Leading U.K. journalists Lucy Knight and Helen Meriel Thomas discuss LGBTQ+ visibility in the British media

As a part of LGBTQ+ history month, Concrete hosted a panel discussion titled ‘LGBTQ+ voices in Journalism’, featuring prominent U.K. based journalists Lucy Knight and Helen Meriel Thomas. 

Lucy Knight is a national award-winning journalist, who currently works as the Assistant Books Editor at The Sunday Times. In addition to her journalistic work, she has also contributed to the anthology, The Book of Queer Prophets, which was curated by the former Stonewall CEO Ruth Hunt. 

Helen Meriel Thomas is the Senior Social Editor at VICE magazine, programming and producing content for their global Snapchat and Instagram profiles. She also writes articles surrounding the topics of sexuality and dating. 

We sat down, via Zoom, to discuss the notion of queer representation, sex positivity in the media, trans visibility in British journalism, and more.  

Whilst a Master’s student at City University, Lucy Knight won the Guardian’s prestigious Hugo Young award (2019) for her article ‘Being a gay Christian can be hurtful and grueling. But I refuse to lose faith’. Issues surrounding the intersection of religious and queer identities is an area which has received rather low levels of coverage in the mainstream media in the past. I ask Lucy, what value would you say writing personal accounts holds within newspaper journalism in general?   

“It’s a really interesting one actually, I do think that we do have to be quite careful about what we share and what we put into the public domain from our own experiences and often if you’ve got a relatively shocking or intimate story that you’re willing to share, people will commission it. You will be able to get that story out there, but equally you do have to think about what the personal implications are for you, if you’re going to have that story available for anyone to read. 

“I think sometimes particularly young journalists, and particularly female journalists, feel a pressure to do that, or are pressured to do that. It definitely has to be treated with caution, but I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with doing that, and I definitely think that there are huge benefits.  

“That’s how we find out about each other’s lives: through communication, particularly when it comes to minority groups. But I think we have to be sure to ensure that people’s welfare is looked after, and people don’t feel that pouring their heart out about a particular issue is the only way to make it into journalism because it really isn’t. I think sometimes there isn’t the pastoral support within the wider structures of journalism to support young journalists when they may be making those choices.” 

I then ask Helen for her views on personal writing in journalism.  

“I’ve been writing about sex and relationships since about 2018. I definitely hear you. You expose a lot when you write about your personal experiences. But for me I think the way I justify it to myself is that I find writing about myself a lot easier than writing about anything else. When I’m forming pieces, when I have a personal connection or experience with something the words just flow out of me, whereas I worked as a Music Journalist for NME and I found a lot of the time I was kind of left wondering why people should care what my opinion is on a cultural topic. 

“When it was more intimate or expressive or just about things that I had that closer connection to or relatability, I found that it was a much more natural fit for me. That’s by no means to say that it works for everyone and I definitely think there needs to be a lot of awareness of what you’re agreeing to when you write those slightly exposing pieces, but I also kind of took the view that I want my writing to be relatable and in some ways to be something people can use to help them in their own lives, especially when it comes to sex and dating.” 

As a journalist who specialises in writing about sexuality and relationships, amongst other areas, do you think there’s still a stigma around discussing topics like sex in the media, or would you say the media is generally becoming a more sex positive space?  

“I think that media is a very friendly place to be a sex and dating journalist but I think the problem is that a lot of platforms, especially as I’m primarily a social editor, are making it much harder to write about sexual health and sexuality because of censorship restrictions. Instagram censors a lot of content about sex workers, for example, and that really starts to take a hit in terms of thinking about what you want to pitch, and how as a social editor you might want to position that when you’re posting this type of content on socials. I think it’s kind of interesting, I think that people are becoming way more open and that every celebrity’s now bringing out a line of sex toys, but how you advertise those things and talk about them on different platforms is becoming perhaps a little bit more difficult now.” 

In the news, there’s been discussion of women actors no longer filming sex scenes directed by men, could you weigh in on that?  

“I think that that’s definitely a smart and interesting move by them. I think, it goes without saying, that when you put in women only rules you don’t want to be trans-exclusionary. I think there is a threatening aura sometimes when you are a young woman working with cis-men in large positions of power. So I would support those actresses who wanted to say that.  

“One thing that is good at the minute is I think in a way we’re a lot more exposed, through social media, particularly sexually, like people will talk about their sex life on social media, people will pose in their underwear on social media, we’re a lot more exposed. Social media platforms like Instagram give women the spaces to tell those stories themselves. I can take a photo in my underwear and I can post it, but the person taking the photograph is me, it’s the female gaze. Most of the people that like and comment on it will be other women. It changes the mirror a little bit. It makes it less about men putting women on display for the consumption of men.” 

A question for Lucy: within the journalism field at large, there is a lot of talk of representation. In your writing, are you ever conscious of speaking for a certain queer experience, a gay Christian experience, a female perspective, or is the emphasis more on documenting an individual experience that some people may be able to relate to?     

“Representation is such an interesting concept. At the end of the day all I can do is represent myself, and my own thoughts. I’ve heard a lot of people saying about the TV program ‘It’s a Sin’, why didn’t it represent this group, why didn’t it represent this group, etc. It’s really difficult because I would love to watch a show about trans people in the AIDs crisis, I would love to watch a show about women in the AIDs crisis, I would have loved for there to have been more lesbians in it. I would love for there to have been all of those things but equally why is it whenever a queer person shares their experience in any way, we expect it to tick all the boxes and answer all the questions. 

