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‘It’s A Sin’ captures joy and heartbreak in eighties-era AIDS saga

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Olly Alexander enjoys the perks of an uncloseted life in “It’s A Sin” (Image courtesy of HBO Max)

“It’s A Sin,” the UK miniseries that debuted in America on HBO Max February 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 eighties, 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  “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 the 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 spouting 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.

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Belinda Carlisle brings a heavenly Christmas Bash December 16th

Her work evolves beyond the demands of the pop market while never losing its hooks and whimsy. it reflects Belinda’s evolving life

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Courtesy of Belinda Carlise

HOLLYWOOD – On December 16th, 7pm, the city of West Hollywood transforms into a piece of “Heaven on Earth.” An angelic supernatural deity from the sky won’t be delivering this gift, but rather an angel from iconic pop paradise.

That night, Belinda Carlisle makes a grand entrance and gives an eager audience the presence of a queen of pop, the most recent inductee to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with her group, The Go-Gos.

It will be on that night that Belinda Carlisle hosts THE party event of the season with co-host, drag superstar, Trixie Mattel. One sings, one throws comedic shade, and a packed room at the Abbey will be losing their collective minds.  Not that the party itself isn’t all the reason you would need to get it on your calendar, the evening benefits a fantastic charity, The Animal People Alliance (APA), that intertwines the love for animals with the salve to human suffering.

Courtesy of Trixie Mattel

APA’s charter reads: “To provide high quality and compassionate care, of the highest standards, to neglected street animals in India and Thailand. We train and employ vulnerable people from the community, and pay living wages that help them improve their standard of living.”   The organization, by employing people who would otherwise be stateless and/or in poverty, has treated over 16000 street animals since 2014. Their programs for animals include rabies vaccinations, sterilizations and other emergency health aid.

Belinda sat down with me this week on the podcast RATED LGBT RADIO to talk about her life, her amazing career, her party and the strength she has achieved in standing up to both inner and outer demons.

She survives. She fearlessly opens herself up, and if anyone scrutinizes her past… she will lead the way.  She happily tells of being a member of the most successful all-women pop bands in history.  They sang and wrote their own songs, they played their own instruments. They did it on their terms. No men were needed or required. She candidly shares about her struggles with eating disorders and drug addiction. 

Belinda shows profound compassion for those struggling with addiction and darkness, “Addiction is a sickness…it is a disease of perception, you can’t see your effect on other people… It is a trap you feel you can’t get out of. Every addict has a heart and a humanity that is obscured by addiction. It is a horrible, horrible thing for anyone to go through. It is hard to remember that there is a heart under all that, there is something divine under all that darkness.”

Her interest focuses more on what came after she embarked on recovery  “My life is much more exciting since sobriety, even more exciting than the hey day with the Go-Gos. For anyone out there who is worried about aging, or life being over at a certain point—it’s not. Life is just the most amazing miracle and privilege.”

Her significance for the LGBTQ community, impacts many of the most vulnerable.  She is the mom of a gay man, activist and writer, James Duke Mason. His birth made her examine the trajectory of fame, drugs, and rock & roll in which she was on, careening threateningly close to disaster and death.

She had settled comfortably into maternal nurturement when Duke came out to her at the age of 14. Belinda had been impressed with Duke’s ability to explain the situation to her. She found out that he had been online with PFLAG for weeks learning about how to present his news to her, information to give and educated about key talking points. 

Appreciating their real life help of a young person in need, Belinda vehemently supported PFLAG, the Trevor Project and others ever since. “I am so glad I have a gay son, I can’t even tell you,” she says.

Artistically, she also continues to thrive.  The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame finally inducted the Go-Gos this year.  It was an honor 15 years in the making.  It should have been an obvious choice to put them there.

As the first all-female group making it big, they sang, wrote every note and played every instruments. The Go-Go’s, a 2020 American/Irish/Canadian documentary film directed and produced by Alison Ellwood, cast attention on the Hall of Fame oversight, and essentially made the case for how special the group actually was.

