The eagerly-anticipated series premieres Friday 22 January on Channel 4
BY CARRIE LYELL
BAFTA award-winning writer Russell T Davis’ eagerly-anticipated five-part series It’s A Sin lands on Channel 4 tonight, making history as the first British drama about HIV and AIDS.
Starring Olly Alexander and supported by the likes of Stephen Fry, Neil Patrick Harris and Keeley Hawes (who’ll always have our hearts for her role as Kitty in Tipping The Velvet), It’s A Sin is a powerful story about the lives, loves, highs and heartbreaks of Ritchie, Roscoe and Colin, three young men who find themselves thrown together in London in the early 80s.
The show has been incredibly well-received by critics, with some describing it as “one of the best gay TV shows ever made”. We loved it too. It’s beautiful, painful and gorgeous.
But we’ve just one question: where are the lesbians?
In a recent BFI At Home Q&A, hosted by Matt Lucas, Davis acknowledged the absence of lesbians in It’s A Sin and said he wished the series has been “20 episodes long” so that he could “pay tribute” to the women who took care of many AIDS patients in the 1980s and 1990s.
“Some nursing staff wouldn’t even touch patients,” Davis recalled. “It was the lesbian staff who stepped forward and and worked into those late nights. That’s slightly in there but I could have written a whole episode about [it].”
Author of The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo is rumoured to have insisted on his deathbed: “Remember the lesbians and what they did for us” and yet, tragically, the voices of the women who supported their dying brothers during the Aids crisis have been largely unheard.
Of course, it’s right that men are front and centre of a series like It’s A Sin, but we shouldn’t forget the women who were there.
Alexis Danzig, an ACT UP veteran whose father died from Aids, told VICE: “It was never not my battle. I wasn’t separate from the struggle, ever.”
Danzig says: “The lesbians in ACT UP came to the organisation because of deep personal and professional friendships with gay men… A number of ACT UP women worked in the medical field as doctors and nurses and saw close up how gay men were being treated—ignored, abused, made into pariahs. ACT UP women also had experience as ‘buddies’, being care partners to HIV+ men, either through personal friendships or GMHC [Gay Men’s Health Crisis] matches.
“Together, gay men and lesbians forged a very strong alliance that worked internally to support each other as friends and lovers died, and to use our mutual anger and outrage to build community awareness of the government’s lack of response to the Aids crisis.”
As well as their time, some lesbians also donated their blood to make sure there was enough to meet demand, becoming known as the “blood sisters”.
Barbara Vick, one of the founding members of the San Diego Blood Sisters, remembers: “There was a powerlessness that everybody felt, but the lesbian community seemed, in some ways, immune to the disease. I don’t want to say there was a sense of guilt, but then you look at your counterparts and feel that they are carrying the burden of this for no reason.
“At that time, I don’t think that women economically has as much to give as men. But this was something that they could do, the giving of themselves.”
Thankfully, these stories haven’t been completely forgotten. Historian Jad Adams highlighted the role of lesbians in a 1987 documentary Aids: The Unheard Voices, and more recently, Anderson Clark’s 2018 documentary When The World Changed tells the story of three Bostonian lesbians – a nurse, a civil rights lawyer and a therapist – who found themselves on the front line of the crisis, recalling how they and others brought comfort and dignity to those who were dying.
Adams says: “Throughout the 80s and 90s, lesbians were very active and much appreciated for their caring role in looking after men with Aids – hospital visits, social security forms, befriending and so on.
“It is important to remember that a lot of these men were not out to their families or were explicitly rejected by their families. They really needed the support which gay-friendly women could provide.”
These accounts are important, with many believing it was the Aids crisis, and the solidarity throughout, which gave birth to the LGBTQI community as we know it today.
“I think there’s a great argument to say it’s a unifying force in many ways,” says Davis. “That unification is still there.”
It’s A Sin premieres Friday 22 January at 9pm on Channel 4. All episodes will be available to watch on All4 immediately afterwards
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