Review: It's a Sin
Evie Snelling discusses the harsh reality and social stigma attached to the AIDS pandemic and how it has taken a binge-worthy show for our generation to recognise the devastating impact that it had in the 1980s.
Image description: The work invites the viewer to create a discussion around gender, queer stereotypes and toxic masculinity.
I, like 6.5 million other viewers, managed to binge-watch It’s a Sin over three days and two packets worth of tissues. It’s shocking and heartbreaking; an amalgamation of anger and passion. Following a group of proud, hedonistic gay men and their friends, the show brings the shocking truth of the 1980s HIV/AIDS crisis to our screens. Creator Russell T Davies draws on his friends’ experiences to highlight the horrific stories of marginalisation and prejudice at the time.
The show follows five friends living together in a London flat they call ‘The Pink Palace’: Colin, a sweet-tempered suit tailor; Ritchie, an actor who moves to London after living on the small ‘conservative’ Isle of Wight; Roscoe, a young, confident man whose family disown him after he comes out; Ash, a drama student who catches Ritchie’s eye; and Jill, the mother of the group, who struggles to educate herself when her friends fall ill. Throughout the five episodes, we move from loving the characters to grieving with them; both shocked and heartbroken as countless young men around them disappear home, never to be seen again.
Davies’ emotive programme, set against a familiar London background, leaves us stunned, even wondering how much of it is true. In 1986, every household received a leaflet, ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’, years after the first HIV case in the UK. That year, 9 out of 10 people thought there was something wrong with sexual relations between two adults of the same sex. Campaigns refused to address homosexuals directly and did not communicate ways in which sex could be made safer. It did not help that Thatcher’s government labelled homosexual behaviour “deviant” and ignored the realities of those in marginalised communities. Two years later, in 1988, Section 28 was passed, a law by a conservative government that stopped schools and councils “promoting the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. Thatcher stated that children need “to be taught to respect traditional moral values” instead of “being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.” Thatcher suggested children were being "cheated" at the start of their lives as they were steered away from the ‘normal’, nuclear family. The blatant homophobia of past generations is undoubtedly unsettling, but what programmes like It’s a Sin bring to light is how these issues are very much relevant today. Indeed, both our previous Prime Minister Theresa May and current, Boris Johnson have supported homophobic laws.
So, when, in Davies’ show, I wept at men dying alone in hospital rooms, or parents denying their own children’s sexuality, it was because it was all true, and even more shockingly, I didn’t know. I wasn’t taught about the AIDS crisis in school. It took a TV programme for me to sympathise with the harsh reality that 32.7 million people have died from AIDS-related illnesses since the start of the epidemic. Even in 2019 alone, the numbers are staggering, with 690,000 deaths. What It’s a Sin highlights is the level of shame ingrained in our society, from policy to law to people’s emotions. The label ‘gay cancer’ or ‘gay disease’ elicits shame. As Jill’s dad in the programme states, “If heterosexual boys were dying left, right, and centre, people would be out on the streets.” But they weren’t, and so the access to support was small.
In 1987, Princess Diana famously challenged attitudes throughout the UK, after shaking the hand of an HIV-positive person at a hospital in London. This opened up the conversation in all the ways Thatcher’s campaign had tried to shut down. Today, shows like It’s a Sin matter because it, like Princess Diana, can change public opinion, enhance our understanding and bring about change. It has forced the issue of those suffering disproportionately during the Covid-19 pandemic, including high numbers of young, gay men, to the House of Commons and has also increased publicity around current HIV/AIDS campaigns. The It’s a Sin effect is in full swing.
This long-overdue show deals with powerful and sensitive topics but more importantly, it reminded us to celebrate sex, to love openly, and remember our grief. It encourages us to learn about marginalised groups and recognise that though progress has been made, we should all still be talking about this. The respective journeys of Ritchie, Roscoe, Colin, Ash and Jill remind us all to be free and proud and to continue to eradicate shame from our modern society.
Evie is a Politics and Philosophy Student at the University of Edinburgh. This article was sourced by Kirsten Provan and edited by Phoebe McKechnie and Tamara El-Halawani, also students at the University.