One of this country’s top television hits this year arrived in America last night. Arguably the most powerful televisual way in a long time of conveying the message ‘Some people are gay. Get over it‘, Channel 4’s It’s A Sin premiered on the channel HBO Max yesterday evening, and the show’s considerably high ratings (Channel 4 say that it has been their biggest-ever drama launch on their All 4 streaming service) and favourable critical acclaim (Rotten Tomatoes have given it a rating, so far, of 100%) suggest that a similarly positive response in the States is likely.
A comedy-drama about the lives of five friends as they navigate their way through the beginnings of the AIDS epidemic, It’s A Sin is likely to stand as writer Russell T Davies’s magnum opus among TV shows. Coupled with a stomping ’80s soundtrack, it is also a chilling window into the different-yet-strangely-familiar world that was the 1980s, and quite a yardstick as to how much has changed over the past forty years.
I was a kid when the issue of HIV and AIDS made international headlines, and I well remember the frightening “Don’t Die of Ignorance” adverts (or Public Information Films, to give them their Auntie-friendly term) narrated by John Hurt. What only a few realised at the time was that it was not just HIV and AIDS that too many people were ignorant about. As Davies’s series has illustrated, the levels of misunderstanding about the disease were truly shocking, with even medical professionals at the time feeling the need to disinfect cups, plates and utensils used by patients, and some victims being buried in metal coffins.
The ignorance manifested itself in other ways, too. It is all to easy to forget, in our relatively more enlightened times, just how homophobic an era the ’80s was. Yes, homosexuality was decriminalized in England and Wales in 1967 (with Scotland following suit in 1981, Northern Ireland in 1982, and the Republic of Ireland in 1993), but public attitudes to differences in sexual orientation took a lot longer to change in all countries. (Interestingly, one of the first parliamentarians to call for changes in both the law and attitudes concerning homosexuality was Harford Montgomery Hyde, the UUP MP for North Belfast in 1950-9)
Most of the leading characters in It’s A Sin opt – as most real-life gay people then opted – to keep their sexuality secret, rather than risk the opprobrium of their families and friends, with Roscoe (Omari Douglas) being a bombastic and proud exception proving the rule. By the by, it is another useful reminder of why the philosophy Gay Pride was termed – the opposite of Shame or Stigma, the emotions formerly forced on homosexuals even (or especially) if they were dying of AIDS. Bigoted preachers would proclaim during the epidemic that AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuality (which makes you wonder what they thought of diabetes – is that God’s punishment for liking lollipops?) It was the mindset that led some families, like those of Gregory (David Carlyle), to burn the photos and letters of their loved ones after discovering that they were not only dying but not straight. Some, on discovering that their son or daughter was dying, would blame the disease on their loved ones’ friends. It was the mindset which, one of the nurses in It’s A Sin explains, lay behind some families simply choosing, on learning that their loved ones were terminally ill, not just to avoid visiting their loved ones in hospital, but also to cut them out of their lives altogether: ‘That’s why they are here alone – literally, dying of shame.’
The show and its soundtrack are also notable reminders of how far we have come since that decade, and how AIDS and its impact proved to be a turning point in changing attitudes to LGBT issues. One key turning point, surely, was the death in November 1991 of Freddie Mercury. Every teenage generation has its defining celebrity death, a tragic reminder that we are not immortal and that innocence has a limited half-life, and Freddie’s demise was my generation’s. Believe it or not, many of his fans were genuinely surprised to learn, after he died, that he was bisexual – and that may have helped at least to begin to change public opinion about homosexuality. Many a homophobic rock music aficionado around the world had to come to terms with the fact that their hero may not have been your average ladies’ man, but he was still their hero.
In his final statement to the world before he died, Freddie said that he hoped that everyone would join him, his doctors ‘and all those worldwide in the fight against this terrible disease‘, and this turned out to be no idle hope, as Stephen Fry, one of the stars of It’s A Sin, explained in his 2007 documentary, HIV and Me:
The head of an AIDS trust said Freddie’s death would affect schoolchildren more than any publicity could do. It would be a sign that AIDS is a real illness and affects real people, and, for a time, it worked: the statistics for HIV infection from gay sex went down.
Quite apart from It’s A Sin‘s obvious popularity and critical acclaim, the series has also proved to be a catalyst for increased HIV/AIDS awareness: according to the Terrence Higgins Trust (THT), in the wake of the show’s release last month there has been an upsurge in HIV testing, from a previous high of 2,800 tests in a day to 8,200 tests on February 1st. Sales of a commemorative T-shirt, bearing the catchphrase “La” (often sung during the show by the lead character Ritchie, portrayed by the Years and Years singer Olly Alexander), have resulted in around £100,000 being raised for the THT.
As for HIV itself, advances in antiretroviral treatment mean that it has gone from a disease one died from, to a condition one can, more or less, comfortably live with. Though a cure and a vaccine for the virus are still quite a way away, it is no longer the automatic death sentence it once was, and the medical research and advances necessitated by the AIDS epidemic have proved, over the years, to carry beneficial spillovers, as Stephen Fry noted in an It’s A Sin: After Hours interview last week:
I left university in 1981 at exactly – exactly, the time: mid-1981, which was when the first reports of this strange “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency” (GRID) hit the news stands, or, at least, the Gay News stands – and, exactly as Russell portrayed it, you know, there was the scepticism: ‘How can a disease know when someone is gay?!’ … Virologists and immunologists suddenly had to learn a huge amount more about virology and immunology. Being able to come up with vaccines for COVID in the space of less than a year is because of the huge amount of understanding that went on about the immune system. We are all standing on the shoulders of those dead boys and girls.
Finally, though homophobia is obviously still not completely a thing of the past, there is a good deal more understanding and acceptance of homosexuality and LGBT issues than there was forty years ago. Sexuality is increasingly better understood as more of a spectrum (mostly/partially) than a switch (either/or), and if the overwhelmingly positive reaction and impact of Russell T Davies’s new series are anything to go by, its eventual, ultimate accolade could well end up being, at some stage, a final universal acceptance that actually, contrary to the show’s title, it really wasn’t a sin. The AIDS epidemic was, first and foremost, a tragedy, measured in those millions of men and women around the world who, like Ritchie and many of his friends, suffered a fate deserved by no-one.
Based in Birmingham, Dan is a journalist, broadcaster and actor.