Welcome to the latest installment of our 2022 Pride Month Series! Each weekday in the month of June, we will be highlighting a different member of the LGBTQIA+ community who we think is a great example of representation and dynamic characterization. We will focus on fictional characters, celebrities, and activists alike — the positive voices within the LGBTQIA+ community and in mainstream media. Today’s spotlight focuses on the groundbreaking drama series It’s A Sin, which made an impact on both sides of the Atlantic for its unflinching portrayal of the impact of HIV/AIDS on a group of friends in the United Kingdom.
In 2021, the AIDS epidemic was barely a distant memory for most young LGBTQ people, associated with a paragraph in a dusty history book or from ads for PreP. With advances in treatments making HIV a disease that can be lived with, it is difficult to portray the scale of the disaster AIDS was for the LGBTQ community in the 1980s and 90s. Between 1987 and 1998, 324,029 men and women died of AIDS in the US alone. An entire generation of queer people was gone in an instant. According to the British Academy, by 1995 in the US, “one gay man in nine had been diagnosed with AIDS, one in fifteen had died, and 10% of the 1,600,000 men aged 25-44 who identified as gay had died.” Even today, there are 38 million people living with HIV worldwide.
As we are now learning again with the COVID-19 pandemic, these numbers mean next to nothing on their own. Human brains aren’t meant to comprehend these kinds of statistics, so we turn to art to make sense of our loss. There are plenty of classic works like The Normal Heart or Angels in America that delve into the impact that AIDS had on the queer community. Recently, 120 Beats Per Minute, tick…tick…BOOM! and The Inheritance tackled the legacy of the epidemic to great acclaim. But in recent memory, no play, film, or television series meant for a broad audience has come close to the impact that It’s A Sin has had as it brought the tragic and utter meaninglessness of the loss of life during the AIDS epidemic to viewers worldwide.
Creator Russell T. Davies is no stranger to acclaimed queer television. His first series, Queer as Folk, debuted in 1999 on Channel Four and spawned a popular American remake. Both queer and straight activists criticized the series at the time for choosing not to portray the AIDS epidemic at all, with Davies telling the New Yorker that “[AIDS] was beginning to not be a death sentence. And I was absolutely determined that we would stop being defined by an illness. It liberated those characters. HIV and AIDS had been the constant story of all gay men popping up in fiction — in cop shows, in dramas, in soap operas — they would inevitably drag the disease with them.” Years later, Queer as Folk has gained a cult following and new cultural appreciation, having offered a new depiction of the lives of gay men to a general audience accustomed to tragic stories of death and fear.
But Davies lived through the AIDS epidemic, watching many of his peers die as he tried to live his life. Until now, he wrote in a moving essay for The Guardian; he didn’t feel he could unearth the pain he buried back then for his work. Davies decided to center It’s A Sin on a character based on his friend Jill Nalder, who moved to London in the 1980s to pursue acting. Living in an apartment lovingly dubbed “The Pink Palace,” it became a safe space for her queer friend group until AIDS killed many of her best friends as the government stood by and watched.
In the show, Jill is played by Lydia West (with her mother played by the real Nalder). Her Pink Palace is populated by Jill, Ritchie (Olly Alexander), Colin (Callum Scott Howells), Roscoe (Omari Douglas), and their wider group of friends. All are trying to find themselves as they leave home for the first time. The initial joy and liberation they feel at finally being able to live their lives is slowly but surely replaced by dread, fear, and grief as HIV/AIDS begins to spread. It is utterly devastating to watch. Davies wisely lets the epidemic creep up on the audience as it does on the characters, with many ignoring the crisis until it is too late for them out of denial and emotional self-preservation.
Through it all, Davies never lets the viewer forget that so many of these deaths could have been prevented had those in positions of power acted fast enough. The shame the victims of AIDS felt not just for their sexuality but also contracting the disease silenced so many just when they needed support. In one heartbreaking monologue from Jill to the mother of one of her friends, who just died alone because she refused to let Jill and the others see him, West unleashes the pent-up anger and grief Lydia has inside.
“Because that’s what shame does, Valerie. It makes him think he deserves it. The wards are full of men who think they deserve it. They are dying, and a little bit of them thinks, yes, this is right. I brought this on myself.”
It’s A Sin’s impact isn’t just limited to bringing the AIDS epidemic to life for a modern audience. It first aired during National HIV Testing Week in the UK, spreading awareness about the present-day impact of the disease. On only the first day after it aired, over 8,000 requests for free HIV tests were recorded when star Olly Alexander posted about it on his social media. Terrence Higgins Trust, founded in 1982 to spread awareness about HIV and sexual health, saw a massive increase in both donations and volunteers after the series aired. The British charity even partnered with designer Philip Normal to produce It’s A Sin branded products that raised £500,000.
The series may be based on events in the past, but it is startlingly vivid. Without ever resorting to preachiness or obvious connections, It’s A Sin connects queer history with the present. Perhaps that’s why the series has been such a hit amongst younger viewers, with its recognizable leading actors who are openly queer outside of the series and available on social media. Nowhere was this more evident than when Elton John performed with Alexander (who also fronts the band Years & Years) at the 2021 Brit Awards in support of the series, a symbolic torch-passing from a gay icon to the next generation.
It’s A Sin is never an easy watch, but Davies manages to find light amidst the darkness with his trademark wit. His characters are human and flawed, which makes their deaths hurt that much more. These aren’t the angelic victims who only exist to die terrible and graphic deaths that we are used to seeing in AIDS dramas. They are people, people with potential and families and plans for their lives that were murdered by apathy and prejudice. Ultimately, Davies honors the dignity of his subjects and the millions more who lived and died during the epidemic. It’s A Sin pushes the audience to never forget the enormous loss the world has suffered and continues to suffer as a result of this disease.
“I sifted through her thousand stories – a strange thing to do with an old friend, to say ‘Tell me your life.’ The things I never knew! But slowly, the drama took shape, inspired by one story she’d first told me way back in the 90s. A story which had haunted me for decades. A man I knew, too.
With a horror story at the heart of it; a man whose parents didn’t know anything until they turned up at the hospital to discover he was gay, he had AIDS, he was dying, all in one moment. And he’s another man whose name I can’t say. I asked Jill about his family. ‘Still angry,’ she said. After all these years.
I hope we’ve done him justice. That beautiful boy.”Russell T. Davies, The Guardian
It’s A Sin is available to watch now on HBO Max. Be sure to check back for more Pride Spotlights this month!