“Undeniable community service”: It’s A Sin and the Forgotten Women of the AIDS Crisis

If you have not heard of It’s A Sin where have you been? Russell T. Davies’ smash-hit Channel 4 miniseries has captured – and broken – the hearts of the British public with its tender portrayal of coming of age in the midst of the AIDS crisis. The series has made HIV/AIDS a topic of national conversation, just in time for both National HIV Testing Week and LGBTQ+ History Month. According to the Terrence Higgins Trust, the national HIV and sexual health charity, a record number of people have ordered at-home HIV tests this year, a phenomenon they attribute, in part, to the series’ popularity.

It’s A Sin has been deservedly praised for being both gripping and informative. The series successfully busts myths about HIV transmission and, as we follow the characters throughout the 1980s, we witness several key moments in British LGBTQ+ history. These include the launch of the infamous “Don’t Die of Ignorance” public health campaign and the introduction of Section 28. However, one element conspicuously absent from the narrative is lesbians. Lesbian women played a crucial role as both activists and caregivers throughout the AIDS crisis – a set of responsibilities that within the series are delegated almost exclusively to the character of Jill, portrayed by Lydia West.

Throughout the series we watch Jill research HIV, make countless hospital visits, and grow as an activist. However, whilst her male friends flirt at clubs, fall in and out of love, and defiantly declare their sexuality, Jill seemingly experiences no attraction to anyone. The character of Jill is based on a real-life friend of Davies’, Jill Nadler, who herself has a cameo in the series. Whilst this tribute is touching, it is also arguably a missed opportunity to depict the extraordinary display of solidarity between lesbians and gay men during the crisis.

Discussing the AIDS crisis in the United States, sociologist Judith Stacey describes lesbians as undertaking “Herculean levels of caretaking outside default family form”. This statement is equally applicable to Britain where lesbians stepped forward to care for those men who were often rejected by their families and treated without sympathy by medical professionals. Unfortunately, these intimate acts of solidarity are largely absent not only from It’s A Sin, but from the archives as well, since these interactions predominantly took place behind closed doors between people who were at their most vulnerable.

More present within the archives are examples of public campaigning and activism by lesbians. One example comes from the London Lesbian Line, who in 1985 launched a campaign to encourage lesbians to become blood donors. This action was inspired by the San Diego-based group Blood Sisters, formed two years prior. In a press release published in the London-based gay newspaper Capital Gay, London Lesbian Line stated that their aims were twofold: “to provide an undeniable community service (and point out that gay men are being missed by the Transfusion service)”. Women donated in the hopes that blood transfusions would prolong the lives of those with AIDS, and to take the place of gay and bisexual men, upon whom a lifetime ban on donation had recently been imposed.

A more disruptive example of AIDS activism comes from Staffordshire. In 1986, members of the Lesbian and Gay Youth Movement staged a peaceful demonstration outside the home of William Frank Brownhill. Brownhill, the Conservative leader of South Staffordshire Council, had previously called for the mass-murder of gay men and lesbians in order to halt the spread of AIDS. The group, who came to be known as The Wombourne Twelve, faced violence from the police and were arrested and held on remand for two weeks. According to the memories of Lyn David Thomas, one woman, who spat at a police officer after seeing her girlfriend manhandled, was charged with assaulting an officer, as the police assumed all lesbians were HIV positive.

Finally, the life of Lisa Power provides a television-worthy narrative that could rival that of the fictional Jill Baxter. Power, who came out as a lesbian in the 1970s, provided comfort and advice as a volunteer for the Lesbian and Gay Switchboard – a confidential helpline which became a leading source of information on HIV/AIDS. In 1988, she joined the activist group Act Up London. She recalls floating blown-up condoms over the walls of Pentonville Prison to protest that prisoners – another demographic often missing from public memory of the AIDS crisis – were not allowed to use them. In 1989, Power went on to co-found the UK charity Stonewall. In a recent roundtable discussion on the topic of It’s A Sin with The Guardian, Power describes herself as being infuriated with the series focusing on Jill as “the avatar of good womanhood” Instead, she continues, she would have preferred to hear more from “all of the women who were getting on with doing things, as well as being lovely and supportive”, women she describes as “stroppy dykes”.

