Russell T. Davis laid bare the homophobia of 1980s Britain, but how much has society changed?

Britain’s Channel 4 drama ‘Its a Sin’, written by Russell T. Davis, follows a group of friends through the 1980s HIV/AIDS crisis in the UK.

Having already broken several viewership records for the broadcaster, it has been acclaimed for showing the raw truth of the HIV/AIDS crisis. The stories told have moments of soaring joy and freedom integrated with tragedy and devastation, as Davis shows the multi-layered experiences of this generation; relishing the tentative freedom of sexual liberation before a desolating crisis.

Shame is a continuous presence through the shows’ narratives. It pours out of 1980s society as the the Conservative government ban the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in schools and the infamously grim tombstone adverts inextricably link sexual desire with a disease. Shame emanates from parents and family members who refuse to accept their son’s sexuality and its effects are visible when Ritchie avoids getting HIV tested and coming out to his parents..

Davis’s spectacular drama exposed how little is still known about the experiences of the gay comunity through the crisis. For many viewers who lived through this time, seeing the blatant homophobia of 1980s society reflected back at them instills a sense of shame for what they failed to see those years ago. A culture of shame that in many ways contributed to the isolation and death of thousands of gay men.

What can we learn about this politics of shame? Maybe the question is not how did we fail to see this oppression in society in the past, but instead what are we failing to see in the present? A closer look suggests that the politics of shame is still functioning, and in fact the tropes used against gay men in the 1980s are often used against the transgender community today.

Progressive change or shifting targets?

Lisa Power, co-founder of LGBT charity Stonewall who volunteered for Switchboard during the HIV/AIDS crisis, argues that it is impossible not to see the parallels between the rejection of homosexuality in the 1980s as threatening and undesirable to the status quo, and how transgender people are treated in today.

Schools are not typically accommodating to transgender youth. Transgender identities are not visible throughout school curriculums whilst many aspects of secondary schools in particular are divided along gendered lines. Lessons such as relationship and sexual education (RSE) often containing only a single lesson on same sex marriage, which is considered as LGBTQ representation. Trans activist Amiee Challenor argues that this exclusion discourages young transgender people to come out or get necessary support, simultaneously fuelling the idea that being trans is outisde of ‘normal’.

What’s more, according to a School Report released by LGBT charity Stonewall, 46% of young people said that their teachers would not know what being transgender means. This is a worrying figure considering the exponential growth in bullying of transgender pupils and the disturbingly high rates of self harm among transgender young people.

Although, there are examples of positive change and steps towards inclusivity. Such as, one primary school in Brighton which has begun handing out pronoun stickers to support their transgender and non-binary children.

Media backlashes following news of transgender inclusivity are becoming commonplace, as prime time shows such as Good Morning Britain, This Morning and Loose Women debate whether it is morally right to allow children to explore transgender and non-binary identities.

Good Morning Britain host Piers Morgan has become famous for his opposition to ‘forcing’ children into gender identities that they will not understand.

Ridiculing non-binary identities, Morgan notoriously self-identified as a penguin to mock the established concept of gender not only existing as the male/female binary.

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By Gabrielle Jones: culture Columnist.

Truthfully, Morgan represents a large portion of public opinion. His tirades against ‘woke’ culture and ‘victim’ culture resonate with a large number of people who see this as common sense, traditional values. The parallel of Margaret Thatcher defending article 28 for protecting ‘traditional’ values should not be missed here.

“…46% of young people said that their teachers would not know what being transgender means.”

Frequently, the debate focuses on issues that symbolise the threatening nature of transgender people in society. An extremely common one being which prisons transgender women should be put in, through fear that they will sexually or physically assault other inmates.

Transgender writer Shon Faye points to the reality which is that it is male prison guards who are the main proponents of sexual violence in female prisons, not transgender inmates. This asks the question, that if the intention of eradicating sexual abuse in prisons was sincere, why are male prison guards not being poached with the energy reserved for transgender prisoners?

The poorly disguised fact that runs latent throughout the lack of visibility in education, media backlashes, and intolerance of society to change is that being transgender in see as an undesirable outcast, an obvious threat to established institutions and ways of thinking in society.

The tragic effects

The rates of suicide and homelessness in the transgender community are so disproportionately high that they have been described as epidemics.

Pace, an LGBTQ charity foundation, report that almost half of transgender people in the UK have attempted suicide, and 59% have considered it.

A similar report from Stonewall, found that a quarter of transgender people have experienced homelessness, due to being thrown out of their family home by transphobic family members, forced to leave because of domestic violence, and discrimination when applying for housing compounding to create this soaring statistic.

Although attitudes in society are beginning to change this is happening at a slow pace. Margaret Unwin, Chief Executive of Pace, states that the overwhelming lack of visibility and acceptance in society is having huge negative effects on the mental health of transgender people every day.

Similarly, Juliet Jacques, a journalist for the Guardian who documented her transition through the pre-surgery and post surgery argued that transgender people experience this discrimination from several in merging spheres; ‘First at school, a place where gender norms are enforced and policed, where you’re told by teachers and other pupils that boys do x and girls do y. Within the family there can be rejection, verbal and physical abuse, and then also at street level, in the media and in the workplace.’ Inhabiting a world that is discriminatory and intolerant to who you are from your earliest years, Jacques continues, that often transgender people cannot see a future for themselves in an environment that continually rejects them.

The final scene of ‘Its a Sin’ is a painful, emotionally raw exchange between Ritchie’s mother and his best friend Gill. The compelling argument made by Gill, is that the shame instilled onto gay men in the 1980s, from parents and wider society, meant that involved at fault for the death of thousands of gay men, worse still, that they were made to feel that they deserved what was happening to them.

The politics of shame was laid out clearly in ‘Its a Sin’, although retrospective shame is little use to the people who are not with us today because of the HIV/AIDS crisis.  When a society discriminates and vilifies a vulnerable section of the population, can we really be surprised when this leads to traumatic ends?

The politics of shame was laid out clearly in ‘Its a Sin’, although retrospective shame is little use to the people who are not with us today because of the HIV/AIDS crisis.  When a society discriminates and vilifies a vulnerable section of the population, can we really be surprised when this leads to traumatic ends?

MACKAYAN: it’s a sin & the politics of shame.