The HIV/AIDs epidemic devastated queer communities across the world in the ’80s, but the focus of contemporary films about that time period largely are through an American lens. That’s changed in HBO Max’s It’s a Sin.
In early ’80s London we meet friends Ritchie, Ash, Clive, Roscoe, Colin, and Jill. While Ritchie and Jill meet as they are beginning their college journeys, others mesh at parties, the main kind of queer space at that time. Some of them are starting new jobs in the city after moving from their smaller hometowns, while others are starting entirely new lives after separating themselves from unaccepting parents in the city itself. Still, pubs and parties are where they can express themselves without apprehension.
Though disco music and beer begin as the main commonplace of these friends, over time they get closer as life gets real. Colin is working hard to secure a job that he loves, Ritchie is working through changing his major from one his parents want for him, to one he wants for him self and Roscoe is just trying to make it to another day, and ensure that day is full of joy. Jill, a Black queer woman, seems to be the only one not struggling much with her identity or maneuvering through life. The only woman in the group, she’s largely the backbone of the friends: organized, aware, but still lots of fun.
She’s so reliable, that when one friend in their community, David, learns he’s sick with HIV/AIDs he calls her for help and support. Jill is unsurprisingly hesitant to help: there’s still little to no information about how the disease spreads and how people can protect themselves from it. All that’s known is a lot of queer people were contracting it. Still, she helps.
Whispers of this “new American gay disease” spreads, but many of the friends are slow to believe it’s true, especially Ritchie. Though partying and sex remain staples of their experiences, this mini-series explores the vastness of each main characters’ lives. Yes, many have family drama, but they also have work drama, and work to do on improving their self-confidence. Their queerness is the subject of the show, but it isn’t all of who they are. Yet, this part of who they are, queer, devastates their community.
Slowly but surely, more people in the queer community are dying from AIDs. The government is largely not responding and the medical community is writing it off as a “gay disease.” Jill, from a mixed Caribbean and white background, sees this devastation and uses her sadness as ammunition to help. She branches out from helping her direct friends, to visiting hospitals as emotional support for those who do not have any.
It’s a Sin is a reminder for queer folks today to appreciate our queer elders. Viewing this film through the lens of the current coronavirus pandemic adds another layer of relatability that I hope non-queer people can receive. As a queer person living through the pandemic, it hits a wee-bit harder.
I often find myself hitting a wall when discussing the magnitude of importance queer community is with straight folks. This series is evidence of that desperately needed support. Some characters had familial support, and others made life-changing decisions due to the shame they inherited from homophobic family.
It’s amazing that Roscoe, a very fierce Nigerian man, could experience a change in his family’s perspective; life-long homophobia was not prescribed to his storyline because of his culture’s religiousness. He remained bold and sickening (the good kind) throughout his life, a redirection from the typical storyline of Black queer men resolving to shyness or self-hate when rejected from family.
Though the friend group was mixed, and majority white, it did not feel forced. Roscoe brought mannerisms and understandings that are very Black, and the non-Black friends did not overcompensate to understand. This was a breathe of fresh air.
Yet, I still finished the five-part series holding my breathe. Throughout the existence of time, queer Black women have been the backbone of our communities. We make sure people are fed, well, and supported in a number of ways. Jill is a prime example of this dedication. Still, I wondered, where is Jill’s support?
At the numerous parties and gatherings, where friends enjoyed romance, Jill did not. She was a natural part of the friend group, and in many queer spaces that, though largely dominated by men, included women, too. Where was her romance? Where was her support?
Yes, her parents accepted her, but she felt very removed from receiving any kind of love in social spaces, beyond the ones where she helped men in dire need of assistance. Where were her flowers waiting at the hospital before she spent a day volunteering support to strangers? Where was her passionate love and romance? How do you give so much without receiving any inkling of personal help and hope to see another day?
According to the CDC, Black women in the US are currently disproportionately affected by HIV. Who is supporting us as we care for others?
It’s a Sin is a phenomenal telling of an instrumental time in queer history. I just wish Black women could receive the same level of support that they give. Community as a lifeline is reciprocal—cyclical, even. We can’t live sustainable lives if our giving is a one-way street. I wish Jill could’ve received a dozen or two flowers. She deserved it, and much more.