, were finally finding a sense of sexual and social freedom.

The first minutes of It’s A Sin glow with a sense that the hard work of 1970s gay liberation had started to work, that a group of young people could come to London to party in gay venues, find each other and find sex, yes, but also flats, jobs, ordinary lives. Davies depicts the joy of this self-discovery at the same time as he turns up the shock, loss and grief as the crisis deepens. Early episodes remind me of the early scenes in BBC apocalypse drama Threads, where reports of escalating war appear on the radio and TV in the background to kitchen sink domesticity. The same happens in It’s A Sin, rumours of a strange new illness hitting gay men in America appearing in background conversations, or on leaflets handed out by older gay men, before the horror engulfs them all.

Yet It’s A Sin isn’t misery telly, and therein lies its brilliance. Although it’s painfully hard-hitting, Davies writes and shoots with a lightness more typical of a soap opera, just one that happens to feature threesomes and the inevitable awkwardness of rimming. Some have criticised the programme for simplicity, but, to my mind, that’s why it’s so digestible, compelling, and can speak across the generations. When they say hello or wave goodbye to one another the main characters have a sweet ritual of putting a hand to their faces and singing, "la!" If this is a deliberate hook to the Instagram pose generation then it’s a beautifully executed one. There’s wonderfully caustic, bleak humour too ("New York? You’d suck him off to get to Ealing Broadway"), not to mention an absolutely killer soundtrack – again, that these are all absolute bangers (Soft Cell’s ‘Tainted Love’, Wham’s ‘Freedom’, Bronski Beat’s take on ‘I Feel Love’, Patrick Cowley’s ‘Do You Wanna Funk’) rather than funereal dirges, gives the programme the vim that makes it so accessible, that makes it so sad and quietly angry. At the same time, it’s a beautiful portrait of friendship, of how our families struggle and eventually succeed in accepting us, and features one of the best explanations of the toxic, destructive power of shame I’ve heard outside of a sexual behaviour therapist’s office. How desperately we need as many people as possible to hear these narratives, and not everyone is going to have a well-thumbed copy of Derek Jarman’s At Your Own Risk, or David Wojnarowicz’s journals, or be aware of the true story behind Cowley’s sublime disco .It feels as if this programme might tell the story of AIDS to the wider audience in what Jarman called ‘heterosoc’, where it so desperately needs to be heard.

However engaging, It’s A Sin doesn’t go light on telling the complexities of the history. I was previously unaware of the divisions within the gay community when the disease first appeared, those who were concerned about this mysterious new ‘cancer’ in America at odds with a younger generation who saw it as a conspiracy to prevent them living their full lives. I was similarly ignorant of the forced incarceration of HIV+ men in hospital wards. These stories need telling in the mainstream, and in the Evening Standard, Paul Flynn has written a beautiful piece on what it was like to be an adult gay man during the events of It’s A Sin, which you can read here. For those of us who were too young to directly experience these events, but lived through them via the news, It’s A Sin has a different resonance. It’s still an intense watch, and I’ve been in tears at every episode.

For us, a bigoted media ensured that AIDS and queer desire were inextricably linked. We knew of the disease only from the infamous government tombstone ads and celebrity death. Freddie Mercury (who had never explicitly come out as gay) announced that he had AIDS and died the next day. Liberace, Kenny Everett, Rudolf Nureyev – people who had little relevance to my generation. There was Derek Jarman, of course, who refused to be silenced, right up until the end. But these were all older men, which made it all seem more distant.

The youth of the characters in It’s A Sin brings it all home. We were exuberantly running around London once, just like them. For many gay and bi men, there’s the reality that had we been born just a decade earlier, we could easily have become victims of the first wave of the disease. Even in the 90s, we were terribly educated about it. In the monochrome towns and cities of tabloid England, AIDS haunted our incipient adolescent feelings for other men. We faced the common-or-garden homophobia of the time, but the shame was increased by the glowering warnings that your desires might kill you. As It’s A Sin explains in one of its most memorable scenes, this was the time of Section 28, the Tory legislation that forbade any positive teaching on LGBT+ life in schools. Sensible information about AIDS was a casualty.

As a teenager unsure as to whether I was on a path to being gay or sitting somewhere confused in the middle, there was an added level of unpleasantness from it all – I remember being pretty young and feeling sick before the Sunday roast at a full-page newspaper ad that featured two male hands clasped together, one wearing a wedding ring, and the slogan ‘Do you know who he’s sleeping with?’ The offensive narrative of bisexuals as conduits of disease from the gay community to ‘innocent’ heterosexuals is at the core of biphobia and bi erasure (indeed, if I have a critique of It’s A Sin it’s that the one bisexual character is a classic self-loathing, exploiting, closet case). Ironically, of course, the prejudice and lack of education around sexuality pushed teenagers like me into vulnerable situations, visiting public lavatories in our school uniforms, prey to seedy nonces decades older than ourselves. Bigotry will frequently make more dangerous the issues that supposed moralists claim to be solving with their blinkered attitudes.

The quiet anger of It’s A Sin comes at the Conservative Government’s complicity in the ignorance and deliberate discrimination that not only killed so many young men, but made their deaths lonely, painful and cruel. I don’t think it’s at all an exaggeration to describe what happened to that generation as a genocide by negligence, and that’s even without considering the many who saw AIDS as a ‘punishment’ for supposed ‘immorality’. We can’t forget that these events happened only a few decades ago – they are not ancient history. I often feel that there’s a complacency around sexuality, a feeling led by prominent media platforms, celebrities, social media influencers and the like that everyone can be who they want these days. I’m less convinced – my own secondary school, in the 90s an oppressive place of laddish prejudice where, out of 900 pupils, I didn’t know an out gay or bi lad, recently failed an Ofsted inspection for homophobic bullying. Are we really safe from this hardline government reintroducing legislation along the lines of Section 28? The right wing populism roiling across Europe and beyond has the hatred of LGBT+ people as part of its DNA. Homophobic AIDS prejudice has a contemporary echo in those who sees trans men and women as unnatural, as a ‘threat’ to the straight community. Callous Tory party policies are once again claiming lives as COVID-19 takes over 100,000 victims in the UK.

Like the Pet Shop Boys song that gives the programme a title, It’s A Sin is a work of art and pop, defiance, tragedy and high emotion. If you haven’t watched it yet, please do. It will make you cry and make you seethe, and rightly so. As a society we have to look back on the prejudice and ignorance that destroyed those young men, and we must remember them, forever with a sense of shame. We know the ones to blame.

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