Note: The following contains some spoilers to the TV series It’s a Sin.
In my longtime survivor–heavy social-media world, everyone is talking about It’s a Sin, screenwriter and producer Russell T. Davies’ five-episode HBO Max saga of a young gay friends group upended by the AIDS epidemic in London between 1981 and 1991. And the verdicts are all over the place.
To some, it’s painful, triggering unwanted PTSD. To others, it’s cathartic, triggering grief, rage, and tears bottled up for years. It rightfully identifies societal homophobia as triggering the shame that helped fuel the epidemic—or it overemphasizes the shame (rather than the external homophobia), thereby reinforcing it. Its characters act and react in ways that don’t feel plausible in the view of people who lived through those years—or its characters behave in ways that feel perfectly plausible, that match people’s own real-life experiences.
As for my own feelings, let me say this: Even as someone who’s written about HIV for more than 25 years now and lived with it for 20, I’ve always been honest about the fact that I don’t know what the 1980s felt like as an urban gay young adult; I moved to New York City in 1991 at the age of 21, part of that generation that was quite afraid of AIDS, but well versed in safe sex and not devastated by the epidemic. Even though I and many of my peers would get HIV in the nearly 20-year interval between the emergence of effective treatment and the advent of HIV-preventing PrEP meds.
For me, then, Sin is most interesting in its Britishness—the fact that London was behind New York and San Francisco both in its being beset by the epidemic and in its community understanding of it. Tonally, the series feels both more subtle and more unflinchingly awful and uncomfortable than many American narratives I’ve seen about AIDS, which always seem compelled to soft-focus the sheer horror, misery, and bitterness of it.
Yet for the most part, I found, the series adheres to an all-too-familiar linear arc of AIDS narratives: We were having a blast and had no idea what was coming, then we got clues but were confused and didn’t know what to believe or were in denial, then people started testing positive, then we were in suspense about who was going to live or die, and in what order; then many people died and the survivors were left with their grief, anger, and blaming.
I also sensed that the show creators, in wanting to avoid the stigma and discomfort of giving the gay characters of color AIDS, predictably gave the lead dying-angel role to a(n admittedly angelic-looking) white character, Ritchie, thus marginalizing the characters of color into somewhat flat support roles even while sparing them.
The Enigma of Jill
Perhaps because the gay-living-with-AIDS characters were so familiar to me, I found myself focusing on Jill Baxter (beautifully played by the beautiful young Lydia West), the only woman in a house and scene full of adorably cheeky young gay men. Over the show’s five episodes, Jill, an aspiring actor like Ritchie, evolves from true-blue gal-pal bestie, making matches among her gay mates and dancing the night away with them, to caregiver among the first to get sick, to urgent activist à la ACT UP, to senior skilled-services provider, to—finally—the mouthpiece for Davies’ final monologue about the devastating role of shame in the lives of gay men and the spread of the virus.
As the housemate upon whom the entirety of the show’s message of compassion and advocacy is hung, Jill is the story’s spine and in many ways its central character.
And yet, what irked me most about Sin is that, over five episodes, we learn nothing about Jill beyond this role. We don’t know whether she is in, or even wants, a relationship of her own (even while her gay male friends are gleefully engaging in an endless sexual musical chairs); we don’t know if she likes boys, girls, or both; we don’t know how she feels about being biracial amid the racial complexities of her friend group; we don’t know if she has any ambivalence about her role as decade-long, 24-7 angel of mercy and de facto case manager for all her friends; and we get no intimation whether, or how, the tremendous emotional and logistical toll this young woman is under will affect her the rest of her life.
Now, let me be fair. Davies has said that he had to cut the show from his original plan of eight episodes—including a final one set 30 years later in which we find out what happened to the surviving characters, including Jill—down to five. Perhaps we’ll never know what parts of Jill’s life ended up on the cutting-room floor.
But despite that, Jill’s own life and choices are not once alluded to—except in the final episode, in which she is cruelly accused by the dying Ritchie’s angry mother of being a tawdry, pathetic fag hag who lured Richie into a life of iniquity.