Belinda also recently released a new single Get Together a cover of the 1967 Youngbloods hit. The Youngbloods sang it at Woodstock in 1969 to make a statement about the divisions of the Viet Nam era in America.

Belinda sings it now, her voice pure, mature and as an anthem making a plea, if not a motherly order, to reconsider the divisions we are experiencing today.  She says, “We live in this age of outrage.  This song is ‘ok people, CHILL OUT’. All this divisiveness is not going to get us anywhere. It’s timely.”

Beyond Get Together, Belinda works on more new music including singles and a new album.  She continues to produce with the top song creators of the industry including award winning song writer Diane Warren and Go-Gos dates at the end of the year.

Her work evolves beyond the demands of the pop market while never losing its hooks and whimsy. it reflects the channeling of Belinda’s evolving life.  When she lived in France, she released a French collection.

As she delved into spirituality and the culture of Thailand, she released the powerful Wilder Shores, which blended a spiritual mantra into pop hooks. “Chanting is a science, it has a super power. It is not airy fairy,” she states.

The fact is, Belinda Carlisle continues arriving and thrilling.  She does not need to prove herself to anyone.  She has defined the next thirty years of her life as philanthropy.  

“I just wing it as I go along. I learned what it is like to work from the heart. Work in a way where you don’t care about any kind of outcome. That is how I am working now. I am just having fun, and doing just what I want. I am really lucky that way,” she declares.

Her party on December 16th at the Abbey appears right on track to bear that out.

Love, humanity, care of animals and a major splash of fabulousness enveloping an enthused audience.

In other words, pure Belinda.

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Listen to the full interview:

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Rob Watson is the host of RATED LGBT RADIO, a national podcast and he’s one of the founders of the evolequals.com.

A gay dad, business man, community activist and a blogger/writer, Watson is a contributor to the Los Angeles Blade covering entertainment, film, television, and culture with occasional politics tossed in.

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Andy Grammer partners with Trans Chorus of Los Angeles

Celebrating how important it is to live your life, your authenticity, and to feel good about who you are

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Andy Grammer partnered with the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles (Screenshot via YouTube)

LOS ANGELES – In honor of Transgender Awareness Week, Andy Grammer partnered with the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles (America’s first Trans Chorus, embracing all members of the trans, non-binary and intersex communities) for a special live performance of “Damn It Feels Good To Be Me” – celebrating how important it is to live your life, your authenticity, and to feel good about who you are. What a special moment. In conjunction with the partnership a donation has been made by Andy to the TCLA.

A note from TCLA: “The Chorus really enjoyed the song and especially performing it with Andy around the piano. It was upbeat and expressed how important it is to live your life and your authenticity and to feel good about who you are. That is the thrust of our Chorus philosophy of moving from victim to victorious.”

Connect with the Trans Chorus of Los Angeles:https://transchorusla.org/

Andy Grammer – Damn It Feels Good To Be Me (featuring Trans Chorus of Los Angeles)

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Michael Kearns, the Godfather of LGBTQ+ authenticity

Michael’s work has been described as “collisions of sex and death, of eroticism and grief,” but he has truly dug to an even deeper level

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Michael Kearns by Keida Mascaro

HOLLYWOOD – The arc of LGBTQ+ history over the past 50 years has been one of constant upheaval and evolvement. From a period when it was both illegal and insane to be gay, through the achievement of being able to serve openly in the military, to marriage equality and the ability to create families to today’s fight against the tyranny against Trans people, the movement has not stopped to take a breath.

Michael Kearns, the first recognized “out” actor on the Hollywood landscape, has been a visible presence through it all. More importantly, he has always” been visible on the gay scene. In the seventies he epitomized the free love and erotic freedom that many gay men lived. He was featured in classic gay porn movies and did a PR stint as the face of the “happy hustler.”  

“That was my introduction to a lot of people,” Michael told me when we sat down for a chat on Rated LGBT Radio. “I kind of captured the zeitgeist of the times, the freewheeling seventies. We forget that there was that period of time when sexuality was joyful and exciting and thrilling.”

