Coming from a postindustrial town, my move to the big city for university felt like a rite of passage for lil ole’ gay me. I was dropped into a bustling metropolis, where gay life seemed to have its own codes, culture and personalities to match. To think, if I was dropped there 30 years earlier, my introduction to gay life could have been far more frightening.
With It’s a Sin, Russell T. Davies captures the true, colourful, spellbinding freedom of the 80’s as a looming virus seeks to end the debauchery of the sexual liberation of the time. The show tells the story of Ritchie who moves from the Isle of Wight to glitzy London, finding his pack and moving into the infamously named ‘Pink Palace’. But where the series is cheekily honest in its representation of queer life, it is equally horrific in its portrayal of the HIV/AIDS crisis.
As a series, it feels profound, mostly as it paves the way for a modern consciousness of the fight against AIDS in the UK. The series has been championed for its peeling back of British queer history that still remains somewhat untold. So pop the corn and feed the children because I’m here to shed light and offer some insight into the multi-layered gay experience of the era.
Public Enemy #1
As a queer person in the 1980’s, homophobia permeated nearly every area of your life. A homophobic media campaign whipped up by dominant mainstream newspapers had given the public a false sense of security whilst sacrificing gay men as public enemy number one. One might ask, where do the gays turn? The education system? Failed you. The government? Well “the lady’s not for turning” apparently, so no help there.
So there’s no shock here that prejudicial beliefs became part and parcel of everyday life. Let’s talk about the ways in which Russell T. Davies’ writing cleverly grapples this truth by showing how local and national instruments of discrimination were at play, forcing minorities into a frenzy of fear.
Fudge the Police!
Frightful Fact: Coinciding with everyday homophobia – get ready to shout ACAB! at your tv – local police forces would actively raid gay venues, as shown at the end of episode 4, donned with rubber gloves. I barely wish to imagine the vile vitriol that came from their mouths as they bludgeon the people that could have easily been my friends and I.
Whilst the scene highlights the lack of education surrounding the transmission of HIV, it was also symbolic of the state’s association of the LGBTQ+ community with filth and perversion. This is echoed in the remarks of then police chief of Greater Manchester, Sir James Adderton, who accused AIDS victims of living in a “human cesspool of their own making” during the peak of the crisis.
Little (Bigoted) Britain
Whether you’re an official 80’s gay, a humble 21st century homosexual like myself or just a decent human, Thatcher’s Section 28 should all bring us to a unanimous “Sod off”! It’s a Sin briefly touches on the clause when Ash recalls his experience on his first day of teaching.
Section 28 of the Local Government Act, enacted on May 24th of 1988, banned local authorities from the supposed promotion of homosexuality or ANY intent to promote homosexuality as a “pretended family relationship” – Prohibiting the funding of films, books and educational material showing same-sex relationships for councils and schools alike. The iron lady and her stiff iron panties strike again.
There was no doubt the clause was sinister, blatantly fuelled hysteria and was widespread in its subordination of the gay community. Whilst stripping a generation of its right to accessible education, it also made the battle against HIV/AIDS more difficult as the viruses association with our community meant it was virtually impossible for authorities to distribute targeted public health messages and for the community to access positive representation of themselves. Sounds dystopian, right? An environment in which the mere mention of homosexual lifestyles by national institutions was deemed criminal.
Within its extraordinary depth of 80’s queer life in just 5-episodes, Davies embodies a queer vigilante in his writing; taking no prisoners as he uses It’s a Sin to call out those institutions that failed our community. Was I the only person startlingly unaware of the incredibly dark reality in the show of the use of detention for AIDS patients by the NHS.
When Collin succumbs to complications brought on by AIDS, the Welsh hospital detains and sections him – unlawfully – under the Mental Health Act of 1983. Like most interventions of the time, I believe it happened as a response to fear. This virus lead health professionals to quake in their crocs. But, of course, these actions were also entrenched in homophobia as illustrated when the officer present tells Collin’s mother that her son is now a “public menace”.
If anything these represent the weaknesses found in institutions that have the ability to unlawfully weaponise legislation and disavow their duty of care… All in the name of public health. Once government policy for the NHS shifted from passivity to education and prevention, the health service could tackle the crisis more affectively. Though, let’s not lie here… the governments inaction on the virus’s arrival sent a clear message: Public health favours the rights of the majority, not the minority.
He Said, She Said…
Lies, conspiracies and misinformation are not a product of the internet; long before that was the chinese whisper, ‘through the grapevine(s)’ and media orchestrated dogma. In a more homophobic, less globalised, world than today gay men in the UK had only a short selection of queer publications. Couple this with a pandemic disproportionately affecting minority communities and no one knows who to believe.
Russell T Davies encapsulates the scepticism found in the early days of the crisis in the brilliance of Ritchie’s conspiracy montage in Episode 2. After accusing a man of fear-mongering by handing out leaflets about this new killer disease, the group begin to wonder why anyone in the community would lie about a ‘gay-related’ virus… But Richie puts his foot down. As he gleefully presses through the scene I am stumped at some of the farfetched and worrying conspiracies surrounding the truthfulness of the virus at its emergence onto the London scene
Like some sceptical Facebook aunty, Davies pulls out some of the wild theories of the time like that the virus was *sharply inhales* “spread via poppers” (Pardon my pun) or that Freddie Laker spread it “after introducing cheap flights” to the UK. Although awareness of the virus was low, its immediate relation to gay men meant it was weaponised as retribution for non-conforming / homosexual lifestyles.
