Homosexuality is not a sin, but with the spread of disinformation and discrimination, a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s was almost certainly deadly. It’s a Sin tells the gut–wrenching tale of a group of young gay men who are living together as they navigate the throes of early adulthood when met with news of a foreign “gay plague” from America. Set in the early 1980s in London, the show examines the impacts of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in a setting not commonly covered by film and media, with depiction of the virus often being focused on places like New York and San Francisco.
To flatmates Ritchie (Olly Alexander), Ash (Nathaniel Curtis), Colin (Callum Scott Howells), and Roscoe (Omari Douglas), the perceived threat of infection is far–off and the risk can be mitigated by avoiding sex with American partners. Viewers, painfully aware of the reality of the virus, fight to hold their tongues while their favorite characters dismiss cautionary tales from news headlines and panicked acquaintances and go on about their lives with little understanding of what was to come.
It’s a Sin strikes a sensitive chord in the rich history of gay communities in London and across the globe. For those who lived through the start of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, it is a reminder of their own experiences and friends whose lives were lost to the virus. These memories were even more potent, having been assigned stigma and shame from a society rampant with homophobia and misunderstanding. For many younger viewers, there is shock and outrage; they are watching the violent injustice and mistreatment of LGBTQ communities in a way that they've possibly never seen before.
The show’s creator, Russell T. Davies, understands the plight of young gay men living in the United Kingdom in the 1980s all too well. As a student in Manchester, England at the time that the HIV/AIDS epidemic broke, he lost friends to the crisis, carrying with him the stories of their robust lives and painfully young deaths. It’s what led him to make the show so exuberant and joyous and to make the characters distinctly lovable. “I wanted to create characters that you love so that when they’re gone, you miss them exactly the same way we missed the people that we lost.” Davies says in The New York Times.
Davies’ insistence of telling an honest account through storytelling and casting decisions (the show used a queer–casting rule) has had ripples off screen. It’s a Sin premiered in the United Kingdom at the end of January, just one week prior to National HIV testing week. The show’s massive success and acclaim, along with awareness efforts from the actors, have led to an increase in HIV testing numbers across the United Kingdom. It's estimated that testing was three times more prevalent after the show’s release than in previous years.
The show is a testament to the scourge of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and an ode to those who fought for their freedom amid stigma and societal disapproval. Through acts of defiance and declarations of rebellion, the flatmates are dedicated to creating a life of joy and freedom. Although the tragedy of the virus strikes more violently as the five–part series progresses, the moments of happiness and authentic joy become increasingly salient in contrast. Whether you’re familiar with the HIV/AIDS epidemic or are just starting to learn, It’s a Sin carries a multitude of messages for audiences, perhaps none greater than the reminder to choose love and empathy over fear, misunderstanding, and stigma.