Queer TV icon Russell T Davies’ latest LGBTQ drama, It’s A Sin, has rightfully been met with widespread critical acclaim. Set in the 80s and early 90s, when the AIDS pandemic was at its height across the world, it followed the loves and lives of a young group of friends finding themselves in the world, enjoying themselves as young adults, and the trials and tribulations they faced during this turbulent time for LGBTQ people in the UK.
It opened up our eyes and made them shed tears as we watched their stories unfold over the five-part series that spanned a decade. Half of us lived and experienced the same things they did, while half of us are truly only beginning to see and understand how the other half lived during that time. It brought back heartbreaking memories for some and it shocked the rest of us who cannot believe this actually happened.
The poignant, emotional rollercoaster of a drama unfolded some truths about AIDS, living in the 80s and the LGBTQ community’s struggles through this immensely difficult time. Here are 7 sins and stigmas that are committed throughout the show that portray what life was like back then.
A sad sin that continues to this day, the show brought to life some of the types of people who believed the conspiracy theories about AIDS being infectious. We see Roscoe frantically binning everything of Colin’s after he dies, wearing Marigolds and scrubbing his bedroom clean, while in another scene praised his “good behaviour” and said he loved him. Other scenes showed Ritchie, along with the others, teasing Colin because he’s so introverted and allegedly a “Virgin of the Valleys” and Roscoe once retorting “have you ever had sex?” Ritchie is left confused by a guy in his home town who is turned off by the fact that he lives in London, to which he says “it’s Americans you shouldn’t sleep with” and he later berates a group of older gays who are AIDS activists simply wishing to educate others on it, saying he and his friends are being “victimised” by them.
Let’s also not forget Colin being dismissed from his tailoring job by his creepy, closeted boss all because he had information about AIDS on him, though his arrest for cottaging was a delightful scene to see. And another scene where Stephen Fry’s character Arthur’s self-denial about being gay or bisexual also hit home. Was he afraid how it might hurt his standing? Did he just see young gay boys as easy sex objects and nothing more? Had his past and experiences led him to go back into or stay in the closet? Or was he just a self-serving asshole who honestly didn’t identify as gay? Cliques weren’t so much a thing back then but it already showed the cracks in the community as they became scared of the lies believing them to be true, and even seemingly small things such as them teasing Colin and Ritchie’s initial denial of AIDS existing or being that bad showed ignorance of others’ feelings and the world around them.
Ritchie’s parents play a pivotal role in the story’s final parts as their handling and attitude of their son’s diagnosis is a complete 180 compared to Colin’s mum’s reaction. His mum – overbearing and over-protective to a point where she’s blinded by her own desire to keep him close and safe – is what, as Jill says, pushed him away to the “secret” life he led. While his archetypal dad’s pushiness and traditional views of how boys should be did the same and prevented Ritchie from telling them the truth. Many of us have had at least one parent just like one or the other, both or a mixture rolled into one super-naggy parent and can surely all relate. The father and sister of Gregory, a.k.a. “Gloria”, represented the extremes some families went to to shun their gay children; disowned and estranged from them, he escaped Glasgow to London and upon his death they burnt all his belongings and pictures.
Roscoe’s parents show it from a religious and cultural perspective. Both parents are disgusted and ashamed of him and their attempt to send him away to Nigeria forced him to flee home. Eventually, although we don’t know how his relationship with his mother turned out, in the end he looks to reconcile with his father who has seen the error of his judgements after returning from Africa. This again is a pivotal moment, as the characters realise the extent of the pandemic as it ran rife through heterosexual people and in Africa, not just gay men.
One that fits in with today’s narrative but wasn’t explored as much in It’s A Sin and I feel could have been as we know racism was bad back then as well. It’s first touched upon when Ritchie first meets Ash, and in an excited babble of questions asks whether he’s Hindi or Muslim – he’s young and naive so can surely be forgiven for his simple curiosity, but the topic appears to offend Ash. Later, Jill meets Ritchie’s parents and his dad ignorantly asks about her heritage – a question she bravely answers politely. I believe there were other opportunities to incorporate the fact racism existed – and much more overtly than it does now – in the series, especially when 3 out of the 5 main characters were POC. Diversity is one thing, but without the reality of racism pushing others to create and call for diversity, you are missing a key element that solidifies that diversity.
A key one to note is how medical professionals viewed AIDS back in the 80s. Patients were treated horribly – isolated and locked in, with the fear of catching the “infectious disease” too great and the concrete belief that although they had no real idea what illness they actually had, they knew it only led to death. It’s crazy to think that that is how doctors and nurses who we believed to be compassionate and caring, acted towards patients back then. A particularly awful scene is Colin’s doctor when he is talking to his mum. His attitude is a mix of medical ignorance and unjust homophobia, as well as Gregory’s doctor who asks him if he’s ever had sex with animals. Similarly, Jill’s doctor is also rude when she asks for information about AIDS; he refuses to offer help and infuriatingly asks “why would I have anything to do with that?”
