By Julia Brookes
‘It’s a Sin’, written by Russell T Davies is one of the most talked-about TV shows of 2021 so far. The gripping 5-part series explores the 1980s AIDS epidemic through five friends living in London. It portrays this often-overlooked period of time in a funny yet heartbreaking series of events. Each character is so artfully imperfect it is hard not to come away from an episode without shedding a tear: the show and its characters are profoundly human. And in similarly heated times when another virus has taken many lives, it also shows us how to keep our humanity.
Whilst it would be doing the show an injustice not to mention the captivating characters of Ash, Ritchie, Roscoe and Colin, for many white, cisgender and straight members of the audience like myself, it is the character of Jill Baxter who should capture our attention. The term ally is thrown around a lot, with many people claiming to be allies to marginalised communities and yet failing to educate themselves or to help break down bias. The character of Jill demonstrates that you simply cannot be both an ally and a bystander. She is actively educating herself on the issue of AIDS before the friends she is concerned for have even taken notice of the disease. She voices her worries when no one wants to hear and is unjustly blamed by Ritchie’s mother for not doing enough to save him. And yet she carries on, driven by a sense of friendship or responsibility or just plain humanity. Davie’s character Jill demonstrates to us all that gay or straight, black or white, everyone deserves to be treated as a human being.
Jill goes against all advice to comfort not only her friends but also strangers who have been left with no one to turn to. While her character is based on a real figure in the AIDS movement, Jill Nalder, her storyline is also similar to that of American activist Ruth Coker Burks whose recently published memoir ‘All the Young Men’ tells the story of how, when a young woman, she too sat by the bedsides of many young gay men who had been left to die alone.
At the time in the early 1980s, Coker Burks was a church-going single mum living in remote Arkansas when she took it upon herself to be a guardian angel to young men stricken by AIDS, giving them company as they died, and then a proper burial in her own family graveyard. These actions led to her and her young daughter being ostracized by their community and to the Klu Klux Klan burning crosses on her front lawn. And yet, just like Jill, she continued doing what no one else would do. Both women are imbued with a profound dose of compassion.
Coker Burks and Nalder both saw that these men were people: they deserved help, they deserved company, they deserved recognition. During the AIDS epidemic so many people, particularly straight people, were bystanders in the outbreak - they may not have believed the disease was the wrath of God but still did nothing to help these young men. In Ruth Coker Burks’ case, her fellow card-carrying Christians seemed the worst, there was an obvious gap between Christianity and human empathy.
Women like Jill Nalder and Ruth Coker Burks seem to be the absolute exception. Which begs the question: Why do only a few people find their humanity at times of a crisis, while so many do not? ‘It’s a Sin’ teaches us to stand up for what is right, to be an ally when it is most needed, to regain a sense of humanity in the world. And at a time of vaccine nationalism, disproportionate COVID deaths and police brutality, it seems that allyship is needed more than ever.