I want to stress that this article is not an attempt to revoke Russell T. Davies’ status as a queer national treasure. With only five episodes, we cannot expect It’s A Sin to provide a comprehensive overview of the AIDS crisis in Britain. Davies himself has acknowledged the absence of lesbians within the show, commenting in a Q&A with the BFI that he wished the series had been “twenty episodes long” in order to “pay tribute” to those women who took care of gay male patients.

However, even if the series had the time to explore lesbian caregiving and activism, who is to say that Davies is the right man for the job? Part of what makes It’s A Sin so profoundly moving is that Davies is writing from his own personal experience as a young gay man in the 1980s. Rather than bemoan Davies not including particular aspects of the crisis in his work, we should instead be championing creators who can provide us with alternative perspectives shaped by their personal experience. As fond as I am of Davies, I would prefer to watch a lesbian history that is written by a queer woman.

When it comes to representing lesbians and the AIDS crisis, the problem is not with It’s A Sin, but with the dearth of sympathetic HIV/AIDS narratives on screen. However, by 2 February 2021, It’s A Sin reached over 6.5 million views on All 4. I can only hope that the show’s phenomenal success proves to television executives that the British public are ready to reckon with all aspects of the AIDS crisis.

Written by Ruby Hann


Anonymous. “Acclaimed new drama It’s A Sin drives record All 4 streaming.” Channel 4 (London), 2 February, 2021. http://www.channel4.com/press/news/acclaimed-new-drama-its-sin-drives-record-all-4-streaming?fbclid=IwAR2_VPrEiW13yvFS0CMOF74ASlbWDHYsMRKG6oPZpjsh_D7MinC1IHhxr7Q> [Accessed 12 February, 2021]

Anonymous. “Gay Demo Arrests December 1986.” In the Pink (Birmingham).Volume 4. January 1987, http://www.gaybirminghamremembered.co.uk/memories/Gay%20Demo%20Arrests%20December%201986 > [Accessed 12 February, 2021]

BFI. “BFI at Home | It’s A Sin Q&A with Russell T Davies, creators & cast, hosted by Matt Lucas.” January 18, 2021. Video, 46:21. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K-ZFRT5olzE&feature=emb_title> [Accessed 12 February, 2021]

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Dawson, Brit. “A record number of people ordered HIV tests after watching It’s A Sin.” Dazed (London), 8 February, 2021. http://www.dazeddigital.com/film-tv/article/51871/1/record-number-people-ordered-hiv-tests-after-watching-its-a-sin-olly-alexander [Accessed 12 February, 2021]

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Kheraj, Alim. “It’s a Sin: ”There is such a raw truth to it”.” The Guardian (London). 10 February, 2021. www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2021/feb/10/its-a-sin-there-is-such-a-raw-truth-to-it [Accessed 12 February, 2021]

London Lesbian Line. “Aids Blood Sisters.” Capital Gay (London). May 10, 1985. 9. link-gale-com.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/apps/doc/GYRQKB391529409/AHSI?u=ed_itw&sid=AHSI&xid=5aa64203 [Accessed 12 February, 2021]

Stacey, Judith. “The Families of Man: Gay Male Intimacy and Kinship in a Global Metropolis.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 30: 3 (2005), 1911-1935.

Wise, Louis. “Giant condoms and buckets of fake blood: the true story of Aids activists Act Up.” The Guardian (London), 6 April, 2018. www.theguardian.com/film/2018/apr/06/giant-condoms-and-buckets-of-fake-blood-the-true-story-of-aids-activists-act-up [Accessed 12 February, 2021]

Image: BBC

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