Everyone has been talking about It’s A Sin, the television series that throws us back to the 1980s, to the fear and panic of AIDS and the people it touched the most.
Four positive writers share their thoughts on watching this compelling series, currently screening on Stan.
It has taken me a while to crystalise my thoughts and feelings about It’s A Sin. Firstly, just watch it. However, if you find you are enjoying it because of the music, reliving your clubbing days, the fashion of the 80s, or you are not crying by Episode 3, then you have completely missed the point.
Some of my family members are mystified as to why I still can’t read the Courier Mail. Our local Brisbane paper was particularly vicious with its headlines of the day.
HIV continues to be demonised. While technically not the death sentence it used to be, HIV is still not talked about. It is still not a socially acceptable disease.
“We congratulate our brave and strong friends for fighting and surviving socially acceptable diseases like cancer But do we congratulate our friends for milestones such as surviving 30 years of HIV? Why not? Because they don’t tell you.”
This is not to minimise the lived experience of other diseases and cancers. Hard is hard. My point is that YOU get to talk about your illness, HIV positive people do not.
This show is also a reminder that society still isn’t ‘good with the gays’.
Less than four years ago, we had a national non-binding vote to decide whether we could have the same legal recognition of our relationships. About 12 months ago, Queensland finally outlawed gay conversion therapy. Victoria finally voted the same way only the other night. This evil practice is still allowed in most other jurisdictions in the country.
But let’s not forget what is happening in many countries around the world. Stuff that is much, much worse.
And just a reminder, this show, while amazing, is still a completely sanitised version of what really happened back then.
So, if you haven’t seen it, go watch it and report back.
I had heard nothing about It’s A Sin until I read Nick’s submission for Positive Living.
For many heterosexual women like myself, this television series by Russell T Davies about the dawn of HIV/AIDS in the UK has probably gone unnoticed. And this is, well … a sin.
I watched the five-part series over two nights. On both nights I got little sleep. I kept reliving the emotionally charged scenes as a group of young gay men and one woman come face to face with fear, loss, rejection and death from AIDS.
For those of you, like myself, who were detached from the world of HIV, we were oblivious to it all. I lived in London from 1983 to 1985 and never heard or saw those three little letters: HIV. I read nothing in newspapers, there were no public health messages on the Underground or in pubs and clubs and other places I frequented with my newfound friends.
Or maybe the messages were there but I just didn’t see them?
The characters and scenes from It’s A Sin depict a time in humanity’s history of ignorance, fuelled by fear that resulted in lack of care, rejection by families, and loss of human rights.
And this was where It’s A Sin had the most heart-wrenching impact on me. It was just a few short lines by Oscar Babatunde (Delroy Brown), the Nigerian father of one of the lead characters, Rosco Babatunde (Omari Douglas). Oscar had rejected his son for being gay, but when he returned to Nigeria for a short trip, Oscar was horrified by what he had witnessed of the impact of AIDS.
He described how people, including women and children were locked in a room to die.
“Millions of people, men, women and children have died from HIV over the past 40 years. Yes, this year, 2021 marks forty years since the HIV pandemic was proclaimed in 1981. And forty years later, for many nothing has really changed.”
Millions of people still have no access to the HIV medications that keep us alive. And millions more continue to be horribly mistreated, rejected, live in fear of being found out, all because HIV stigma is still here.
We need more television series like It’s A Sin. Let’s hope that some of the millions who tune it to watch it come away with open minds and open hearts to what it is like to live in our world.
Russell T Davies received some criticism for not including much about HIV in his previous series: Queer as Folk, produced in the early 2000s. He said he was still processing what he and other friends had gone through in the crisis years of the epidemic.
What he has delivered with It’s a Sin certainly makes up for it. This is full-on immersion into the lives of twenty-something gay men (and one woman) living in a group house, not surprisingly called “The Pink Palace” in 1980s London.
While I have seen HIV handled well in other dramas such as Angels in America, Tales of the City, and in Australia with Holding the Man, It’s a Sin has affected me the most. As someone who lived through the awful uncertainty of the early eighties and was diagnosed as positive in 1984, so much of this series rings true.
There’s the eighties soundtrack: the Pet Shop Boys song which give the series its title, Do you Want to Funk with Me, Kids in America, and so on. It is a trip down memory lane for someone like me who lived that disco-inspired lifestyle, with lots of parties, sex and living in group households.
The central character, Ritchie (Ollie Alexander) is one of those gay men who didn’t want to acknowledge the potential threat of the virus and practiced denial until it was too late. Others, like me, picked up the virus in the early days when we didn’t know how it was transmitted.
The other central character, Jill (Lydia West) gives an amazing performance as everyone’s carer, emotional support and source of the latest HIV information. Colin (Callum Scott Howells) plays the heart-wrenching role of the innocent novice to the gay world who picks up the virus despite having very little sex. All the acting is engaging and believable, with Don (Ash Mukherjee), Roscoe (Omari Douglas) and Valerie Tozer (Keeley Hawkes) also worthy of special mention.
It’s A Sin is a very emotional experience — or it was for me– and I think long term survivors or people who lost friends from this period will find it challenging viewing because it pulls no punches.
“It shows the mortality, the grief and loss, and the huge toll the virus took on the gay community. I found it cathartic and cried when characters I had become very fond of died.”
The final episode was shocking with an over-the-top performance from Keeley Hawkes as Ritchie’s mother. And still reeling in my head, is the clash between her and Jill in the final scene about who is to blame for gay men’s guilt about their sexuality.
Be warned. It is intense but really worth the effort.
I had to rally myself before diving into It’s a Sin.
As a 37-year-old, there were very few years of my life prior to HIV and AIDS eviscerating communities around the world. For many of my generation, myself included, the realities of that time can be an abstract concept.
“Finding your tribe and sexual liberation at a time of wide-spread public vilification of queerness (and all forms of ‘otherness’) only to have the rug pulled out from under you. Watching your lovers and friends contract and die from a mysterious illness.”
I loved watching Ritchie, Don, Roscoe, Jill and Colin navigate their lives together. Seeing the joy and vibrancy of this chosen family was both euphoric and heartbreaking for me as someone who had to find my own substitute family at 17, and then had my own HIV journey to contend with a few years later.
I watched it unfold around me. I was continuously coiled and tense knowing exactly what was waiting in the wings. Watching the people I had seen myself in and grown to love.
How close I got and how far I have come. How far we have all come with treatments, perception and health outcomes.
It’s a Sin gave me an opportunity to see and feel everything more clearly. My own experiences. The lives of those amazing people before me, many of whom I am grateful to count as friends and loved ones, who continue to inspire me today.
And through seeing the character of Jill, who I viewed as the true heart of this series, I was able to see my own mother more clearly. A woman who in the late 80s and early 90s took toddler me to AIDS Walk for Life protests and volunteered as a Buddy for people dying of AIDS. Because she couldn’t and wouldn’t turn away from the injustice and the need and the grief.
Maybe it’s not such an abstract concept after all.
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