And yet, despite all that, we know that the real-life Jills of the world—the straight, bisexual, and lesbian women who befriended gay men and others, valiantly caring and fighting for them in AIDS’ darkest days—existed in spades. The very character of Jill, in fact, is based on a longtime friend of Davies, Jill Nadler, who actually plays fictional Jill’s liberal, compassionate mom in It’s a Sin—one of the few times we learn anything about Jill outside of her role as Florence Nightingale to gay men.
What the Real-Life Jills Have to Say About Jill
I reached out to my own Jills—women I know who were deep in gay male life and in AIDS caregiving and activism in the 1980s and early to mid-’90s—to ask them what they thought of fictional Jill.
“I identified with her completely,” says my friend A., a 1970s and 1980s straight female disco bunny in New York City who then got sober in 1988, in time to volunteer at GMHC while she watched an estimated 15 best friends, 30 close friends, and countless acquaintances die from AIDS in the ensuing years. She would go so far as to catch buses from Port Authority bus terminal in Manhattan out to New Jersey to sit by their hospital beds—even going so far as to eat the birthday cupcake of one of them, Bobby, when he could not eat it himself.
“The minute there was a piece of information available,” she says, “I was running around [the iconic 1980s gay dance mecca] the Saint with condoms, even though I was a total mess myself. All of my gay friends had a different STD every week.”
A. doesn’t feel that the character of Jill was shortchanged. “They would have had to do 350 episodes to dive into the complete picture of everybody’s full life story. I thought who she was on that show was very in keeping with what the girls [who only hung out with gay guys] were like at that time. When you’re in a gaggle of gay guys all the time, it’s not easy to have a straight boyfriend, because they just don’t get it—unless they have a gay brother.”
A. also adamantly feels that society has pathologized women whose primary emotional relationships are with gay men. “That’s a false idea,” she says. “In my opinion, gay men are special, and if you meet someone who is your soulmate, it’s a magical experience.”
My fellow TheBody contributor Terri Wilder, M.S.W., a social worker who started working in AIDS in her early 20s as a volunteer in late-1980s Atlanta and has never left the field, says she hadn’t seen the show yet—but that Jill, as I described her, rings true to her.
“I lost myself in the caregiving,” she says. “I don’t know if the word obsession is right, but that was my life: When is the next meeting? My volunteer work led to paid work. I got asked to facilitate support groups, to sit on boards and committees, to facilitate support groups. It became my career. I sat by the bedsides of people who were sick and dying.”
Did she ever feel ambivalent, burned out, or a desire to take a break? No, she says. “It was a love affair with the community. I loved the people, and I was disgusted by the inequality, discrimination, and oppression. AIDS brought me into my political understanding of systems of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia. If you worked in AIDS, you just couldn’t escape them.”
But she also admits that, amid the insecurity of her 20s, her immersive AIDS work very likely gave her an excuse to ignore the rest of her life. “I would’ve loved to have had a love in my life at that time,” she says. “Was I scared to have a relationship? Was that why I dove into volunteerism?”
Not that she regrets her long journey with HIV/AIDS, which she says began at the very end of college, when she happened to spy, then pick up, a lone pink brochure on a table advertising AID Atlanta’s AIDS 101 awareness seminar. “That one pink brochure set the course for my life. It was almost like divine intervention.”
Worrying About Jill
Yet it turns out I wasn’t the only one who worried that Jill was becoming trapped in a world of grief and trauma. “I’ve watched the series twice,” says Viki Noe, author of Fag Hags, Divas, and Moms: The Legacy of Straight Women in the AIDS Community and herself a veteran AIDS fundraiser in Chicago in the worst years of the epidemic. Like Jill, she’d made many gay male friends as a result of working in theater.
“By about the third episode,” she continues, “I wanted to say to Jill, ‘Get out of there now—just stop!’ She paid the price for everybody. She kept their secrets. She did everything for them, including trying to educate them, which they did not appreciate at all [at first]. She loved them and took care of them, even when she knew they were doing things that would hurt them. They let her do everything for them. It was very rare in the series for one of the guys to say to her, ‘Can I go with you?’ [to the hospital or an AIDS-related obligation]. And she had this supposedly wonderful job”—as an actress—“that you see for five seconds in five hours. She doesn’t have a life. Nobody ever asks Jill, ‘Are you OK?’”
