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It's A Sin | Review

This review is not going to contain spoilers but it is going to talk about the series in detail so if you wanted to watch it and feel like this would spoil it for you, then here is your warning to stop reading and go and watch the show. As of the date of this post, it's on All4 in the UK!
According to Louis Staples writing in BBC Culture, a recent GLAAD report revealed that 'there were more LGBTQ+ characters on primetime television than ever before', and I have to say I have been glad to see the change. I can actually name queer characters on certain shows now, where about 5 years ago, we maybe had one and they probably ended up dying! However, he goes on to observe that it is often straight people who are 'reaping the rewards of queerness becoming more mainstream'; as in, they are the ones creating and writing the shows, acting in them and then winning awards for those performances.

Whilst the conversation about whether straight actors should be playing queer characters is one that is an ongoing debate, I will at least say that it was nice to watch a show like It's A Sin, where it was both created by a gay man and starred so many queer people. In a case where, according to Jack King, this is 'the first British series to explore the AIDS crisis on a societal level', it was a good idea to have people who have an emotional connection to the subject matter by way of the community they are a part of.

The show follows five friends in their early twenties initially enjoying the sexual freedom that comes with being this age. Set in the 80s and 90s, however, very slowly, the spectre of the AIDS epidemic interacts with these characters, forcing them to radically change how they view their lives and how they are suddenly being viewed by those deciding to oppress them. It comes from writer Russell T. Davies, who has been responsible for award-winning and name-making TV, with shows like Doctor Who (2005 - 2010), Queer as Folk (1999 - 2000) and Cucumber (2015) under his belt.

Five people sat down laughing
Source: BBC

It is revolutionary in that the AIDS crisis is not as widely discussed on TV and in film in the UK as it is in the US. I can name several texts that have tackled it head on in America, such Philadelphia (1993), Buddies (1985), and more recently Pose (2018 - present). The effects of Section 28, a government act stating that any local authority 'shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality’, still haunts Britain, as it wasn't outlawed until 2003, so seeing this subject matter discussed in such a way, where experiences are being told to the public without inhibition, no bullshit or sugarcoating, seems like a thing that would not have happened even 10 years ago.

At only five episodes, It's A Sin manages to weave the audience throughout these characters' lives as they become friends, victims to the illness and activists against the treatment of infected people. We see the iconography of a very British reaction to AIDS, such as the classic PSA telling people 'Don't Die of Ignorance'. Another real life example portrayed in the show is based off the Conservative government enacting powers to keep people with AIDS in the hospital against their will. According to NHS North West:

'The only known case of these powers being used [was] in Manchester where a gay man with AIDS being treated at Monsall Hospital ask[ed] to go home for the weekend. Manchester City Council [held] an emergency meeting and grant[ed] an order to have him detained in hospital for three weeks. Major protests from the gay community follow[ed] and, after a court case, the order [was] lifted and he [was] allowed to leave hospital 10 days later.' 

This series grounds very heavy and very political topics in conventional TV show ideas that allow the audience to relate and empathise with the characters. It prioritises the found family, a trope in which outcasts must form their own group after losing the one they were born into. This trope is an important one to queer people because so often it is a reality that we have to seek validation and love from those outside of people we are biologically related to for fear of rejection and condemnation. And these aren't irrational fears. As the show explores, many families kicked their children out of their homes, refused to speak to them, and once they died of an AIDS related illness, erased them from their family altogether by burning their things, forgetting them from their lives as well as from history. The characters in this show move into a flat and almost immediately make a connection because of how life-saving it can be to find people like you in spite of, but also, because of the shared experience of discrimination. The found family becomes a hub of queer joy and is put in direct contrast with the idea of 'going home' to your birth family's house, where you are forced back into a repressive space and where you eventually die. We feel the complete and utter loneliness of not only being abandoned by your family but having them actively remove you and your memory from their lives. The amount of people who died of AIDS and were put in unmarked graves with no way to be remembered is a tragedy that still haunts our community.

It acknowledges people who Britain wanted to forget, and gives us hints that, despite what Section 28 wanted the British public to believe, LGBT people existed and they existed even before the AIDS crisis. In my research, I found, for example, that the 'first national Transvestite/Transsexual Conference' was held in Leeds in 1974, and that in 1975, the Manchester Gay Alliance set up a switchboard that provided 'gay-affirmative support and information'.