In the eighties he was visible in mainstream media as a gay man playing gay men characters. In 1983, Michael was cast in a minor role on the Cheers Emmy winning episode “the Boys in the Bar.”  He was instantly recognized for his gay sexual iconic status by LGBTQ audiences, even though the population at large did not know who he was. The casting director who fought for his casting was Stephen Kolzak, who would himself become a prominent AIDS activist before he died at 37 in 1990. Stephen casted Michael to make a statement. He wanted to signal to the LGBTQ community that Cheers had our backs. “He was one of the only ones that had the guts,” Michael remembers.

“There were a lot of stereotypes in television regarding gay portrayals. I was pegged and cast in some of those roles. I did play the stereotype, but rather than a straight guy playing those roles, I brought authenticity. I was real. Straight guys playing gay would always spoof the role. They were always ‘winking’ and signaling to the camera ‘I am not really that way.’  So, the performances are by in large horrible, even with some academy award winners. The actors were constantly saying that it was not who they were—if they weren’t making that clear on the talk shows, they were doing it in the performance itself.’ Michael says.

Michael soon morphed into an HIV positive man playing HIV positive characters, while off camera becoming a visible and vocal AIDS activist. “It was a new kind of cliché. They had to always make me look horrible. The ghastlier the better. They could not have an HIV character who looked normal—as I did when I arrived at the set. Finally, I had enough and refused to do that anymore.” Michael then immersed himself in theater where he found greater character honesty and truth.

 As gay men captured their identities in the 90s as husbands and fathers, Michael was there too—becoming one of the first gay men to adopt a child.  It is that role, as a father, that Michael has said is his greatest.

Today, Michael has been a driving force behind QueerWise, a multigenerational writing collective and performance group. Through QueerWise, Michael gives poetic voice to talent that would otherwise be voiceless. Its members include published poets, writers of fiction and non-fiction, playwrights, singers, musicians, social activists, dancers, actors artists and teachers. 

This weekend, on Sunday October 17th, QueerWise launches its latest work, The Ache for Home. 

“The Ache for Home is a video presentation of heartfelt stories from formerly homeless/unhoused individuals in and around West Hollywood. It was developed through a mentorship program facilitated by QueerWise members. The production represents citizens-turned-writers who share their inspirational stories from those glamorous streets and sidewalks, ranging from soaring self-acceptance to narratives of truth-telling defeats,” states Michael. The production can be seen on QueerWise’s YouTube Channel starting 5pm October 17.

The Ache for Home features a young cis male with a passion for music and art, who finds joy “when I can put a smile on someone’s face and give back”, a retired mixed race bisexual government worker who is a voracious reader and literacy advocate, two trans males share their experiences of living on the street, and a former resident playwright who was homeless for 44 days and nights in the city. “I am thrilled at our inclusion of transmen in this work,” Michael says. “It is a poorly represented community within a poorly represented community.”

On current controversies with media and transgender targeting, particularly the Dave Chappelle issue, Michael remarks, “I am glad it is generating passion. It is bringing up conversation on the plights of black trans women who are victimized at an alarming rate, we should not say victimized… we should say murdered. I am glad we are shedding light on that.”

Michael’s work has been described as “collisions of sex and death, of eroticism and grief,” but he has truly dug to an even deeper level. The Ache for Home takes its inspiration from the Maya Angelou quote, “The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” Michael Kearns work has always encouraged us to go, and live, “as we are.” He is the amalgamation of eroticism, grief, healing, and appreciating the richness of life itself.

He is the godfather of LGBT+ authenticity. In earlier days, he may have represented sex, he may have walked us through a period of darkness and death into the arms of the creation of the new family. He has now brought us home, and when we look at him, we see a new quality.

Wisdom.

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Rob Watson is the host of RATED LGBT RADIO, a national podcast and he’s one of the founders of the evolequals.com.

A gay dad, business man, community activist and a blogger/writer, Watson is a contributor to the Los Angeles Blade covering entertainment, film, television, and culture with occasional politics tossed in.

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Listen to the show here:

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