I learned more about LGBTQ+ lives from It’s A Sin than I ever knew before

Spoilers ahead! I mean it. From the first sentence. I warned you. 

Colin, the lovable, naïve and dorky outsider in Russell T Davies’s It’s A Sin, has a seizure in episode three.

Clever, I thought, to introduce a different illness into a story set under the shadow of the Aids pandemic.

I’d spotted the twist early – Colin didn’t have Aids, but social stigma would illustrate the confusion around what had become known as ‘the gay plague’ at the time. 

Except this was Aids. I was wrong. The confusion of Colin’s friends echoed my own. This wasn’t the disease I thought I knew – for starters, there were no reddish brown blotches on his skin, no emaciated body. 

I learned alongside Colin’s loved ones with a mounting sense of dread, fearing the inevitable. My question was the same as that asked multiple times throughout the series. How did I miss it?

Davies’s drama charts the lives of a group of friends who each find liberation in London’s gay scene in the 1980s, breathing life into experiences that have largely been erased from history. 

I’ve known I was gay for as long as I can remember. I didn’t tell anybody other than my cat until I was 20.

It’s not that I didn’t feel that I would be accepted – I’m lucky to have an exceptionally accepting family – it’s that I didn’t know how to be gay. There was no manual; nothing to model myself on.

I remember secretly watching Skins under my duvet– clinging desperately to the gay characters in the show. Similarly, the generation before me watched Queer as Folk with the volume turned as low as it could go to avoid waking sleeping parents.

Following the release of It’s A Sin last week, I know there will be young people doing the same right now. This cycle continues for young LGBTQ+ people who crave connection in a world that denies their existence. The hunger to learn is there, but the education system fails to provide.  

At school, the only time I heard the word ‘gay’ was when it was thrown around as a taunt in the playground. I was vaguely aware of Aids from Red Nose Day campaigns and from studying African nations in geography. Not once was it mentioned in relation to Britain. 

As I was born, gay men were dying across the country. Many of these men couldn’t tell their family or friends about their illnesses because of fear and shame. Many of these men died terrified and alone. 

It chills me to the bone to know now that while I was growing up, there were members of my community yearning to grieve for loved ones that had been taken from them. Society refused to acknowledge their pain and denied their existence. 

It is incredible, though sadly not surprising, that It’s A Sin is the first British TV drama to centre on the Aids crisis. Far from a period piece, the drama focuses on a painful history that exists primarily in the memories of those who experienced it.

Around the series’ mid-way mark, the characters that populate its world begin to disappear. They are swept home by the fear and shame of their parents, who wilfully sever contact with the free, independent lives they’ve built. Instead, they die alone in the homes they desperately longed to escape.  

This is painfully illustrated by the plight of Gregory in episode two. Like his best friend Jill, we last see him cowering behind his aggressive father before he disappears. We don’t see him deteriorate – instead, we see his family burn his belongings on a bonfire after his death. 

Not simply an act of fearful ignorance on his family’s part, this is an act of erasure. Those left behind in London knew nothing of his illness nor his death. Nothing remained of his life other than the memories held by his friends. 

Thatcher’s infamous Section 28 act, which banned the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality, came into effect in 1988 alongside the height of the Aids epidemic. At a time when gay men were screaming for help, they were banned from being heard. 

Schools were purged of LGBTQ+ literature – illustrated poignantly in a scene where Ash, a gay teacher, is forced to eradicate any trace of homosexuality from the school library. There is a tragic irony in the censorship of a space where children should be encouraged to expand their world view and learn from new perspectives. 

The legacy of this act continues – it is no wonder that there is so much dangerous, inaccurate stigma around HIV positive people within the gay community. Those who lived through the Aids crisis have agonising images seared into their minds, and those who have learned about it see only the tragedy that befell those before them.  

The education we give ourselves is rooted in shame and fear, but it’s better than nothing. The deafening silence from schools prevents us from understanding where we’ve come from, and from imagining who we could be.  

I learned more about LGBTQ+ lives across the five episodes of It’s A Sin than I did in my 13 years of education. It hurt to watch police officers don plastic gloves before beating gay protestors, and doctors confining their suffering patients behind locked doors.  

It broke me to see the shame behind the eyes of dying men such as Gregory, who refused to let his friends see his illness – robbing both himself and his loved ones of his final days.  

I was particularly struck by a line spoken by Lydia West’s Jill in the final episode: ‘That’s what shame does. It makes you think you deserve it’. I felt each word sear through my skin. Silence breeds shame, which seeps into the core of young LGBTQ+ people and grows with us, preventing us from living authentically. 

It’s time to open the flood gates. We must listen to the stories that history has censored. We must counter ignorance with knowledge. We must live, loudly and bravely, for those who weren’t able to. 

To those secretly watching under their duvets, this is for you. 

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