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It’s A Sin

It’s A Sin is a timely reminder of the queer chosen family

Russell T Davies’ Channel 4 drama, set amid the AIDs crisis and the neon-soaked 80s, speaks to the enduring power and resilience of the LGBTQ+ community

Every Saturday morning for the last year, me and the chosen family that I’m lucky enough to live with, make vanilla lattes together, put Netflix on, and watch the new episode of stateside RuPaul’s Drag Race. Over a year of global crisis and seemingly infinite instalments of the drag competition, it’s evolved from a casual routine into a crucial domestic ritual. As we settle into the dark grips of our third and bleakest lockdown yet, we rely on it more than we probably even realise. When we lay together in eager silence within a pile of blankets and wine on Friday night to watch the premiere of Russell T Davies’ new Channel 4 drama It’s A Sin, I found us squeezing each other’s hands and relishing in the security that surrounding yourself with other LGBTQ+ people and allies provides.

Davies’ core five characters make the central London flat, dubbed the Pink Palace, into their own queer sanctuary. Set at the beginning of the 80s and moving through the decade, the Pink Palace looks like the best post-gay bar afters you’d ever go to. As we hopscotch through the era and see the group navigate the AIDs crisis and rampant homophobia, their home becomes a secure haven for a family brought closer together than they ever thought possible. 

For those who’ve not delved into the synthpop-laden, technicoloured drama yet, the chosen family we follow includes London newbies Richie (Olly Alexander) from the Isle of Wight and shy Welsh Colin (Callum Scott Howells), who get adopted into the fold of ultimate ally Jill (Lydia West), Ash (Nathaniel Curtis), and Roscoe (Omari Douglas), as their dependence on and allegiance to each other during the AIDS epidemic becomes the crux of It’s A Sin’s narrative heart.

The manner in which RTD writes the different ways that the characters need their chosen family elevates the show into a way that strikes a chord with me in the way that queer programming hasn’t really managed to before, and I would attest a lot of this to the potentially divisive position has on having his queer characters played by queer actors. For me, this choice brings out the best in his cast; bringing a level of believability and authenticity that straight actors can’t necessarily bring to the scene. When this cast are bouncing off each other or crying on each other’s shoulders, I believe the emotion not only from the character’s perspective but by knowing that all that cast have a chosen family of their own that they’re channeling into their performances it makes every scene the gut punch of some of the scenes that little bit harder.

The chosen family for Richie functions as an escape from the isolated island life, where he feels suffocated by overbearing parents (played wonderfully by Keeley Hawes and Shaun Dooley). In the Pink Palace parties and surrounded by his own champions, he blossoms. For Colin – a quiet lad whose interests are tamer than his peers, and in circles less loving would be a clear outcast – his home life is immensely loving and supportive, but the chosen family provides a new lease of uninhibited life. He jubilantly supports them, and lives vicariously through them, all while thriving in his own way at the Savile Row tailors. With Roscoe, the sanctuary of the chosen family is quite literally a lifeline, after absconding from his highly religious family home and the threat of being persecuted back in Nigeria – “23 Piss Off Avenue, London W Fuck,” he spits gloriously when he storms out, wearing a headdress, skirt, and crop top.

And then there’s Jill. Lydia West’s Jill is the matriarch of the Pink Palace residents: headstrong, caring, active. She takes the rise of AIDS seriously, and does everything in her power to protect her friends and, as the episodes go on, the wider community that she feels so at home in. I thought a lot about the Jills off-screen, too. I believe the Jill’s of the world are the mammaries of the queer community – and with that metaphor, I mean that they feel endlessly nurturing. I feel like I’m eternally safe around the protective love of a Jill. Jills would do anything for you – they support you through your lowest moments and rejoice with you in your best. Jills aren’t as commonplace as they should be, and we’re not talking about the ‘I’ve always wanted a gay BFF’ basic girls in Jill clothing, but true, ferocious allies.

The LGBTQ+ community is never an accessory to Jills. Jills are arm-in-arm with you, marching at every Pride, at your side when you’re coming out. Jills are tackling homophobia and transphobia wherever they see it. I feel so grateful to be in a position where nearly every woman I have around me is a Jill. Jills are such pillars of chosen families and the LGBTQ+ community in general – we truly could not do this without them.

“Persecution and strife we see faced by people in the series parallels today’s fight against transphobia – we must hold our trans and non-binary siblings close”

Binging It’s A Sin made me think about the ever-evolving but constant nature of the queer chosen family. We’re lucky to be living in the age of Undetectable=Untransmittable, and in a world where attitudes towards HIV have progressed alongside attitudes towards LGBTQ+ people. Many have quipped that the persecution and strife we see faced by people in the series parallels today’s fight against transphobia – we must hold our trans and non-binary siblings close, particularly as the Gender Recognition Act war rages on and trans exclusionary feminists threaten the community with their toxic rhetoric. 

In It’s A Sin, the characters needed their chosen family to care when it felt like no one else in the world did. They’re sometimes tense, and continually tested by the outside world, and even each other. They understand shared and individual traumas – Gregory faithfully supporting Roscoe’s fractured dynamics with his family, the gang’s relationship with Colin’s mother after his death. And also, each others’ faults – we see this in Jill’s perfect articulation of Richie’s confession that he slept with others when he suspected his status, explaining his personhood and nuances to a mother who refused to see them.

Today, amid a global pandemic, my need for my chosen family prevails. I need queer people to feel that kinship, to identify our hardships, and lift each other up with our similarities and differences. In an isolated time, I find solace in the way my chosen family builds – gay Twitter is a joyous space, and one that will have to do as we don’t have the dancefloors or a communal space to do running karaoke to the stellar It’s A Sin soundtrack. The way we build and relish in our chosen family has evolved, but the heart never changes. Rina Sawayama said it best in the chorus of her future Pride staple single last year: We don't need to be related to relate, we don't need to share genes or a surname, you are my chosen family.”

It’s A Sin is available to watch in full All 4