Here I go, writing about the AIDS crisis again. Sorry, most definitely not sorry. If I don’t, who will?
Thankfully, Abdi Nazemian and Russell T. Davies will. Yesterday, by coincidence, I finished reading Nazemian’s young adult novel, Like a Love Story, and watching Davies’s TV series “It’s a Sin.” The former chronicles the friendship of three high school seniors in New York City in 1989-1990 while the latter depicts a group of young gay men coming out, celebrating freedom and friendship in London from 1981 to 1991. For both works, AIDS lurks in the background when it’s not figuring prominently into the plot.
“It’s a Sin” is a five-episode series, primarily focused on Ritchie, Colin, Roscoe and their gal pal, Jill. In their early twenties as of 1981, they are keen to live life to the fullest, far from knowing eyes in small towns (as with Ritichie and Colin) or away from the harsh need to cure gayness in Roscoe’s family of Nigerian immigrants. In London, the boys can finally step out of closets and let loose, exploring attraction and sexuality they’d kept in check as teens. With its British lens, the series adds another layer to the early denial of a rumored gay cancer. If it even exists—and Ritchie is the fiercest denier—it’s American. Have fun; just don’t have sex with Americans.
In Like a Love Story, Reza is a new student at a private high school in the Big Apple. Born in Iran, Reza’s immediate family except his father flees to Toronto during the Iranian Revolution. His father, a strict, dark figure, dies in Iran and his mother remarries a wealthy Iranian who lives in New York. By American standards, Reza is formal, reserved and out of tune to the pop culture his peers devour. Judy, a friendly, unfiltered chatty, possibly plus-sized girl who aspires to be an edgy fashion designer, is smitten with the new student the moment she first sees his face and feet, the rest of Reza shielded by an open locker door. Her best friend is Art, a budding photographer and the only identifiable gay person in the school. He’s proud and combative, refusing to submit to the constant hate spewed by other guys at school. Reza’s been raised to conform to familial and cultural expectations, thus creating internal conflict as he struggles with his sexual identity. He’s drawn to Judy and Art who come off as bold, unique individuals. He senses instant friendship with Judy while fighting an attraction to Art. It’s easier to date Judy than to figure out what else he may be feeling.
Reza doesn’t get that period of elation and rampant promiscuity that Ritchie and the gang get in “It’s a Sin.” Much has changed from 1981 to 1989. Reza’s struggle with recognizing a gay identity is weighed down further by the times. Not only does he fear losing family if he comes out as gay, he fears dying from acting on any desires. Gay = AIDS = Death.
Both works depict AIDS activism although it’s more of a constant thread in Like a Love Story as Judy’s Uncle Stephen is highly involved in ACT UP protests and Art attends weekly meetings with Stephen whom Art sees as a beloved mentor and father figure. As Nazemian explains in his author’s note, the protests depicted in the novel are based on actual ones. In “It’s a Sin,” Ritchie is openly critical of early activism. He views them as fearmongers. When Jill and Ritchie’s on-again, off-again boyfriend, Ash, get involved, Ritchie continues to want no part. He’s an actor, he reasons; if he’s seen at a protest, it’ll kill his career or, at the very least, limit him to bit parts of gay sidekicks.
Parental denial or abandonment also plays a role in both works, more memorably in “It’s a Sin.” This was a huge issue during the AIDS crisis, with men struggling with the doubly difficult disclosure: “Mom, Dad, I’m gay. And I’ve got AIDS.” Sons were disowned or they were taken back in while their lovers were shut out. Many obituaries of young men mentioned cancer or pneumonia, omitting any reference to AIDS. Both works offer glimmers of better moments when parents and other family members offer compassion and do their best to accept these men for who they were, not a moment to lose.
And that gets to unflinching portrayals of loss, men stripped of dignity, their remaining loved ones helplessly doing what they can to offer comfort while dealing with their own anger and grief. This is always hard to watch or read, but it’s essential if people are to understand how devastating AIDS was to the gay community and how much was taken from society as a whole.
On a lighter note, each work pays homage to the music of the time. “It’s a Sin” prominently features gay-friendly music by The Communards, Pet Shop Boys and Kate Bush. Like a Love Story often comes off as an impassioned tribute to Madonna, an artist who enthralled gay men and young women and regularly preached love and compassion for gays. Even the title of the book is derived from a love of Madonna. It’s a twist on her albums, Like a Virgin and Like a Prayer. Early on, Art tells Reza:
“In between Like a Virgin and Like a Prayer,
she released True Blue...Sex and religion
aren’t clear-cut to her, but love is.
She didn’t call it Like a True Blue.”
“Like a Romance,” [Reza] says.
“Like a Love Story,” [Art] adds.
There’s more hope in Love Story, especially with it’s epilogue. By contrast, “It’s a Sin” feels no need to take us beyond Christmas 1991 when AIDS was still an unchecked monster.
I related to both works. Like a Love Story captures the fear I had coming out in the midst of the AIDS crisis. Living to the age of forty seemed utterly impossible. As involved as I got in volunteering (I felt conflicted over the protests), it was a challenge to believe or hope that AIDS could be managed. In 1990, the medications advocates fought so passionately for seemed as destructive as the disease itself, compromised immune systems ill-equipped to deal with what might normally be considered inconvenient or unpleasant side effects. “It’s a Sin,” with a greater window of time for the main story, is better able to show that many gay men initially considered early reports of this disease as a hyped up hoax, part of some sort of governmental conspiracy to dissuade and condemn gay sex.
My main criticism of “It’s a Sin” is that the story arc feels rushed. Had it been a movie, there might have been fewer characters to focus upon. But it seems that Davies, who previously created “Queer as Folk,” wanted to illuminate larger issues regarding AIDS rather than providing a more intimate portrayal of, say, one couple. In interviews Davies has said there will be no second season of the show; he accomplished what he wanted. Fair enough. Still, when television is the platform, it’s easy to imagine how much more depth there could have been in character development and in unpacking the societal, political and medical climate of the time. Perhaps it’s inspiring for other creators of gay content to know there is much more to be covered now that “It’s a Sin” may have piqued renewed interest in understanding what happened during the years when so much about AIDS was unknown whiled shrouded in judgment and shame. In Like a Love Story, Judy’s Uncle Stephen offers a call to action that I’ve long felt:
What we did. What we fought for. Our history.
Who we are. They won’t teach it in schools. They
don’t want us to have a history. They don’t see us.
They don’t know we are another country, with
invisible borders, that we are a people. You have
to make them see. You have to remember it. And
to share it. Please. Time passes, and people forget.
Don’t let them.
I don’t have access to figures regarding book sales, but it seems both Love and “Sin” have found an audience. Most people under thirty-five won’t have personal memories or experiences related to HIV at a time when it defied treatment. Perhaps they can recall an uncle or neighbor who died of AIDS, more from a few photos or stories shared by older relatives. The varied responses to the coronavirus give younger viewers and readers a current framework with which they can compare and contextualize the AIDS crisis. Whatever age you are, both works are worth checking out.