‘It’s a Sin’ and the Pandemic of Shame

Russell T. Davies is kind of like the British Ryan Murphy. He has the Midas touch, making hits as a writer and producer with Torchwood and the revamped Doctor Who. Like Murphy, he spends his social capital wisely, bringing to the screen groundbreaking television with LGBTQ characters. His 1999-2000 series Queer as Folk was a revolution in the portrayal of gay men’s lives on TV, and was adapted in the U.S. as a Showtime series that ran for five seasons. In 2015 he came out with a three-series anthology called Tofu, Banana and Cucumber, about queer lives and relationships, particularly in middle age. His latest, It’s a Sin, might be seen as kind of a prequel to the other series, set in the 1980s during the AIDS crisis in London. The five-episode series premiered on Channel Four in the UK on January 22. It dropped in America on HBO Max on February 18.

The story of It’s a Sin is like so many gay coming-of-age tales before it. Ritchie Tozer (Olly Alexander) leaves his provincial middle class home on the Isle of Wight to go to London to study law. He quickly abandons this plan when he meets fellow students Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) and Jill (Lydia West), who are part of the arts and drama crowd, and decides he must be an actor. The three move into a bohemian (read: filthy, dilapidated) flat with Roscoe (Omari Douglas) who has escaped his Pentecostal Nigerian family. Joining them is an achingly shy tailor’s apprentice from Wales named Colin (Callum Scott Howells). (Neil Patrick Harris plays Colin’s mentor–both in tailoring and in things gay.) Ritchie and the others dive into gay life in early 1980s London, dancing to disco and new wave hits in the clubs and hooking up with every man they can get their hands on.

Bubbling just under the surface are rumors of a “gay cancer” in New York and San Francisco. Ritchie and the denizens of the “Pink Palace,” as they have dubbed their city digs, refuse to believe the stories, as they sound suspiciously like something dreamed up by Maggie Thatcher’s government to lock them all back in the closet. 

For those of us who know the history of AIDS, seeing the characters’ naïve dismissal of the threat is like watching a car wreck happening in slow motion. We cringe at the misinformation they spout—the disease is spread through use of amyl nitrate (poppers); it can only be caught from Americans (“No yanking the Yanks!”); and how can a cancer know if you’re gay anyway? (“Is it pink? Is it located in the wrists?”) Sadder still is their belief that if AIDS was really a serious issue, the government would be doing something about it and the media would be reporting on it. It was, and they weren’t.

It would be easy to sit in judgment of their ignorance if we hadn’t just been through a similar experience with the COVID pandemic–the low-key panic fueled by misinformation, the mistrust of authorities, and the twisted rationalizations for why this is a disease that affects other people but not us.

As some of their friends begin to get sick, the truth is harder to fight. Jill, the one straight girl living among all the fluttering gay men, begins to investigate the disease and becomes part of the nascent AIDS activism movement. She’s quickly drafted into providing care for the sick and administering a dose of reality to her friends who still don’t believe it can affect them.   

Cringing at the characters’ ignorance turns to anger as we see how the ill are ill-treated. Patients are left to die in empty wards where they’re treated like lepers, the nurses refusing even to bring their food to them. One character is locked in a hospital room and declared a public health danger, with activists having to find a lawyer to get him out. One man’s family burns all his possessions in a bonfire in the back yard after he dies. 

If the show sounds like a downer, it’s not. Davies and his directors bring a sense of fast-paced, quick-cut joy to the opening episodes. (And as in most Davies’ series, there’s plenty of graphic sexuality.) Even as the material gets heavier, the wit and sparkle of the characters never disappear. Davies also loves great music cues, and it’s hard to get too down with Kim Wilde’s “The Kids in America,” Erasure’s “Oh l’amour,” Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth,” and Sylvester’s “Do Ya Wanna Funk?” on the soundtrack.

Fair warning, another Davies signature is that he has no compunction about letting beloved characters die. Just as no one was immune to AIDS, there is no “major character immunity” in his shows.

Even when “It’s a Sin” gets serious, the characters always bring joy to the story. (HBOMax)

For a show called “It’s a Sin,” it deals very little with overt religion. (The title comes from the Pet Shop Boys song of the same name, which many have interpreted as being about lead singer Neil Tennant’s struggle with growing up gay and Catholic.) 

There’s one scene at a funeral where the Anglican priest is going on about how the deceased was a wonderful brother and son, and how he loved cars. Some of the man’s friends stand up and remind the assembled family that he also had a devoted boyfriend, who his mother had evicted from the apartment they shared after her son died. The “Christians” present answer by shouting “shame on you” and calling them “bastards.”                

Shame is an important through-line in the show. The shame of parents for their adult children who have a socially taboo disease they know they got through gay sex. The shame of those same adult children who believe they’ve disappointed their parents. The indignity of the disease itself, in which young men die with dementia, blindness, and the loss of control of their bodily functions. 

Shame made the spread of the disease worse. Nobody wanted to talk about it and how you got it, so it just kept spreading. The series star Olly Alexander speculates if COVID was sexually transmitted, it would be treated with the same embarrassed silence as AIDS.

In the UK as well as the US during the AIDS crisis there were religious and political leaders who seemed almost giddy at the idea that AIDS could be God’s punishment against homosexuals. Jerry Falwell famously said that “AIDS is not just God’s punishment for homosexuals. It is God’s punishment for the society that tolerates homosexuals.” The recent death of Rush Limbaugh has reminded many that he used to have a radio segment called “AIDS Updates” in which he read the names of people who had died of AIDS, while playing disco music. 

In the final episode of It’s a Sin, there’s a monologue that puts all these pieces together. It comes from Jill, confronting the mother of another of her dead gay friends:       

“I don’t know what happened to you to make that house so loveless. But that’s why he grew up so ashamed of himself. …He was ashamed, and he kept on being ashamed. …‘Cause that’s what shame does. It makes him think he deserves it. The wards are full of men who think they deserve it. They are dying, and a little bit of them thinks, ‘Yes, this is right. I brought this on myself. It’s my fault because the sex that I love is killing me.’ I mean it’s astonishing. The perfect virus came along to prove you right.”

I’d like to say the shame pandemic, like the AIDS pandemic, has been brought to heel by advances in medication that render the virus undetectable, but that’s not true.

According to the Trevor Project, which is dedicated to preventing suicide in LGBTQ youth, gay and lesbian young people are five times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. Forty percent of transgender adults have reported an attempted suicide. It’s estimated that forty percent of homeless youth are LGBTQ. Of those who are homeless because of family rejection of their sexuality/gender identity, fifty percent come from highly religious families.     

Behind these statistics is often a culture of religious shame that makes up the heart of the values of many families that reject their LGBTQ children. These beliefs don’t just come from fundamentalists like Franklin Graham, who says of LGBTQ people, “If they want to continue living like this, it’s the flames of hell for you.” It comes from “moderate” evangelicals like Hillsongs’ Brian Huston, who claim to love gay people, but would reject and even fire a staff member who came out as gay. It comes from the Catholic Church, whose leaders say they support LGBTQ youth while their catechism continues to call them “intrinsically disordered.”  When it comes to the virus of shame, for LGBTQ people, the Church is the super-spreader.

I can’t recommend It’s a Sin strongly enough. As an opportunity for Lenten reflection, it seems like kind of a strange choice, with its drag and drugs and wild sex. But if Lent is about giving up something that gets in the way of our relationship with God and our witness to the liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ, I can’t think of a better thing for Christians to give up than our history of shame and judgment.