Peter and I thoroughly enjoyed the HBO Max show It’s a Sin this weekend. Set in London in the 1980s, it follows a group of young gay men as they come out of the closet and are beset by AIDS. Not every character in the show is gay. Parents play key roles, and much of the action is seen through the eyes of a young woman, apparently straight, who is a friend and roommate. I think my favorite character in the show was Colin, a phlegmatic, responsible, incontrovertibly gay but decidedly unflashy young man from Wales, who works as an intern at a Savile Row haberdashery and seems too cautious to act on his sexual impulses. Most of the characters are types rather than individuals, in the way of TV shows, but Colin was a type I hadn’t seen on screen before, so I never knew what he was going to do next, which I liked. The show hits a few wrong notes (which I’ll get to), but I laughed and cried and at times found it almost overwhelmingly evocative.
The soundtrack has a lot to do with how evocative. Soft Cell, Yazoo, Erasure, Wham, Kate Bush, the Eurythmics, and of course PSB: in my recollection, these were in fact the songs that we were listening to. “Music was so much more fun then,” I muttered to Peter, early in the first episode, as the middle-aged are wont to do. Artificial, calculated, trivial, effeminate, decadent songs. More pleasurable than songs should have been, and pleasurable to a part of me that I felt I probably wasn’t supposed to be indulging. Since a few of the show’s actors speak with strong British accents and a certain amount of British slang, to us impenetrable, Peter and I watched with the subtitles on, which meant that when the closed-captioner mislabeled a cover of the song “I Feel Love,” Peter muttered, “That’s not Donna Summer. It’s Bronski Beat.” And when the closed-captioner characterized the intro to a Pet Shop Boys song as “melodramatic music,” I harrumphed. (I mean, yes. But . . .) Peter effortlessly remembers the release dates of almost all these songs and reports that the songs keep pace with the imagined moment of the TV show’s story with an almost military rigor.
That imagined moment doesn’t exactly match the timing of my own debut into gay life. The show begins in 1981 and ends in 1991; I came out in 1989. Some amateur, armchair sociology: apps have probably changed everything now, but in the old days, gay bars were the stage for the public drama of our lives, and my sense back then was that as a general rule, one got to tread that stage from roughly age 20 to 35, making a gay man’s generation a rather short fifteen years. I overlapped a little with the generation portrayed in the show, and I knew many people who were in that generation, but I wasn’t quite in it myself. And in terms of the history of AIDS, the half-generation separating us was crucial. Before I came out, I knew that AIDS was a lethal sexually transmitted disease caused by HIV, and I knew that I could lower my risk significantly by using condoms or modifying what I did in bed. When the characters in the show started having sex with one another, on the other hand, not even scientists knew any of that. My gay generation lived in the shadow of AIDS, and it shaped nearly everything about our romantic and sexual lives, but we did not bear as heavy a burden of illness and death as the men who preceded us.
Which doesn’t mean we bore no burden, nor does it mean we weren’t completely petrified. When the central gay character in the show, a charming, fey, bumblingly but also ruthlessly narcissistic aspiring actor named Ritchie Tozer (played by Olly Alexander, who in real life is a pop star who has collaborated with the Pet Shop Boys), neurotically examines himself for spots and sores, I identified, uncomfortably. Also, sitting in a clinic waiting for one’s name (or pseudonym) to be called, terrified to hear the results of one’s HIV test: twenty-five years later it’s still a little too real and maybe also too soon? Not all the memories that the show brought back were grim. I also recognized the way some of the characters went to bed with each other as a way of becoming friends, a lighthearted aspect of gay life that the HBO show Looking largely overlooked in its focus on the drama of Finding the Right Man. I hope that in the age of apps, hook-ups still sometimes undergo that kind of evolution. It would be regrettable if the freemasonry of pleasure were to give way to an assortative rationalization of it (he says from the safe, ignorant harbor of middle-aged monogamy).
