You’d have to be living under a rock not to know that Russell T. Davies’ new series It’s a Sin aired recently on Channel 4. Heart-breaking? Yes. A long-overdue look at the brutal impact of AIDS in the UK? Most definitely. A progressive show with an equally progressive audience? I’m not so sure.

All about Jill

Seeing a queer story unapologetically told by young queer actors was the highlight for me. But the overwhelmingly positive response to this series, particularly from my straight, mostly female, friends unsettled me. Why? you ask.

Let’s start with #BeMoreJill –— the hashtag inspiring a series of declarations all over my social media from, ‘Everyone needs a Jill’ to ‘Thank you to all the Jills out there’, and even the self-proclaimed, ‘I am such a Jill’.

These were the trending comments that followed a gruelling five-hour series about gay men dying from AIDS. Let’s just think about that for a moment.

I don’t dislike Jill. Jill is kind, Jill is supportive. But undeniably the climax of the story, and attention, became about Jill. So, what does that mean for the deceased men of It’s a Sin? Are their deaths the mere catalyst for Jill’s tragic tale of loss and grief? It’s a Sin struggles (and ultimately fails) to move away from the bad habit of presenting LGBTQ+ storylines from the perspective of its straight counterparts, often prioritising how it affects them — be it the caring Jill or the disapproving mother. It also struggles to resist placing a moral judgment on the transmission of AIDS, concluding in its final scene how the ashamed young gays, who couldn’t control themselves, ‘killed people’ — according to Jill. Brian Mullin aptly reminds us that ‘then and now … HIV (like COVID-19) is a virus, not a moral agent’. Providing straight viewers with an accepting friend-figure and ‘ally’ with whom they can identify, and who seems to have become the true heroine of this series, is just one of the many ways It’s a Sin panders to straight viewers.

Tragedy sells

It’s clear that we have become conditioned to only seeing queer stories in mainstream TV/Film which centre on pain. The AIDS crisis, the disastrous consequences of coming out, or just how painfully hard it is to be queer in general all tick the right sympathy boxes. From EastEnders to Brokeback Mountain, I spent most of my teenage years traumatised by gay storylines which almost all seemed to end with at least one gay character dying. Theatre has also platformed these stories with Angels in America, The Inheritance and Elegies, to name a few. LGBTQ+ stories of struggle exist for obvious reasons; they draw upon real, lived experiences which are a direct result of so many years of oppression.

But I ask this: in 2021, are mainstream audiences really only comfortable with LGBTQ+ representation when it is grounded in tragedy? It seems that we have only come so far in our societal ‘acceptance’ that we need to be spoon-fed the universality of death or danger to find any relevance to this community — even more so if our stories are to reach a mainstream audience. This singular narrative simply does not allow for queer people to be depicted and understood in all of their humanity.

So, honestly, what’s the appeal? Does seeing queer stories of struggle perpetuate queer people being seen as victims and, in turn, reinforce heterosexual superiority? I fear the uncomfortable truth is that repeatedly seeing tragic gay stories maintains a certain distance between ‘them’ and ‘us’, never fully allowing ‘us’ to be seen in the same realm as ‘them’. If straight viewers actually dared to see themselves in queer characters, or see them as anything other than totally defined by their queerness, no doubt this distance would be lessened. Regardless, one thing is clear: we are obsessed with seeing communities in pain — an oppressive trope which goes far beyond the LGBTQ+ community.

I feel an overwhelming expectation that, as a young gay man, I should shut up and be grateful for the queer representation in It’s a Sin. After all, I am of a different generation who did not live through the ’80’s AIDS crisis — a huge privilege in itself — and I benefit immensely from learning their stories. Although, as far as AIDS dramas go, the French film 120 BPM gets my vote any day — less sensationalised, less shame, less straight. Unlike It’s a Sin, it acknowledges the non-queer victims of AIDS too. But I have also personally seen and heard and lived through enough about how tragic it is to be gay. These stories cannot be the only stories which find success with mainstream audiences. We need to give young queer kids a hopeful future, not just a traumatic past.

A queer James Bond?

So what would I like to see? A gay James Bond? A queer Doctor Who? Maybe. Or, better still, a future generation of our own iconic characters, appealing to all, who just happen to be queer. Some of whom may even showcase the realities of living with HIV today. And if that sounds radical, it shouldn’t. I don’t want only doomed stories, nor do I want to see the sidelined and stereotyped comedic ‘gay-best-friend’ figure again and again, inherited from the likes of Sex & The City and Bridget Jones Diary. Where are the nuanced, thriving gay characters, uninhibited by their sexuality? Oh, and when I say gay, I don’t mean queerbaiting. J.K. Rowling casually suggesting (after no mention in any of the seven Harry Potter books/films) that Dumbledore is, in fact, gay, just doesn’t do it for me — sorry.

Sure, it’s not all hopeless. We are slowly seeing more three-dimensional queer characters drip-fed into the mainstream. A particular favourite of mine being the high-flying agent Andréa Martel in the French series Call My Agent, whose queer identity is seamlessly woven into her story without being a constant obstacle. There’s also Netflix’s Tales of The City, an imperfect yet beautifully LGBTQ+ progressive series which, unsurprisingly, didn’t reach far beyond its loyal queer audience and wasn’t renewed for a second season — probably because it showed complex and realistic LGBTQ+ characters. If those queer storylines aren’t interesting to us, we must ask, why? Why are tragic gay narratives so much easier to swallow? Apparently, we prefer The Prom, now a Golden Globe-nominated film filled with caricatures and shunned lesbians, and yet another case of LGBTQ+ storytelling serving the egos of its straight viewers by practically applauding them for their acceptance.

Other than being a highly evocative series which, yes, reduced me to tears, I’m not sure that It’s a Sin would have provided me with much hope or ambition as a teenager coming to terms with my sexuality. I understand that in tragedy we heal, and I’m glad it offers something to many of its viewers, queer and straight, but I for one am tired of being constantly told that only in my suffering can I be redeemed and accepted. Today, I expect more than this.

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