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It's (not) A Sin: ​why the world has yet to recover from the AIDS crisis

Writing by Rhiannon Auriol. Illustration by Heather Baillie.

Quick flex: I met the writer Russell T Davies once. It was 2015 and I was visiting my grandma in Mumbles, South Wales, where everyone knows everyone in stereotypical Welsh fashion. A close friend of my grandma’s knew RTD’s sister who said I should go and catch him in a local cafe that afternoon. And so I ended up eating soup across from him in the town that my father grew up in.

I don’t remember anything that we discussed together. At this point I mainly knew RTD as the writer who had transformed ​Doctor Who ​and broken boundaries in television with Queer as Folk in the 90s - before I was born. In 2015 I was just starting out on my own path as a writer and in those days meeting anyone who wrote, and was successful at it, felt like a window into another world. But in particular I admired RTD as a young (uncertain) queer person for what his work had done for the representation of the LGBTQI+ community in mainstream media: the famous kiss between David Tennant’s Doctor Who and Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman); the shows ​Cucumber, Banana, Tofu, Years and Years​,​ ​and now ​It’s A Sin on Channel 4.

It’s A Sin i​s, I believe, RTD’s best work to date, arriving at a most prescient time in the midst of a pandemic when questions of how sickness and health are framed by the media must be our priority. The series tackles the AIDS crisis in 1980s Britain, following the lives of a group of friends who meet at university in London and are all intimately affected by the emergence of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV, which causes AIDS). The abhorrent failures of the UK government (and the world) to recognise and effectively respond to the AIDS crisis in the late 20th century is a moment in history which can never be written about enough. The devastating impact this virus had upon the LGBTQI+ community, combined with the vicious stigmatisation of AIDS as the ‘gay disease’, is still harmfully active today, and the work of recovering from such damage and generational trauma is far from over. ​It’s A Sin ​addresses all of these political subjects and more. In its portrayals of the characters’ struggles with gay shame and queer grief in a homophobic, sex-negative society, there is a voice of rebellion against that language of shame, its deadly consequences exorcised through exposure, dark humour and portrayals of queer happiness alongside the heartbreak.

American artist David Wojnarowicz, 1988

In his essay​ Whatever Happened to Queer Happiness?, ​Kevin Brazil asks what it means for queer life that its stories of happiness will remain forever silent, and this is a quote I was thinking about while binge-watching ​It’s A Sin.​ The idea of joy as resistance is an idealistic one to some extent, however one of the lines in the show which struck me most was when Ritchie, dying alone in his childhood bedroom on the Isle of Wight, says to his mum while recounting his sexual escapades: ‘That's what people will forget - that it was so much fun'. There is a tragic finality in the line as the viewer is aware that Ritchie will never again experience those pleasures of queer life, and yet at the same time there is something radical about it; queer joy acts as meaningful resistance against the hegemonic discourse which shames homosexual people who have contracted HIV not just for being sick but for being gay - through the homophobic beliefs that sickness with AIDS must relate to a sinful sexual exploration.

The association of 'the gay disease' (and male homosexuality in general) with promiscuity is a homophobic trope which ​It’s A Sin ​cuts off at the knees in the character of Colin, a quiet, often awkward young man from South Wales who moves into the ‘Pink Palace’, the flat shared by the group of friends who include Ritchie, Roscoe and Jill. In contrast to the hedonism of the other characters, Colin is never shown sleeping with anyone, or even smoking or drinking much, and Roscoe describes how Colin phoned his mum almost every day. Despite this ‘good behaviour’, Colin is the first of the flatmates to die of AIDS.

It would be a mistake to conclude that Colin’s storyline is the ‘most tragic’ of the series due to his presentation as a more innocent character in comparison to Ritchie and his many lovers - because this would be adjacent to legitimising a discourse which cast the ‘chastening illness’ as a just punishment for the gay lifestyle. But we can resist this narrative by locating the source of Colin’s tragedy not in his innocence but in the fact that his early death denies him future experiences of the pleasures of queer sex, of joys to come, having contracted HIV from cruel encounters with the son of his landlady. Colin’s accidental arrival at a party in the ‘Pink Palace’ is his first experience of what being gay and being happy can mean; that they can co-exist.

'That friendships can be a “chosen family” is a gift from queer life to the world that has seeped into mainstream culture through shows like ​Pose'​, Brazil writes, and this certainly applies to ​It’s A Sin ​too. The fierceness of the love shared between this group of friends manifests itself in the forms of solidarity and care, in the​ showing up​ in the streets and by the side of the hospital bed. The HBO series ​Pose ​also portrays this sense of ‘chosen family’ through the lens of ballroom culture in New York City and the ‘houses’ of which young LGBTQI+ people choose to form as spaces of protection, love and self-actualisation. But Pose​, by ​Glee ​creator Ryan Murphy, doesn't have the same shock of the ordinary which ​It's A Sin​ does. Yes, ​Pose​ portrays the desperation of a positive HIV test, the ravages of AIDS, the endless funerals - but still through a lens of glamour, ballrooms, fashion shoots, and the girls working on the piers are always dressed in furs and with a full face on. What ​It’s A Sin does better is a contextualisation of the crisis into the everyday, into the uncomfortable and the gritty: the wild grief of a terrified mother, a make-shift pyre in a back garden in Glasgow, a childhood bedroom on the Isle of Wight, a boy from South Wales locked alone into an empty hospital room with a death sentence hanging over his head.

Although the AIDS crisis remains urgent - millions of people​ in the world today still die from the disease - there is no longer the same narrative of irreversible decline associated with a diagnosis. However, there is a troubling crisis of representation when it comes to AIDS: the disease still risks becoming weighted with stigma, the Person With AIDS (PWA) a metonym for the wider crisis being a factor in what led to the epistemological confusion of AIDS being stigmatised as ‘the gay disease’. And even shows such as ​It’s A Sin and ​Pose do not avoid falling into the trap: by portraying the stigma and horror of the epidemic, do they subtly reinforce or even reignite mindsets of the era? How to avoid the trope of over-ennobling PWAs while also guarding against erasure of experience?

After finishing the show, I look around my room. On my wall is a postcard of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1989. On my bookshelf, ​Modern Nature ​by Derek Jarman, who died of AIDS in 1994. The David Wojnarowicz photograph: ​if i die of AIDS - forget burial - just drop my body on the steps of the F.D.A. ​Wojnarowicz died of AIDS in 1992. I do not know if anyone did as he’d asked with his body. ‘You’re all so ​young,​’ Ritchie’s mother stares at her dying son and his friends, who insist with the invincibility of youth that they can fight the disease off. The language around illness is smothered in metaphors of heroics. creating military imagery of the ‘battle’ where the front line is the body, burdening the individual with responsibility for their own personal ‘fight’. But what happens when this message is internalised alongside that of a homophobic society, when the shame of being sick in a world designed for the healthy is combined with the accusation of the ‘sin’ of homosexuality? As Jill says, these boys begin to believe themselves that they deserve it. The work of healing and recovery - as well as mourning - for boys like these is far from done. And ‘behave’ actually just means ‘behave ​less​’. Silence = Death. ​We had so much fun.

Poster for the activist documentary Silence=Death 1990

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