To add a little amateur history to the amateur sociology: The hinge for my gay generation came in 1996, when researchers proved that treating HIV with three different antiretroviral drugs at the same time boxed the virus into a metaphorical corner that it couldn’t mutate itself out of. In a wealthy country like America—or, rather, in zip codes in a wealthy country like America where people could afford healthcare—everything about AIDS changed once this treatment became available. Life expectancies dramatically lengthened, and the reigning social understandings of the disease were transformed. From the virus’s perspective, unfortunately, the new treatment figured only as a speed bump, if that. The rate of HIV infection in the U.S. population has only declined moderately since triple-drug treatment debuted. Given current rates of infection, one out of six gay or bisexual men in America will still contract HIV during his lifetime. Meanwhile, AIDS remains the leading cause of death in several countries in sub-Saharan Africa and death rates from the disease also remain high in Russia, Thailand, and parts of the Caribbean and South America.)
The show ends, as I said, in 1991, so that, medically speaking, it depicts a world where the cavalry never arrives. (It’s thus a big weepie, be forewarned.) It’s maybe irrecoverable now how potent the fear of death combined with the centuries-old stigma around homosexuality then was. A few instances of ostracization are dramatized in the show, but what maybe can’t be put on screen is the subsonic rumble of silence, the rarely voiced distaste of the larger society. (It wasn’t until June 15, 1987, for example, that the New York Times allowed the use of the word gay as a value-neutral synonym for homosexual. In the mid 1990s, a boyfriend of mine kept on his wall a front page of the New York Times that he had had framed because it used the word three different times, which impressed him as a milestone.) Many times, in the past twelve months, I have had the morbid thought how much nicer it is to go through a plague that straight people are dying in larger numbers from, too. It’s a relief not to have to worry about upsetting them if one fails to hide or downplay sufficiently one’s fear or grief. It has been liberating to listen to them loudly and confusedly arguing about what matters more—the meanings and pleasures available through human contact, or the safety that can be afforded by isolation. There’s an enjoyable perversity in noticing that people who prioritized safety over contact during the AIDS epidemic were tagged as conservative, while those who prioritize safety during COVID-19 are thought of as liberal. In It’s a Sin, a distraught mother exclaims that society would react very differently if there were a disease killing as many straight men as AIDS was killing gay ones. The claim isn’t speculation any more; as of this past year, it’s proven historical fact.
I seem to have got distracted from the criticism that I was going to make, but maybe in the end it’s more an observation. The generation who hit the gay bars in 1981 was to a startling extent wiped out. If you were to try to sell a nostalgic TV show just to them, you’d have almost no audience. The scriptwriters of It’s a Sin have understandably made a few adjustments. One is putting at the center of the story not a gay man but a young woman named Jill, who ends up being more dedicated to AIDS activism than most of her gay male friends. That in itself isn’t a distortion of the historical evidence. There were many such women in real life, many of them lesbian (Jill’s sexuality is left undefined). (Full disclosure: though I had friends in the activist movement, and felt sympathetic with it, I never took part myself.) Another modification is a shift in political sensibility. In one scene, when a somewhat dotty neighbor volunteers that she thinks AIDS victims are angels in disguise, one of the gay characters is so outraged that he throws a traffic barrier through her shop window. That felt like an off note. The movement’s displays of anger were almost always directed toward authorities and institutions—government, churches, pharmaceutical companies—and they were strategic, planned carefully in advance. To meet misguided sympathy with violence seems more a Twitter kind of mood—a retrojection. Similarly, in another late scene, a character berates a dead gay man’s mother, blaming on her all the shame and stigma that gay men dying of AIDS have been made to carry. I’m afraid I cringed. It sounded to me like something a teenager might wish he could say—or something a TV producer might imagine a teenager wishes to say—but not like the sort of thing that one grieving adult would say to another, no matter how misbegotten the other person’s understanding of sexuality might be. It’s a common move nowadays on social media to write people off, but one of the brilliant tactics of the AIDS activist movement was to engage with opponents, win their respect, and sometimes turn them into allies. (Cf. Larry Kramer and Anthony Fauci.)