Noe also says the series doesn’t show the price in social isolation Jill would’ve paid. “My family and a few straight girlfriends were supportive of [my AIDS work], but for the most part, people I knew were critical. ‘Why are you doing this?’ they’d ask me. ‘This doesn’t have anything to do with you—why do you care?’ Well, my friends were dying. Why wouldn’t I care? There was stigma for straight women to be involved in AIDS. I didn’t have a date for three years.”
Noe points out that no one woman could’ve been as perfect a multitasker as Jill. “She’s a composite.” Perhaps for that very reason, my New York City friend Nora Burns—a performer and creator of the one-woman show David’s Friend, about her intense, youthful friendship with a gay man who dies of AIDS—says that Jill made her feel, well, guilty.
“I was there for my friends, but I was also young and selfishly doing my own thing,” she says. “Jill had no life outside of that group. She doesn’t get to have a sex life or relationships. She’s purely the caregiver, whereas every other character had more nuance.”
And yet, says Burns, Jill doesn’t feel entirely implausible. “She had amazing parents, which reminded me of my own parents, who came to the memorial I did for David. I just felt like she was a better person than me. I’d visit David in the hospital and bring a funny book to read him and be like, ‘Hi, hunnneeeee!’ and he’d be like, ‘Honey, please—I’m just really tired.’”
What Happened to Jill?
Davies has said that in the nixed final episode set 30 years later, we would find that Jill, now 55, has ended up devoting her life to working in “mental and sexual health,” and that “you get the feeling that she’s trapped in that world.”
But before I’d read that, I asked my friends, the real-life Jills, what they thought happened to her. “Probably after Ritchie’s death, she had some kind of a breakdown,” says Noe, “because you can’t keep up that kind of intensity. I was kind of upset in the very last scene, when she goes into [the hospital room of another man dying of AIDS, to hold his hand]. I was like, ‘Girl, you need a break—stop.’”
Noe also thinks backing off would’ve been necessary had Jill wanted a relationship of her own.
“If you were a straight woman in the AIDS community, that was not a really attractive characteristic for attracting straight men,” she says. “When I met [the man who would become] my husband in 1992, I said to him, ‘I work in AIDS and have a lot of gay friends, so if you have a problem with that, I need to know right now.’ And he said, ‘I don’t have a problem with that.’ So I’m still with him.”
My take? If Jill is anything like most women I know whose lives were once enmeshed in AIDS, she does go on to have a happy and full life. Like many people, she dials down her AIDS work after effective medications come on the scene in the late ’90s. She doesn’t exactly get famous, but she carves out a satisfying career as a working actor on the West End and London’s equivalent of off- and off-off-Broadway. She is beloved in the theater community. I could very well see her having a part-time, pay-the-bills job with an organization like Broadway Cares, which fuses her two great passions—theater and helping people with AIDS and other chronic illnesses. She indeed finds a loving, meaningful relationship of her own, be it with a man, woman, or other. She perhaps has a kid or two and raises them with a multitude of LGBTQ uncles and aunties.
But she never abandons her commitment to social justice. She attends London rallies supporting Black Lives Matter and against the implicit racism and nativism of Brexit. And she’ll readily admit that those years in the ’80s and ’90s were both the most traumatic and meaningful years of her life. She remains an active member of whatever is London’s equivalent of New York City’s ACT UP Alumni Facebook page, happy to help organize reunions. And I wouldn’t be surprised if, like Nora, she writes and performs a one-woman show about life with Ritchie—after which she, Ash, and Roscoe all have drinks while screaming, through tears, “Laaaa!”
And, adds my friend A. of Jill’s future: “I’m a sensible Jewish girl. So I really hope she inherits Ritchie’s half of the house, because it’s probably worth a fortune by now.”