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It's a Sin Is a Queer History Lesson That Doesn't Feel Like One

It's a Sin Is a Queer History Lesson That Doesn't Feel Like One

Image by Ben Blackall HBO Max

Russell T Davies's extraordinary new series recreates the terror of the 1980s without disregarding the sex, joy, and heroism.

Every few years, incredible works of art come along that break ground and shine a light on the unimaginable struggles our community endured. While it's true to say we've come a long way since 1993's Philadelphia (the first mainstream Hollywood film to acknowledge the HIV/AIDS epidemic), it's just as important to note that the Hulu romcom, Happiest Season, broke ground several months ago for being one of the few LGBTQ+-themed films made for the holiday season. In recent years, the popular FX series Pose explored the AIDS crisis among the African-Americans and Latinos who gave life to drag ball culture in 1980s Harlem.

Now, there's It's a Sin. The new British series, airing now on HBO Max, comes from prolific TV mastermind Russell T Davies, perhaps best known for his gay dramas Cucumber, Banana, Tofu, and Queer as Folk, as well as more mainstream fare like Torchwood and Years and Years. The story "that bears telling again and again and again," says Davies about the 1980s AIDS epidemic, opens with 18-year old Ritchie (Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander), moving from the Isle of Wight to London in 1981. There he meets Ash (Nathaniel Curtis), Roscoe (Omari Douglas), and Colin (Callum Scott Howells), and they all move into a flat in London's Streatham neighborhood, calling it The Pink Palace.

The young chosen family is completed by Jill (Lydia West), and it doesn't take long to realize that her character (based on Davies's real-life friend who appears briefly in the show herself, playing the fictional Jill's mother) becomes the beating heart of the decade-spanning five episodes. Jill navigates through unfamiliar territory by saying the right things, asking the right questions, and offering a keen sense of empathy and understanding, often blurring the loving lines between best friend, sister, and house mother. The connection this group shares and the strains on their lives as the virus spreads is the resonant story that unfolds.

The timeliness and relevance are what's most striking about the show. Just as inaccuracies and untruths around transmission remain widespread today, so does the shame and stigma around HIV and homosexuality. Unfortunately, the anxiety of getting tested and the prejudice that society dumps on HIV-positive people, scenarios that play out in It's a Sin, still prevail. How some families today even resort to the pseudo-scientific practice of conversion therapy, so too does Roscoe's Nigerian family when they attempt to "pray the gay away" in the first episode. Presently, Nigeria still does not allow or recognize LGBTQ+ rights, and there is no legal protection against discrimination there.

Still, one of the more noteworthy parallels to current times is the rise of discrimination and hate crimes. In It's a Sin, we see characters being fired from their jobs and ostracized for being gay.

Today, we hear startling facts about our trans brothers and sisters. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 27 percent of trans people have been fired, not hired, or denied a promotion due to their trans identity, and a majority (54 percent) of trans people have experienced some form of intimate partner violence. During the COVID-19 pandemic, racially-motivated violence against Asian-Americans has reached an alarming level across the United States. In New York City, there was an 867 percent increase in anti-Asian hate crime in 2020, compared to 2019. Similarly, in It's a Sin, Ritchie misplaces blame for the virus. He naively tells a love interest worried about HIV, "Don't be so stupid, it's Americans you don't sleep with, not Londoners... Americans! There's nothing wrong with boys from London!"

While the show hones in on the impact and threat of the AIDS epidemic, Davies places a well-deserved spotlight on the important women in their lives. Along with Jill, we see the group's mothers, sisters, nurses, lawyers, activists, and other friends. It's important to note that while the series only spans five hour-long episodes, covering everything of importance during this decade would be a challenge, and not everything that the show touches on gets sufficiently fleshed out.

However, the show is not sugarcoated or romanticized, which is vital because the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s was anything but that. In the first episode, a montage of one of the characters' late-night conquests gets off to an unfavorable beginning with a moment of realness about sexual hygiene that isn't something I've seen depicted in television before.

As AIDS took its toll in the '80s, victims were either abandoned or isolated or, arguably worse, pulled away from society by their families, too confused and embarrassed to reveal to anyone the truth about their child's illness.

"It was the disease that ended the life of Rock Hudson," a doctor informs one of the character's mother's in the third episode. Up to that point, AIDS didn't have a familiar face in the mainstream media. At the time in the U.K., under the Public Health Act of 1984, people with HIV could be quarantined against their will to prevent them from infecting others. "No one is allowed in, and he's certainly not allowed out," the doctor tells a mother who is already having a difficult time understanding the unfamiliar medical jargon she hears for the first time.

Vogue has called the show a binge-weep, and on British Twitter, where the series debuted on January 22, one person wrote, "Just finished watching the last episode of It's a Sin. I haven't cried that much over a tv show in years."

Speaking about the series's events, another viewer tweeted, "Just finished the final episode. Thank you Russell T Davies for such a wonderfully written drama that resonates so much with my own experiences as a gay teenager in 80s U.K."

While the epidemic impacts the group, the show's dialogue flows beautifully, and the hair, wardrobe, lighting, and music from the likes of Pet Shop Boys capture the era.

Ultimately, the show reminds us of what we lost during the decade: too many remarkable people, along with their passions, dreams, and talent. "I could have done anything, but I never will" is arguably the most heartbreaking sentence in the whole series. The show also stands as a tribute to the lives lost to AIDS, to their enduring memories and legacies, and as a plea for kindness and compassion during this new pandemic.

It's A Sin currently airs on HBO Max.

Alan Diamond is a freelance journalist.

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