“It’s A Sin,” the UK miniseries that debuted in America on HBO Max Feb. 18, began its long gestation in the mind of out screenwriter Russell T. Davies back in 1995, even before he wrote his first high-profile gay TV drama, “Queer as Folk.”
Following a group of young gay men (and their straight female BFF) through the early days of the AIDS epidemic in London, the series draws heavily on Davies’ own memories of the ‘80s, and of friends he knew during the era, with an eye toward delivering an authentic presentation of gay experience while providing a wide-angle view of the disease’s impact as it took its toll across various sectors of British society. Touted as the first British television drama to deal seriously with the AIDS epidemic, its debut in England proved an unequivocal success – a surprise considering it was rejected by the nation’s BBC One and ITV networks for its subject matter before it was finally taken on for development by Channel 4. Even more gratifying, its airing resulted in a boost to HIV awareness in Britain, resulting in an uptick of almost 400% in testing.
Written and directed by out gay men and featuring out gay actors in all its gay roles (including cameos by two out “big names,” Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Fry), the series has won well-deserved praise for its success in capturing both the exuberance and the heartbreak of gay life in 1980s London, and for Davies’ success in weaving together so many threads and characters without sacrificing the depth and emotional layering of his story.
An outstanding ensemble cast, led by Years and Years lead singer Olly Alexander and aided by veteran director Peter Hoar, delivers universally excellent performances, taking viewers through the emotional roller coaster of its narrative with the authenticity that can only come from deep commitment and investment to their roles. It’s no spoiler to say that things get pretty grim, but Davies’ script doesn’t allow it to become unrelentingly mournful; instead, he makes sure that the good stuff about being young, gay, and out – the fun, the friendship, and yes, the joy – are never far out of focus. When “It’s A Sin” reaches its conclusion, despite the multiple tragedies it makes us endure alongside its characters, the impression it leaves feels more like a celebration than a lament.
Unsurprisingly, as with any show covering a subject that casts such a shadow over an entire generation, there have been objections. Some who were on the front lines of activism during the epidemic have criticized the series for vagueness and inaccuracy on the historical context surrounding the battle against the disease, and of course there are many people – queer and straight alike – who feel that LGBTQ experience has been depicted as tragic for long enough in our cultural narratives and that creators should strive instead for more positive, aspirational stories.
An issue that has raised predictable controversy with straight audiences (and due to concerns about representation, with some non-straight ones as well) is the show’s depiction of gay sex. While some have been shocked by its explicit-if-not-graphic sex scenes (filmed with the extensive involvement of intimacy coordinators to make them as authentic as possible), others have taken exception to the fact that the people in them are simply having too much fun. After all, in a show about a sexually transmitted disease that has killed millions to date, is it really appropriate to make sex look so enjoyable?
The answer, according to Hoar, is a resounding “yes.”
The director, whose credits include the cult hit “Dr. Who” and both “Daredevil” and “The Umbrella Academy” for Netflix, told DigitalSpy, “I’m not going to worry about how people feel about it because this is our sex, and this is the way it is,” says Hoar. “And how can you show the story of men having a life they loved, and dying from it, if you don’t show that sex?
“We have to see how much fun it is.”
Those gleefully authentic scenes go a long way toward refuting and rejecting the shame that has long been so tenaciously attached to gay sex. Besides sending a refreshingly contemporary message of sex positivity, they also serve as a defiant counterpoint to the repressive homophobia and bigotry that haunts so many of the show’s other scenes – and that cuts right to the heart of what Russell Davies is ultimately trying to get across in “It’s A Sin.”
In its final minutes, the series includes a stirring monologue in which Jill (Lydia West), who has served as the emotional glue at the center of the story as well as for her circle of friends, confronts the mother of one of her fallen comrades with the hard truth that it was her own shame she instilled in her son over his own very nature, that ultimately led to his death. This is not a new argument – the idea that internalized homophobia was a factor that helped to fuel transmission has been expressed many times before.
