As a young gay man, It's A Sin has been a brutal education on the AIDS crisis - and I will never forget it
The hard-hitting drama from Russell T Davies is essential viewing.
*Contains spoilers for It's A Sin*
Since I started watching Russell T Davies' latest drama It's A Sin, I've been a wreck. I find myself welling up as I go about my day-to-day life while struggling to keep the show off my mind. Never have I been so profoundly shaken by a film or television series and part of the reason for that is its particular relevance to me personally.
Being a 23-year-old gay man, the story of Ritchie and his friends strikes very close to home. As Ian Green, Chief Executive at Terrence Higgins Trust, recently wrote in a guest column for RadioTimes.com, this would have been my story if I had been born just a short while earlier.
Of course, everyone can appreciate how incredibly tragic the AIDS crisis was — and as we know all too well, homosexual men were not the only people affected — but It’s A Sin has undoubtedly hit me hard due to how closely I can relate to its main characters. There is, perhaps, added punch because quality gay representation is so rare in mainstream culture, as Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) astutely points out in episode two.
There were several moments in this five-episode miniseries where I saw myself reflected in Davies' creations with stunning clarity. I remember feeling the same timidity as Colin (Callum Scott Howells) when I first attempted to explore my sexuality, guided by those with more confidence or experience. Likewise, I can recall making fraught phone calls home while still closeted, unable to discuss that which was truly weighing on my mind, similar to Ritchie (Olly Alexander) in the devastating third chapter.
As a result, these don't feel like fictional characters to me. I see them in myself and in people I have known. And that vivid realism has transformed It's A Sin into a uniquely visceral, personal and brutally educational watch.
The truth is that, as someone who didn't live through it, the AIDS crisis had always felt like quite an abstract concept to me. I was vaguely aware that something awful happened in the '80s but I hadn't even the slightest idea about the exact circumstances. Only now do I realise how unacceptable that was.
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Future generations must never forget what happened during that dark chapter in history as there are stark lessons that remain crucial to this day. Of course, it underlines the importance of safe sex and regular STI screening – incidentally, Monday marked the beginning of National HIV Testing Week – but it also highlights the importance of stamping out homophobia and discrimination once and for all.
Because the people who suffered and died with AIDS during the height of the crisis weren't only battling one of the cruelest medical afflictions on the planet; they were also suffocating under feelings of intense shame born out of how society viewed them and, for those who were disowned by their family, unbearable loneliness too.
I can think of no other illness of comparable severity where people would have the audacity to vilify the sufferer. And of course, echoes of that stigma remain today. Scientific advances in treatment for HIV and the hard work of charitable organisations have helped to change attitudes towards the condition, but it would be naive to argue that the work is done. The same can be said about the fight against persecution of the wider LGBT+ community.
In this sense, It's A Sin is not just an incredibly well-made drama, but actually ascends to the classification of essential viewing. Just as Ava DuVernay explored the terrible consequences of racial discrimination in society with 2019's When They See Us, Davies offers an unflinching look at the shadow in which the LGBT+ community exists. In both cases, it's something everybody needs to be aware of so we can work towards a better future for the next generation.
On a personal level, It's A Sin has forced me to reassess how I view my own sexuality. I have never wanted it to define me – to be "the gay friend" or "the gay journalist" – and this has led to me distancing myself from the wider community. But now I wonder if that decision has also been influenced by shame, which has stalked me for much of my life. (When I first became suspicious of my own sexual preference at around age 13, I prayed to God every single night pleading that he wouldn’t make me gay. Even from that young, I was convinced that it was indeed a sin.)
Conversely, It's A Sin has made me feel an urgent responsibility to investigate the history of my community for the first time ever. Russell T Davies has made the AIDS crisis feel so real even for people, like myself, who weren't there. I honestly believe that I will never forget watching the light fade from Colin's eyes or witnessing Ritchie regress into a shadow of his former self – and it doesn't escape me for a moment that the grief I feel now is a tiny fraction of what was felt by those left behind at the time.
It's A Sin continues on Channel 4 at 9pm on Friday 5th February. Catch up now on All 4. Self-sampling HIV & syphilis test kits are available to anyone over 16 that lives in England.