Towards the end of the series there is a better understanding of it but research was still ongoing. Patients were in their own rooms and still in the “infectious diseases department” but no longer locked up or treated badly and doctors and nurses were more sympathetic and helpful, but still hesitant about treatments and the patients’ futures.
In reality, it wasn’t until the mid-90s that treatment for HIV and AIDS began to be looked into and even then it took more than another decade for those who championed the research and experiments to be listened to.
An obvious one that is continuous throughout is the homophobia LGBTQ people already faced before the pandemic hit, and only got worse as it worsened. From Ritchie’s dad scoffing at him for wanting to do drama to Roscoe’s parents’ distress over his sexuality, from Colin’s boss flirting with then firing him to Arthur’s indignation he’s straight, from Ash’s colleagues at the school he teaches laughing behind his back to the doctors and nurses in the hospitals acting towards the patients, from the police officers brutally arresting the protesters to the onlookers who cheered the police on, homophobia existed on many levels in all areas of society.
And it’s true what many older members of the community say now – a lot of the younger generation have no idea how hard it was back then. Homophobia of course still exists but it’s certainly not as bad as it once was. Pride parades had been a thing in the 60s and 70s, but even by the 80s and 90s equality and recognition still had a long way to go. Gay bars were not prominent on streets for fear of violence, you couldn’t even confide in your own doctor without fear of judgement and contempt and the scene where Ritchie’s mortgage advisor asked about his sexuality? Yes, they genuinely did used to ask that.
Thanks to the Iron Bitch Margaret Thatcher, political views regarding the LGBTQ community and AIDS was one of the dominating factors in why homophobia was so rampant in the UK. As mentioned before with Arthur, a Conservative MP, his position as a potentially powerful political person was at risk if he admitted being gay. Ritchie was a self-proclaimed Tory as well, and although this isn’t delved into so much, it showed the problems those who identified as Tories came across; he was mocked by his friends but he didn’t care, while his friends represented those who even today wonder how if you identify as LGBTQ you can support a woman who was against your rights and a political party that has, throughout history, been notorious for upholding those same views.
This stigma still exists today – Thatcherites and Tories in general from the gay community are still fascinated by her and claim to be staunch followers of her ideologies, while they are often looked down upon with disdain by others. It may be the most controversial stigma considering what she was like but a stigma many continue to face.
Self-stigma is an important one because both Ritchie and Colin had it to varying extents and Colin’s boss and Arthur possibly also practised it. Colin was a “good boy” who eventually suffered dementia that was brought on by AIDS. Despite his introverted personality and his inexperience compared to his friends when it came to sex, him contracting AIDS showed it can happen to anyone at any time and that some symptoms might not become apparent for a while. Despite knowing he never did anything wrong and his friends viewing him as being well behaved, even through his dementia he detested what he had done and what had happened to him, apologising profusely to his mum.
Ritchie on the other hand, was in denial about AIDS being real or especially only infecting gay men for a long time – reeling off a long list of conspiracy theories akin to those we’ve heard about COVID-19 – so it was heartbreakingly ironic that he contracted it too. When he fears he has it, he becomes more recluse, further ignoring his mum’s phone calls and pushing away the guy he was seeing who he fears he passed it on to or got it from. His obsession in checking his body for any signs of symptoms increases but he still doesn’t dare confide in any of his friends, perhaps out of fear because of his previous views on AIDS – what could have potentially been a classic “I told you so” or even “it serves you right” twist. On his hospital bed he opens up, professing his love of and need to continue sleeping with others despite knowing he had it to make himself feel better and lamenting at the number of guys he may have inadvertently killed; something Jill later ultimately blames his mother for driving him to do.
As well as sadly testing positive he was also proudly sex positive, wanting to live a carefree and fun sex life no matter what and was very open about it all. While he wasn’t ashamed of his sex life, many people are shamed for it; society calls them sluts and the gay community especially are seen to be synonymous with the idea of casual sex. Even motherly fag hag Jill pleads with her friends in one episode to “stop the sex”. Actor Nathaniel Hall who portrayed Donald Bassett has spoken about the “self-hatred” he had when he first came to terms with being HIV-Positive. And you can still see examples of sex stigma in articles such as those from The Sun whose contrasting headlines between the sex scenes shown in It’s A Sin and those in Bridgerton prove attitudes towards to gay men having sex at least, continues to be labelled “shocking” and invokes more complaints than sex scenes between straight characters (though that article has miraculously been heavily altered since it was first published).
Unfortunately these stigmas were very real back then and in many cases still are today. Thankfully HIV and AIDS are much more preventable and the risk of transmission with medication has decreased significantly enough to be near zero. Many of us have it lucky now but we must remember those who lost their lives and fought to get us where we are today. Education still needs improvement as Callum Scott Howells who played Colin in It’s A Sin stresses but we need to stop the judgement, stop the stigma and spread love, not hate.