This link between gay sexuality and the virus, even going so far as to initially refer to the disease as GRID (Gay-related Immunodeficiency), dethroned the community from the height of the gay liberation movement as they washed their hands of it, deeming it a gay problem… Not a scrap of interest in funding, information or research on a national level. They were on their own. Look no further than the current language surrounding the origins of Covid-19, where misinformation is fuelling Anti-Asian racism and xenophobia.
As the pace of the epidemic quickens, the tone of the conspiracies change. As those around you ‘returned home’ or went into hiding for weeks the truthfulness of the virus could not be challenged. Russell uses the same elements of the last montage but instead Ritchie is desperately seeking advice from a gay switchboard. Our protagonist lists off rumoured treatments for AIDS, ranging from proven immune-boosting vitamins such as flaxseed and eggs to more sinister ailments like drinking your own urine and ingesting battery acid. Yes, ingesting battery acid.
The searing shame that these men had buried deep turned them to near-suicidal treatments. Almost like they yearned to rid themselves of the disease by any means possible. That pain sat with me… Even days after watching. All of these theories are debunked but the high-paced montage is harrowing to watch and is indicative of the desperation found by those living in, what I call, the AIDS-Grey Area: A limbo where life dangles between the assumption of death and the ticking clock of life.
The Devil We Know
We all have shame. But many straights will not understand queer shame. It was taught to me every single day of my life. First from society, then from within. We carry it with us, which is why It’s a Sin(’s) thought-provoking approach helps viewers understand the way gay shame and AIDS stigma collided to create catastrophe. Ritchie, being no exception to the rule, came from a household drenched in gender conformity. The foundations of his queerness would be shaped by the words of others, rather than himself. Shame became an intrinsic part of his self-identity because that was all he knew. Once fleeing to the gay mecca of London he sees hope in community camaraderie, but soon he will be the victim of a virus that carries its own, very personal stigma: The gay plague, as it was aptly called by The Sun, News of The World and The Mail at the time.
When Jill and Ash sit beside him at his hospital bed, Ritchie admits that “there were nights with too much booze, actually nights where I was stone cold sober” and even though he knew of his status, he continued to have sex with men. This distressing moment was felt by everyone as Ritchie wonders “how many (men) he killed.” in his lifetime. The audience may ask, well if you knew, why? Shame and trauma are two interconnected aspects of a person’s emotional system and the actions that come from these are sometimes impossible to explain. Jill attempts to explain this idea at the climax of the series finale (cue the Kleenex) with her heart wrenching takedown of Mrs Tozer’s (Ritchie’s mother) refusal of accountability for her son’s death. Jill passionately exclaims that “he kept shame-going by having sex with men and infecting them, then running away… it makes him think he deserved it.” as Valerie Tozer is slapped with the truth of her words. Shame-going, or repeating the original action at the root cause of a traumatic experience, which for Ritchie is a sexual experience, is a self-destructive behaviour and is a typical trauma response which can be described as…
“An attempt to regulate overpowering, painful feelings but lead to more shame, propelling the self-destructive cycle.”
In a world where queer people were scared to come out due to fear for oneself, fear for one’s family and fear of association with this deadly virus; this understanding of shame and trauma helps us tackle the root cause of self-destructive behaviours. For gay men this meant improving the material conditions of gay people, offering legal protections and accessible healthcare for those affected by HIV/AIDS. Offering gay men acceptance and freedom of expression, so much so that they are not confined to what society tells them they are. The means of forging true self-identity.
What Has Changed?
The strides in HIV/AIDS research in the last 30 years is phenomenal and our current picture of global epidemic is a far cry from the death sentence it is in It’s A Sin. With international grassroots campaigns from ACT UP, lesbian coalitions and support from many miners’ labour groups, the narrative of the pandemic began to change with a more humane response to the devastating toll on life.
The success of antiretroviral therapies for AIDS- such as HAART, founded in 1996 – caused a huge decline in deaths and an undetectable viral load as a product of the treatment prevented the transmission of the virus between people.
Today’s fight against the virus focuses on the preventative qualities of drugs like PrEP and PEP, which in a landmark decision were made available in England from April 2020. Although stigma remains, organisations like the Terrence Higgins Trust and the National AIDS Trust offer a magnitude of resources to educate whilst wielding a powerful influence so that the rights of those living with the disease are protected.
Whilst the era was mired by the emergence of the HIV/AIDS crisis, It’s A Sin navigates queer life with a sense of reckless abandon at a time when public perception of the queer community was in tatters. Lessons of our past must always inform our future and I believe It’s a Sin encompasses the power and liberating qualities of collectivism and education as a means of fighting injustice. To the backdrop of Section 28 and vicious tabloids attempting to push the community deeper into isolation, Russell T Davies offers a dive into the camp and courageous lives of those who had nearly been forgotten. This is a love letter to a mostly untold queer history in the UK sent first class with tears, kisses and hugs.