I don’t watch much telly these days, or at least I don’t feel as if I do. 2020 and beyond has found many of us with occasional extra-pockets of time where we didn’t expect them. I do my best to fill them with some kind of productivity, long walks, reading, exercise, whatever it might be, however It’s good to remember that the occasional binge watch is certainly not something to feel guilty about.
I’ve been an unashamed homosexual for only slightly more time than I’ve been an unashamed Dr. Who fan, since 2005 when Russel T Davie’s helped revive the sci-fi kitsch in all it’s glory for the BBC. I’d like to think the two things are unrelated, but the reality is we’ll probably never know.
Beyond time travel and Tardis hopping Davie’s is the kind of writer who can produce odd and original creations. Conjuring up quirky stories and characters that seem, at once absurd enough to hold your attention, while still (sometimes all-too) true to life as we experience it in this dimension.
When I heard he was writing a series centred on the AIDS epidemic of the eighties, I knew it would be something I want to see. What I didn’t appreciate was how 2020 would create the perfect conditions for a series like It’s a Sin to shed light on the topic.
Having watched the full season online over the course of a few evenings, I’ve been contemplating the show since, continuing conversations with friends and family as it has aired on Channel Four on Friday nights. It’s been the stimulus for a great deal of thought, on the subjects in the show, but also on broader areas.
On watching the final episode I was left with an urgent sense of needing to hold those queer people in my life close to me. I was reminded of a need to feel secure in how far we have come from the scenes I watched played out, based upon Davie’s own experiences. While in the midst of dealing with our own very different pandemic, I needed to be reminded of the warmth and community that exists at the edge of the long shadow that sadness can cast.
It’s a Sin depicts much more than the dangers and issues of dealing with AIDS in the eighties. It spotlights (often with glorious laser-beams) the laughter and friendships forged, not only amongst those who identify with the LGBTQ community, but also those who are it’s extended ‘logical family’ as described by author Armistead Maupin.
It made me feel deeply fortunate for the presence of real life characters such as Jill (again, based upon Davie’s own real-life-Jill Nalder) in my own life. The kind of people who often early on bolster and support queer people in ways which we’ll likely never be able to adequately describe or repay.
It is within these conversations I have had (and which have been discussed at length online since the show has aired) I think we begin to see a link to the show’s deeper resonance.
Not only did it make me long to be closer to LGBTQ friends of mine, it made me more grateful to have grown up amongst peers enlightened and caring enough to simply encourage each individual along their own path in life. By stark contrast it underlined the feeling of how unfair it seems that many in the community are still forced to struggle, in ways which I (fortunate morphing-mutant white boy I am) struggle to simply comprehend.
I go about my day, in most part unaffected and unidentifiable as anything Dalek, alien or other to majority norms. Meanwhile there is an ongoing battle for Trans recognition, racial equality and many other minorities and movements. The stigma we witness, writ little and large throughout It’s A Sin is still present, if only bubbling below a peeling paper-thin veneer.
As discussed in detail by author Matthew Todd, in his book Straight Jacket many in the LGBTQ community from come spaces where we are uncertain, unconfident, or indeed fearful regarding aspects of our own personalities. In larger hubs and cities many hope to find a place to flourish and explore elements of themselves which they may have previously shied away from. The community and it’s institutions — now gayly and gratefully counted in their hundreds in larger cities: from health centres, to community groups, and cafés are still met with burgeoning demand and contention. By many metrics, the hate and hurt of many minorities including LGBTQ members is still a vast area to be understood and combated.
The story of LGBTQ rights, and progress is at least in some sense, the story of human rights as a whole. There are important lessons to be taken and implemented, from what has gone before us and there are few or none of us not guilty of err- this is how we learn, and we must continue to go on learning.
Demonstrations from India to America have shown that it is not only our civil liberties, but our social norms which hang on a thread. It would be so easy for us to fall back upon those traps. It has perhaps never been more important to recognise, a simple vital fact: we can go backwards. The rights and privileges any of us have been afforded in the decades since the eighties have been hard won — something so often stated, that it has nearly become platitude. For that reason, the context of our certainty needs to be constantly at the forefront of our minds.
In the example of AID’s you need not look far (and we all should) to find people who can tell us first hand of their own all too recent experience, throughout the nineties, noughties or today. In her 2018 show Nanette, Artist Hannah Gatsby discusses her own experience of living with having been a victim of abuse and dealing with the trauma “That’s what happens when you soak one child in shame and give permission to another to hate.” Many still live with the scars and shame, psychological or otherwise of the AIDS Pandemic.
HIV is no longer the cruel death sentence it once was. Medication, care work and research mean that nearly all touched by the virus and by geographical good fortune, can live full, independent lives. Covid-19 has shown that it is all too easy to regress in our ways of thinking of those effected by virus, disease or social issues as somehow other to ourselves. AIDS, Covid-19 or any future pandemic makes no such distinction. As Leigh Chislett a former ward nurse during the nineteen-eighties and ongoing promotor of sexual health put it in a recent interview “Psychologically we haven’t come on at the same pace as medicine”.
Today we see the same symbols of sterilisation and precaution seen in the eighties all about us, but in a vastly different context. The masks and rubber gloves worn by health carers, front line workers and the public are an act of consideration, compassion and conscientiousness. When we see those same images during It’s a Sin it is a powerful reminder of what they then represented: fear, infection, isolation and the titular sin itself. The inherent shame and stigma of so many who lived and died, believing themselves ‘dirty’ or somehow undeserving of consideration or kindness.
It is no longer only medical professionals who have a duty to consider the mantra “first do no harm”. In 2021 and beyond If we try to observe objectively and understand a situation, even a little through evidence rather than opinions of right or wrong, we can at least go a some way toward ensuring we at least do not make things worse.
For Covid-19 it is still early days, but wherever you look the numbers are not promising. There can be no doubt of the trauma and pain which will be left in its fallout.
Science has brought us a huge way in only a few decades, while these are in many senses pandemics poles apart, we should not let that fool us into the belief there is nothing to be learned.
I don’t ask you greet every fight with the enthusiasm and energy of your own cause (whatever yours is or will be, I wish you well with it, for I am certain you shall have one). What I do ask is that each us try to remain informed and as objective as possible. A task that has perhaps never been so achievable, nor as complicated at anytime in our history. As Russell T Davies pointed out while speaking about the inspirations of It’s A Sin “fake news, false facts and conspiracy theories weren’t invented in 2020. They ran riot with Aids in the 1980s”.
If we go gently and assume that there are things we do not understand, always things we have yet to learn, perhaps we can begin to reclaim an old familiar phrase “Don’t die by ignorance”.
As we watch what will hopefully be the dying breathes of the current pandemic begin to play out, my hope is that should the time come to have a serialised replay made about us, we’ll watch it from the comfort of our squishy sofas without shame. I hope we’ll have learned that the only true sin is to fail to recognise the lessons history and suffering have to offer all of us (…and not to have Daleks and lasers).
Now come watch TV.