WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
I watched the last scenes of Russell T Davies’ Channel 4 drama It’s A Sin with wet eyelashes. The parties, performances, hook-ups, break-ups, in-jokes and tears of the world we were invited into are still vivid in my mind. The plight of the characters, and the people they’d become, felt personal.
I was moved by the sudden death of Richie, played by Olly Alexander, and the injustice of the circumstances surrounding it. In stark contrast to his London home, The Pink Palace, Richie died isolated in the remoteness of the Isle of Wight; secluded, hidden, closeted. Undefined by the setting’s regression, Richie’s last words were a beautiful, quiet memorial to his glittering gay life in London. They fell on deaf ears. As his mother refused to relay them to his friends, the sense of injustice I felt became rage, my damp cheeks turning red. With the curtain call looming, Richie finally found vindication, whilst the audience found closure, in the words of character Jill Baxter.
Confronting the impact of Richie’s shame, Jill microcosmically decodes the impact of Richie’s mother’s ignorance and the hostile environment within their home. “That’s what happened, in your house. He died because of you. They all died because of you”, she says. All Richie knew how to do was internalise shame – and so, he grew up hyper-vulnerable.
Shame was central to the governing ‘house’ of Margaret Thatcher, whose sickening stance on homosexuality was exemplified in Section 28, a law which prohibited local authorities from promoting or even accepting the notion that homosexuality was acceptable. It was, according to the law, a “pretended family relationship”, and should be communicated to children as such. Of course, this statute gave more life to the already rampant stigma surrounding the LGBTQ community.
In her eventual confrontation of Richie’s mother – who she has been patient with throughout the series – Jill condemns an entire decaying generation whose outdated beliefs and culture of silence killed so many. With her allyship, Jill acts as a mouthpiece for the dead, constantly speaking up for those who are systemically silenced and ignored.
Jill, played by Lydia West and inspired by actress and AIDS activist Jill Nadler, offers unwavering support to her friends as they navigate their queerness. “You’re living in London – which is all very exciting – and then all of a sudden, there’s a disease that literally changes everything”, Nadler recalled, in an interview for Gay Times. In It’s A Sin, as AIDS breaks out, Jill’s allyship adapts to meet the needs of the entire community. Beginning simply by sourcing restricted information, we watch her join an AIDS helpline, organise demonstrations and become a primary carer for sick men. Despite backlash from her friends, the families of those she helps, the police and wider society, she’s resolute in her solidarity. Nadler explains how this stigma forced her work into the shadows, “It was not an exceptional thing to do. But it was hidden. Because you feel like, ‘Ok, I’ve got to go but not tell anyone I’m going.’”
Recalling how the stigma manifested during his 1990’s schooldays, writer and editor Matthew Todd told the Guardian: “Men then seemed to believe if you didn’t hate “poofs” it meant you were one. To be anything less than hostile seemed to threaten their masculinity”.
The omnipresent shame that Jill links to silence in It’s A Sin manifests similarly here. Todd explains how his “fear” dissipated as he encountered straight allies in adulthood. Lisa Power, co-founder of LGBT charity Stonewall, embraced straight allyship in the wake of Section 28; this move galvanised communities against systemic homophobia, resulting in the creation of the organisation which has protected rights, changed laws and supported individuals for over 30 years. Despite acknowledging the unparalleled importance of gay voices, Todd notes that the crucial role allies play is “an easily forgotten truth in LGBT politics”, adding that their contribution is “powerful because it tenderly cracks apart the homophobic granite”.
Today the world finds itself facing a very different killer virus, its disproportionate effects on marginalised communities eerily under-reported. Davies attributed inaction surrounding the AIDS pandemic to it being “a little bit too minority” to count. This feels reminiscent of the disregard for Covid-19’s exploitation of existing inequalities amongst minority groups. With little official notice being taken of the impact on the LGBTQ community, the LGBT Foundation has stepped in to provide important statistics. Their helpline reported mental health crisis calls regarding suicidal thoughts rising by 25%, and reports of domestic violence by 65%, over lockdown, as queer people become forcibly isolated from their communities and allies. These statics are invaluable because, as Dr Chaand Nagpaul, Chair of the British Medical Association, commented recently, “If you don’t measure it, then that problem doesn’t exist.”
Personally, my mental health deteriorated during the first lockdown when discrimination online became overwhelming and inescapable. My position in society felt precarious watching racism in response to George Floyd’s murder unfold. I couldn’t have overcome this without allies; from friends who joined me at BLM protests in the summer, to elders who reaffirmed the legitimacy of my emotions, and strangers that helped me find confidence and catharsis in sharing my experiences of racism.
When we saw Richie rendered isolated and voiceless, Jill stepped up to finish telling his story. As the needs of marginalised groups evolve and accelerate, the unyielding support of allies, both public and private, has never been so essential.