But “It’s A Sin” does more than just tell us that. It shows us, in myriad ways we don’t necessarily connect until they culminate in that climactic speech, how the effects of all that hate become entwined into the personas of its people and manifest in their choices and behavior. We see gay men who deny their sexuality even while having furtive sex with other men, who endure sexual harassment from closeted bosses for fear of being exposed, who resign themselves to the vitriolic hate hurled upon them by random strangers on the street; we see gay men lose their jobs with no explanation, rejected and bullied by their own families, and locked away as outcasts or prisoners simply for being sick; most to the point, we see gay men so used to being demonized that they greet a killer disease with disbelief and denial, who end up becoming infected and then go on to infect others, simply because they are more afraid of being found out than they are of dying.
So, when Jill offers that searing indictment at the end, she is not just speaking about social theory. She is testifying as a witness to the things we have seen for ourselves. And while it might be oversimplifying matters to explain such a complex bundle of issues with a single unifying thread, no matter how profound, it might just as easily be overcomplicating them not to acknowledge a patently obvious connection.
Whether or not “It’s A Sin” makes a convincing case for its equation is up to the individual viewer, of course, but what is hard for anyone to deny is the show’s success at creating an infectious and emotionally satisfying saga that manages to both engage and uplift us while still honoring the weight of its subject matter. Intended as neither a documentary nor an activist’s-eye view of social injustice, it is instead popular entertainment at its best – the kind that seeks to enlighten and inform with just as much passion as it puts into its sex scenes.
Rodriquez scores historic win at otherwise irrelevant Golden Globes
Award represents a major milestone for trans visibility
HOLLYWOOD – Despite its continuing status as something of a pariah organization in Hollywood, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has managed to cling to relevance in the wake of last night’s behind-closed-doors presentation of its 79th Annual Golden Globe Awards by sole virtue of having bestowed the prize for “Best Leading Actress in a Television Series – Drama” on Michaela Jaé Rodriguez for her work in the final season of “Pose” – making her the first transgender performer to win a Golden Globe.
The ceremony took place as a private, no-press-or-audience event in which winners were revealed via a series of tweets from the Golden Globes Twitter account. No celebrities were present (not even the nominees or winners), although actress Jamie Lee Curtis participated by appearing in a video in which she pronounced her continuing loyalty to the HFPA – without mention of the longstanding issues around diversity and ethical practices, revealed early in 2021 by a bombshell Los Angeles Times report, that have led to an nearly industry-wide boycott of the organization and its awards as well as the cancellation of the annual Golden Globes broadcast by NBC for the foreseeable future.
While the Golden Globes may have lost their luster for the time being, the award for Rodriquez represents a major milestone for trans visibility and inclusion in the traditionally transphobic entertainment industry, and for her part, the actress responded to news of her win with characteristic grace and good will.
Posting on her Instagram account, the 31-year old actress said:
“OMG OMGGG!!!! @goldenglobes Wow! You talking about sickening birthday present! Thank you!
“This is the door that is going to Open the door for many more young talented individuals. They will see that it is more than possible. They will see that a young Black Latina girl from Newark New Jersey who had a dream, to change the minds others would WITH LOVE. LOVE WINS.
“To my young LGBTQAI babies WE ARE HERE the door is now open now reach the stars!!!!!”
As You Are Bar and the importance of queer gathering spaces
New bar/restaurant poised to open in 2022
More than just a watering hole: As You Are Bar is set to be the city’s newest queer gathering place where patrons can spill tea over late-morning cappuccinos as easily as they can over late-night vodka-sodas.
Co-owners and founders Jo McDaniel and Rachel Pike built on their extensive experience in the hospitality industry – including stints at several gay bars – to sign a lease for their new concept in Barracks Row, replacing what was previously District Soul Food and Banana Café. In a prime corner spot, they are seeking to bring together the disparate colors of the LGBTQ rainbow – but first must navigate the approval process (more on that later).
The duo decided on this Southeast neighborhood locale to increase accessibility for “the marginalized parts of our community,” they say, “bringing out the intersectionality inherent in the queer space.”
Northwest D.C., they explain, not only already has many gay bar options, but is also more difficult to get to for those who don’t live within walking distance. The Barracks Row location is right by a Metro stop, “reducing pay walls.” Plus, there, “we are able to find a neighborhood to bring in a queer presence that doesn’t exist today.”
