I’m sure I’m not alone in sharing that watching Russell T Davies’ It’s A Sin had an emotional impact on me. Apart from being a truly authentic piece of art with exceptional storytelling and performances, it left me emotionally raw, in a way that no other shows have.
On the surface It’s A Sin could be about remembering the ‘80s from a nostalgic perspective - I always love a bit of Culture Club, Pet Shop Boys and Bronski Beat in a soundtrack. It could be about remembering the friends - Tim, Graham and London’s greatest evil queen Michael, who were lost to this wretched disease. (Michael taught me everything I know about using sharp-tongued bitchiness as the greatest armour one can have, especially against stupid homophobes.) It could be because of distinctly remembering how the media, government and society, even family, made us ‘80s gay kids feel. We were told that our future would be spent in hiding, lonely and, more than likely, end with an early AIDS-related death. But there was more to this feeling and I couldn’t grasp it at first.
We binge watched all five episodes of It’s A Sin, the day it dropped on Amazon Prime (HBO Max in the USA, and the day the final episode aired on Channel 4 in the UK). It was a lot to absorb in one go, especially with it being so close to my memories and lived reality. Maybe that explains why I was so overwhelmed.
The day after broadcast, I picked up my phone to read social media, everyone had an opinion. Then I looked at the BBC website - more opinion, journalists had lots to say. Social media again, more commentary. Then journalists in the US and Canada joined in. The world was abuzz with comment about It’s A Sin. I then had some virtual time with my family in the UK, my parents telling me that It’s A Sin was the hot topic on debate show The Big Questions. The usual negativity was given airtime, in the way that dreadful tabloid debate shows do - let’s ask the most extreme and loud people their opinions as we chase for ratings. Of course, the immortal line of “Don’t call me homophobic, that’s what you always say…” was used in defense of homophobia.
My mind was also flooded with all of the micro-aggressions that have been inflicted on me, some of which weren’t micro at all. From school, from work, from friends, sadly, even from family, not only in the UK but in Canada too. I remember, vividly, the sanctioned homophobia at school, especially from teachers, singling me out for who I was and before I really knew myself. This all in a time of Thatcher’s Section 28, the legislation that banned the use of public funds to “promote” homosexuality. No talking about LGBTQ+ issues in schools or support groups in towns or cities. It was the forerunner to the Russian legislation that we see there now – yet another charming UK export to the world!
In 2015, when I launched PrideAM in the UK, I had two interesting pieces of advice from two very senior industry people. One to “keep it celebratory, don’t go all political on us”. Translation? “Keep it about dancing to Lady Gaga at Pride and don’t make us feel guilty about your lived realities.” The second, “shouldn’t you be careful about this, you don’t want other trade bodies to say, look he’s hanging out with the freaks.”
Even in Canada I have received some interesting remarks. Like being asked by an agency CEO why I was wearing a Pride badge when it wasn’t Pride month. Two other senior agency people told me about a gay man I should get to know (because we all naturally get on!) and how they were advising him in his public speaking to not over mention his sexuality and focus on his career: people weren’t there for the gay thing, they were there for his achievements. The worst was a senior straight man who, over a breakfast, told me to stop going on about being gay, in a same sex marriage and with two mixed-race adopted kids when I was speaking in public. When I challenged this, he got angry and upset, focussing on how I was characterising him rather than my point that I say those things to the LGBTQ+ members of the audience.
It would have made such a difference for me to hear from senior people at industry events to openly declare their authentic selves, to know that I shouldn’t be fearful and closeted in our industry. It’s called being a role model. I say to “senior straight man” and to all that would challenge showcasing our authentic selves when you get to a senior level: maybe it’s not for you but shut up and listen. I’m quite sure that some of these people, a few of whom I respect and love greatly, don’t mean harms but these micro-aggressions matter. They tell us that our authenticity is not relevant, indeed should be tucked away, when all we want is to be our full fucking selves wherever we are. That doesn’t seem much to ask - you should want it too.
Initially, I became quite down about this. It’s not that I haven’t felt saddened before about being a gay man in this world but this time it was different. Since then, however, the reason has become clearer to me - nobody was asking what we thought. I am frankly sick and tired of straight people feeling they have the right to critique our lived experiences for good or bad reasons. For telling us what they think of our narrative. What was making me feel worse was the emotional realisation of potentially feeling a fraction of the pain that black people feel every time someone is murdered for the colour of their skin. How, well-meaning or not, white people in the media are always ready with an opinion. Deciding what is and isn’t racism. Dictating how this should or shouldn’t be handled. When will we let black people start the conversation, with white people using their ears before their mouths?
What about women, what they must go through every time they see male journalists and legislators lay out and enforce their opinions on what should happen to women’s bodies. WTF? Enough!
All in all, I feel angry, I feel pain, I feel that I’ve had enough of listening to people ram their opinions through my governments, my courts, my media and my life without any experience whatsoever. If you’re white you have no right to define racism, if you’re a man you have no right to define sexism, if you’re straight you have no right to tell me what homophobia is, isn’t, or what it feels like. You just fucking don’t. Better still if you want to be a true ally, then enter the room ears first, yes, shut the fuck up and listen.
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE ALSO APPEARED IN THE MESSAGE