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Sin and the city:
A personal reaction to Russell T Davies’ It’s a Sin

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Sin and the city:
A personal reaction to Russell T Davies’ It’s a Sin

Andrew O’Day

Dr Andrew O’Day is a 48 year old gay man (born 1972) who is HIV-Negative

Russell T Davies’ five part drama It’s a Sin is very much a coming-of-age narrative where the protagonists, hitting adulthood, leave their homes and travel to the gay urban centre of London where they form new familial relationships. Ritchie Tozer, for example, leaves the stifling environment of home on the Isle of Wight on a ferry connoting freedom while Colin travels from South Wales and Roscoe defies his family. Likewise, in 1991 when I was 18, I left home in Milton Keynes to attend McGill University and found myself in the gay village of Montreal, Canada with its clubs, saunas, strip joints and peep shows, something which I could never have imagined I would experience. Unlike the boys in It’s a Sin, I was already aware of HIV/AIDS, particularly as it had the reputation of being something American, a point which Ritchie makes clear to a partner upon returning to the Isle of Wight saying that Londoners, by contrast, present no danger. Curiously, It’s a Sin does not, however, deal with London venues like saunas, places that I not only frequented in Montreal from the summer of 1993 onwards (and briefly in Toronto) but would also visit regularly in the UK and especially London after returning to England in 1998.

Had I been born 10 years earlier and found myself in the gay urban centre of Montreal in 1981 as opposed to 1991 it is almost inevitable that I would have been among the first generation of gay men to fall victim to HIV/AIDS. It’s a Sin starts with there being rumours of a gay cancer which had originated in the United States which boys like Ritchie disbelieve, mocking the different explanations for the causes of the disease (that God created it, that it was created in a laboratory, that it was created by Russians, that it originated in the jungle or in spunk and that it targets groups falling under the letter H). Gay men were contracting HIV before the virus was even understood and certainly long before it was realised that condom use could be a means of protection. In It’s a Sin the word AIDS isn’t mentioned until the second episode which begins in December 1983 and the first reference to condom use during gay sex occurs in episode three set in 1986, though condom use with a female is alluded to near the start of the serial. Use of a sheath is initiated by Ritchie’s gay partner, though the pair go ahead and have sex without the condom as it kills the mood. There is not much difference between Ritchie and a young me. Like Ritchie, I frequently had a string of male partners each night, but often in saunas, the difference being that I used a condom with every one, except for during a psychotic episode in Montreal in 1997 and in the aftermath of that episode at the beginning of 1998. Also, the first time I was penetrated in the Autumn of 1991 the double condom broke as I had not used lube but I stopped the sex quickly. Terrence Higgins Trust has run campaigns promoting condom use and as a volunteer for THT, Oxford I helped distribute condoms in gay pubs and clubs in the late 2000s. Moreover, one had to purchase condoms in the Montreal saunas whereas condoms and lubrication are available for free in the UK saunas. THT also does not promote abstinence from gay sex but rather safer sex.

Evidently, I was of the generation of gay men that had knowledge of the ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ television and leaflet campaign promoting condom use. The television adverts were extremely haunting depicting, for instance, flowers being dropped on a grave and had a lasting impact on me. In It’s a Sin the first media reference to the disease was in a newspaper headline ‘Concern over mystery illness’; later a man tries (unsuccessfully) to leave leaflets on a bar; and at character Jill Baxter’s request Colin picks up gay papers on a visit to New York covering the AIDS panic. Mention is also made of Rock Hudson dying from AIDS related illness which was when, at the age of about 13, I first became aware of AIDS having watched Dynasty, though I do remember seeing a small newspaper report on the illness at a ferry port a couple of years beforehand.

It’s a Sin begins in 1981 and I would have liked to be sexually promiscuous without protection like Ritchie. There is the use of repetition: Ritchie dances with a man in a bar and is then shown engaging in sexual activity with that man and this is repeated in quick succession of Ritchie with partner after partner. However, I grew up during the AIDS scare and receiving bareback sex has, for the most part, remained something for me to fantasise about.

In It’s a Sin, Ritchie goes for an HIV test and out of fear leaves the clinic before the results can be given to him. Not knowing his HIV status and also out of terror Ritchie examines his body regularly and closely for any sign of KS lesions, of the type that he detected on one of his regular partner’s lower back. This resonates with me as I was too scared to get an HIV test when living in Montreal and was ultimately forced to test in 1997 when I was put on a hospital psychiatric ward following a psychotic episode. Up until that point, and even when I returned to England and resumed my promiscuous ways here, I constantly checked my legs for signs of purple blotches. At first, I was unaware that these were called KS lesions but I had read that an early sign of AIDS were purple bruises to be found on the legs. Testing regularly is, however, advocated by THT which runs campaigns such as ‘Give HIV the Finger’ where a finger prick test is done with the results available almost immediately. I plucked up the courage to have such a test, my third HIV test (having also tested in 2003) at THT, Oxford in January 2008 and unlike Ritchie I tested HIV-Negative. Ritchie’s dreams of becoming someone, of becoming a famous actor, are crushed by his AIDS diagnosis and like him I wanted to achieve something and amazingly I took off with my writing remaining HIV-Negative.

An idea running through It’s a Sin is the stigma associated with homosexuality and AIDS. Ritchie begins by telling his friends that he is bisexual before identifying as fully gay towards the end of the narrative. I also at first told people I was bisexual and engaged in role-play. It’s a Sin begins in the early 1980s when so little was known about AIDS and where patients were confined in isolation wards with doctors wearing protective clothing and where even the character of Jill deliberately breaks a cup which someone with AIDS had been drinking from. Funerals disguised what had caused young men to die and gay partners were excluded. Fires burn the deceased’s things. Ritchie finds it impossible to tell his parents that he is gay until near the end when he is dying and an earlier phone call to his mother when he tries to tell her the truth echoes a conversation between my mum and I in 1996 when I thought I had AIDS. However, my mum was supportive and knew instinctively what the matter was and led the conversation for me. She asked whether I had been kicked out of uni and when I told her that I hadn’t she asked whether the issue was my sexuality and whether I had AIDS, to which I responded that I didn’t know. I could have been one of the boys ‘going home’ to die. There is still stigma associated with HIV today which THT tries to combat.

Testing for HIV is particularly important nowadays in a way not dealt with in It’s a Sin since persons whose result is positive can be put on a series of medications (combination therapy) to both help stop them from proceeding to develop AIDS and also because making their viral loads undetectable they, as THT’s campaign emphasises, ‘Can’t Pass It On’ to their sexual partners. It’s highlighted in It’s a Sin that HIV is a ‘death sentence’ as was largely the case in the 1980s but things have changed dramatically since the end point of the drama of 1991. Furthermore, there have been advances made in stopping infection through the taking of a PrEP pill. All in all, however, Russell T Davies provides an insightful production into gay life in the 1980s which, as is common with his dramas, pulls at the heartstrings by getting us involved with characters who meet a tragic end.

Text © Andrew O'Day and used with his kind permission. This page was compiled by Tim Harris.

This page was first published to the internet 26th January 2021.