McDaniel points out that the area has a deep queer bar history. Western bar Remington’s was once located in the area, and it’s a mere block from the former Phase 1, the longest-running lesbian bar, which was open from 1971-2015.
McDaniel and Pike hope that As You Are Bar will be an inclusive space that “welcomes anyone of any walk of life that will support, love, and celebrate the mission of queer culture. We want people of all ages, gender, sexual identity, as well as drinkers and non-drinkers, to have space.”
McDaniel (she/her) began her career at Apex in 2005 and was most recently the opening manager of ALOHO. Pike (she/they) was behind the bar and worked as security at ALOHO, where the two met.
Since leaving ALOHO earlier this year, they have pursued the As You Are Bar project, first by hosting virtual events during the pandemic, and now in this brick-and-mortar space. They expressed concern that receiving the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) liquor license approval and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, or ANC, approval will be a long and expensive process.
They have already received notice that some neighbors intend to protest As You Are Bar’s application for the “tavern” liquor license that ABRA grants to serve alcohol and allow for live entertainment (e.g. drag shows). They applied for the license on Nov. 12, and have no anticipated opening date, estimating at least six months. If ABRA and the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board give final approval, the local ANC 6B and nearby residents can no longer protest the license until the license comes up for renewal.
Until approval is given, they continue physical buildout (including soundproofing) and planning their offerings. If the license is approved, ABRA and the ABC Board can take action against As You Are Bar, like any bar, at any time if they violate the terms of the license or create a neighborhood disturbance that violates city laws such as the local noise ordinance. In the kitchen, the duo snagged Chef Nina Love to develop the menu. Love will oversee café-style fare; look out for breakfast sandwiches making an appearance all the way until close. They will also have baked goods during the day.
McDaniel and Pike themselves will craft the bar menu. Importantly, they note, the coffee bar will also serve until close. There will be a full bar as well as a list of zero-proof cocktails. As with their sourcing, they hope to work with queer-, minority-, and women-owned businesses for everything not made in-house.
Flexible conceptually, they seek to grow with their customer base, allowing patrons to create the culture that they seek.
Their goal is to move the queer space away from a focus on alcohol consumption. From book clubs, to letter-writing, to shared workspaces, to dance parties, they seek an all-day, morning-to-night rhythm of youth, families, and adults to find a niche. “We want to shift the narrative of a furtive, secretive, dark gay space and hold it up to the light,” they say. “It’s a little like The Planet from the original L Word show,” they joke.
Pike notes that they plan on working closely with SMYAL, for example, to promote programming for youth. Weekend potential activities include lunch-and-learn sessions on Saturdays and festive Sunday brunches.
The café space, to be located on the first floor, will have coffeehouse-style sofas as well as workstations. A slim patio on 8th Street will hold about six tables.
Even as other queer bars have closed, they reinforce that the need is still present. “Yes, we can visit a café or bar, but we always need to have a place where we are 100 percent certain that we are safe, and that our security is paramount. Even as queer acceptance continues to grow, a dedicated queer space will always be necessary,” they say.
To get there, they continue to rally support of friends, neighbors, and leaders in ANC6B district; the ANC6B officials butted heads with District Soul Food, the previous restaurant in the space, over late-night noise and other complaints. McDaniel and Pike hope that once nearby residents and businesses understand the important contribution that As You Are Bar can make to the neighborhood, they will extend their support and allow the bar to open.
Need a list-minute gift idea?
Books, non-profit donations make thoughtful choices
You knew this was coming.
You knew that you were going to have to finish your holiday shopping soon but it snuck up on you, didn’t it? And even if you’re close to being done, there are always those three or five people who are impossible to buy for, right? Remember this, though: books are easy to wrap and easy to give, and they last a while, too. So why not head to the bookstore with your Christmas List and look for these gifts.
And if you still have people to shop for, why not make a donation to a local non-profit in their name? A list of D.C.-area suggestions follows.
If there’s about to be a new addition to your family, wrapping up “Queer Stepfamilies: The path to Social and Legal Recognition” by Katie L. Acosta would be a good thing. In this book, the author followed forty LGBTQ families to understand the joys, pitfalls, and legalities of forming a new union together. It can’t replace a lawyer, but it’s a good overview.