Several people huddled in a group at what looks like a protest. One woman in the front is wearing a t-shirt that says 'AIDS need aid!'.
Source: The Guardian

The threat of AIDS essentially becomes a background character, a creeping force that spans over the decade the show is set, slowly causing harm and forcing the characters to come to terms with the horrors that await them. This frames Thatcher's Britain too as a background force, holding the state accountable for the way it chooses to allow things to carry on as normal, as if nothing was happening at all. And when official forces aren't calling it what it is, the grief that fills the show, the creeping dread, is something with no name. What is unknown is what is scariest, because there is no way to even process what is happening. Death becomes all the more visceral when it is punctuated by the fact that it was being met with indifference. 
The finale becomes especially haunting as we see the contrast of some people being reunited with their families as a result of the epidemic, whilst others are dying completely alone.

As is expected, this show is full of queer death. It is devastating to witness the loss on screen over and over. But the way that this show makes sure that it is a departure from the misery porn that is typical of AIDS related media (see Philadelphia) is what struck me the most about it. It highlights the joy of queerness, in relation to sex and to community. It makes sure to let the audience know that the greatest thing these people should be know for is how they came together, how they found each other, not just that they were dying on a mass scale. It lets us know that LGBT folk looked after each other when the British government refused to intervene and save them. As the show puts it, the sexual freedom gay men were experiencing 'was so much fun' and it is telling that this show refuses to punish these characters for expressing this fact. 

In making this show, Davies is able to create a version of the UK, though still fictionalised, that many heterosexual, cisgender people would not have been aware of. Staples recognises the tension that there is between 'queer subcultures and "the mainstream", which is often viewed as a force of depoliticisation and heteronormativity', whilst also acknowledging how radical it can be to tell queer stories in these spaces. In this case, it would be Channel 4.

I think it is apt that this show came out at this time in history, when we are still dealing with a worldwide pandemic and when the UK specifically is enacting transphobic legislation and fear mongering. What it highlights is that once again, our government is quite happy to look over death and discrimination as long as it's not happening to them. Not only does the government want to make harder and more painful for people to socially and physically transition, but they are often left out of discussion regarding HIV and AIDS despite having 'similar levels of late diagnosis' to that of cis queer people, according to Avert, whilst also being 'four times more likely to have mental health issues than other people living with HIV'.

Unfortunately, LGBT rights didn't end with gay marriage, and moreover, the work that AIDS activism has done for the UK has completely changed the way we view sex in the first place. Examples of the activism done by this community include overturning the ban on gay and bisexual men being able to donate blood, though according to The Guardian, this is only true for men in long-term relationships and even then, this is only being enacted this year; it also includes the free distribution of condoms and lube, which was started in 1994 by Healthy Gay Manchester, and has continued to this day. 

What this show represents is a moment in history of great grief and loss, but one that sparked moments of joy and change that Davies allows the audience to revel in. Never undermining the death but punctuating with the statement that "we were here and we were having a good time, and we would have had a better time, had the government not been so happy to see us all wiped out".


Thank you for reading this post! Normally, I would use this space to promote a donation to myself but instead I'm going to put a call to action here regarding a transphobic bill that could be coming to the UK if we don't act. Like the US, the UK government is gearing up to put a bathroom bill in place that will put trans people in danger, possibly forcing them to out themselves to enter a public space or at its worst, could subject them to physical harm. We Exist put together an email template to inform the government about this and I would insist that you use this to email the government let them know that you believe this will negatively affect vulnerable people. Caring about the safety of trans people is essential right now, especially with the rampant transphobia that exists in my country. Trans rights are human rights and it is important that we defend people who often cannot defend themselves. 

If you are a trans person reading, please know that your rights deserve protecting and no matter what the British press says or what our government does, you are valued by me and hopefully by others reading this post. I'll put a link to Mermaids UK, which is a charity that provides trans youth with resources and information if you need this right now.


Clea Skopeliti, 'Blood donor rules to be relaxed for gay and bisexual men in England', The Guardian <> [accessed 03/02/2021]

'HIV AND AIDS IN THE UNITED KINGDOM (UK)', Avert <> [accessed 03/02/2021]

Jack King, 'Aids on screen: the forgotten stories of the other pandemic', BBC Culture <> [accessed 03/02/2021]

'LGB&T: History, Challenges and Successes', NHS North West, ed. by Loren Grant (Manchester: NHS North West, 2011). <> [accessed 03/02/2021]

Louis Staples, 'Did culture really embrace queer people this decade?', BBC Culture <> [accessed 03/02/2021]