For the parent who wants to ensure that their child grows up with a lack of bias, “Raising LGBTQ Allies” by Chris Tompkins is a great book to give. It’s filled with methods to stop bullying in its tracks, to be proactive in having That Conversation, and how to be sure that the next generation you’re responsible for becomes responsible in turn. Wrap it up with “The Healing Otherness Handbook” by Stacee L. Reicherzer, Ph.D., a book that helps readers to deal with bullying by finding confidence and empowerment.
If there’s someone on your gift list who’s determined to get “fit” in the coming year, then give “The Secret to Superhuman Strength” by Alison Bechdel this holiday. Told in graphic-novel format (comics, basically), it’s the story of searching for self-improvement and finding it in a surprising place.
So why not give a little nostalgia this year by wrapping up “A Night at the Sweet Gum Head” by Martin Padgett? It’s the tale of disco, drag, and drugs in the 1970s (of course!) in Atlanta, with appearances by activists, politics, and people who were there at that fabulous time. Wrap it up with “After Francesco” by Brian Malloy, a novel set a little later – in the mid-1980s in New York City and Minneapolis at the beginning of the AIDS crisis.
The LGBTQ activist on your gift list will want to read “The Case for Gay Reparations” by Omar G. Encarnacion. It’s a book about acknowledgment, obligation on the part of cis citizens, and fixing the pain that homophobia and violence has caused. Wrap it up with “Trans Medicine: The Emergence and Practice of Treating Gender” by Stef M. Shuster, a look at trans history that may also make your giftee growl.
Young readers who have recently transitioned will enjoy reading “Both Sides Now” by Peyton Thomas. It’s a novel about a high school boy with gigantic dreams and the means to accomplish them all. Can he overcome the barriers that life gives him? It’s debatable… Pair it with “Can’t Take That Away” by Steven Salvatore, a book about two nonbinary students and the troubles they face as they fall in love.
The thriller fan on your list will be overjoyed to unwrap “Yes, Daddy” by Jonathan Parks-Ramage. It’s the story of a young man with dying dreams of fame and fortune, who schemes to meet an older, more accomplished man with the hopes of sparking his failing career. But the older man isn’t who the younger thinks he is, and that’s not good. Wrap it up with “Lies with Man” by Michael Nava, a book about a lawyer who agrees to be counsel for a group of activists. Good so far, right? Until one of them is accused of being involved in a deadly bombing.
For the fan of Southern fiction, you can’t go wrong when you wrap up “The Tender Grave” by Sheri Reynolds. It’s the tale of two sisters, one homophobic, the other lesbian, and how they learn to forgive and re-connect.
Like nonprofit organizations throughout the country, D.C.-area LGBTQ supportive nonprofit groups have told the Blade they continue to rebuild amid the coronavirus pandemic, which disrupted their fundraising efforts while increasing expenses, at least in part by prompting more people to come to them for help.
This holiday season, if you’re looking for a thoughtful gift, consider making a donation to one of our local LGBTQ non-profit organizations in someone else’s name. This list is by no means exhaustive, but a good place to start your research.
Contributions to the LGBTQ supportive nonprofit organizations can be made via the websites of these local organizations:
• Blade Foundation, which funds local scholarships and fellowships for queer student journalists, bladefoundation.org
• DC Center, our local community center that operates a wide range of programming, thedccenter.org/donate
• Food & Friends, which delivers meals to homebound patients, foodandfriends.org
• HIPS, which advances the health rights and dignity of those impacted by sex work and drugs, hips.org
• SMYAL, which advocates for queer youth, smyal.org
• Wanda Alston Foundation, which offers shelter and support for LGBTQ youth, wandaalstonfoundation.org
• Whitman-Walker Health, the city’s longtime LGBTQ-inclusive health care provider, whitmanwalkerimpact.org
• Casa Ruby, which provides shelter and services to youth in need, casaruby.org
• Us Helping Us, which helps improve the health of communities of color and works to reduce the impact of HIV/AIDS on the Black community, ushelpingus.org/donate
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