“The answer is we don’t have enough material out there that represents the rich spectrum of our lives. It’s really tricky because it’s a bit of both. To a certain extent I’m really proud to still get people messaging me about my Guardian piece and saying you know I’m a Christian and I’m queer and I related to this. That’s really great and that makes me really proud because that’s something that wasn’t there before in such a high-profile way and now is there. That’s great and I think that’s really important because those were the things I would have been really searching for when I was a sort of baby gay closeted in my teenage bedroom. I think representation is so important. 

“But equally every time you whip out your laptop and start writing a piece you can’t be feeling the weight on your shoulders of ‘I’ve got to represent this experience that everyone else is experiencing’, and it’s important to recognise that everyone has unique and different experiences and that you kind of play into those different identities and communities but I think the best thing you can do when you’re writing any kind of opinion or personal journalism is just to be really honest. People don’t necessarily need you to fill this void, and if they do they are possibly not the right person you need to be pushing your work towards. I feel good about representing the queer community, I don’t think there is enough representation and I think it’s a really helpful word when we’re thinking about the sort of journalism as a whole, and the gaps we need to fill so that people can see themselves as represented in the writing. At the same time, you can’t put that pressure on yourself.” 

I ask Helen for her views on representation.  

“I write about being bisexual quite a lot now when I do right pieces for VICE. Again, I didn’t come out formally until around 2017/2018. So quite late on in life I suppose. I think a lot of what held me back from coming out is wondering if I was gay enough, if my attraction to women was legitimate because I was also attracted to men and the fact that my attractions to men and women were so different. It felt very different, and also a lack of experience with women I suppose. When I was coming out, I remember thinking I wish I had done this sooner and recognised my feelings as legitimate at an earlier point. So then in my writing I want that to always come across. It is completely legitimate if you are attracted to men and women in different ways, you can still identify on the queer spectrum. There are different ways of being queer and I think growing up you are presented with only lesbians and gays a bit on TV, not very much, and then bisexuals are left as a kind of joke. When I came out I really wanted to fill that gap a little bit with some well-researched writing.” 

I ask an open question to the panellists: the media coverage for the sex scenes in ‘It’s a Sin’ and ‘Bridgerton’ notably received very different responses in the media. Do you, generally in your work and careers, ever feel the need to make concessions to cater to the heteronormative gaze when writing on areas surrounding queer identity?  

Lucy responds: “I suppose there’s always a little niggle of: is this the right audience, how are they going to feel if I present this in a very openly queer way, or for example if you use a word like ‘cis-gender’ for an audience that haven’t quite got their heads around anything to do with gender and thinking about what they might think. That’s interesting because we’d never make those concessions in other areas. I’m not in quite the same position of writing so openly about my relationships, and also I’ve been in the same relationship for a long time. It would be quite a singular narrative if I were to do that. I suppose in some ways heteronormative culture rewards that because they see long-term monogamous relationships as the ideal, slightly spicier because its with a woman, but it’s not really moving from the curve so I suppose in that way people do sort of respond quite well to my relationship, whereas I wonder if they would if I were in a poly relationship or I was in a relationship with a trans person for example. It is interesting to see that people can feel quite comfortable when they see that it’s something that is close to something they recognise.” 

Finally, could each of you comment as to whether you believe there is a level of homophobia within the media in general?  

Helen responds: “OK, I’m going to go first. I think that there are a lot of gay people in the media so, not to say that there is no homophobia in the media, certainly that’s not been a part of my experience. I think there is a huge, huge amount of transphobia in the media. As queer people, as LGBT people thinking about representation, that’s where we need to be focusing a lot of our energy in terms of the fight and activism.” 

How do you think the media should start to engage with this issue of transphobia?  

“Employ more trans writers guys! Also, let them write about subjects that aren’t just about being trans as well. And you know, Munroe Bergdorf is great, but there are other trans people in the world that you can interview. Passing this microphone to the same group of three trans writers, as great as they are, kind of makes it seem like they’re this small fringe group of queer people that don’t exist beyond that. I think inviting a larger number of trans and non-binary people to write for you on a broader range of subjects would be really good. Also, I think trans people should feel empowered and encouraged to pitch and talk about other topics, you don’t have to talk about your trans identity all the time. That’s great if you want to but don’t feel that you should have to.  

“Editors should be more open to commissioning stories by trans people that are about different subjects. The media, particularly right wing media, and the Guardian can be quite guilty of this as well, they need to stop writing stories about trans people being a threat, just waiting to attack cis-women in public toilets for example. Stop writing stories about ‘pregnant men’ like they’re some alien phenomenon. Just normalise trans people’s experiences and stories so that it doesn’t just turn into a freak show. My message would be for the media to better represent trans people.”

Lucy adds: 

“I think what you’re saying about trans people not necessarily just being commissioned to write about their experience of being transgender comes back down to that idea of not feeling that your own personal experience is all you’ve got. Personal experience journalism is great and it does a lot of work for getting minority groups accepted and in making people more open about things going on in their lives, but equally it’s not equality if the only thing a trans person is asked to write about is their experience of being trans.  

“You don’t go around asking straight people to only write about their experience of being heterosexual or cis-gender. I completely agree with Helen, and I think there’s homophobia everywhere, of course that exists in journalism to an extent, but I would agree and say that there are quite a lot of LGB people in journalism. The T is massively underrepresented. I also think class-wise there’s a huge discrepancy as well, and I would say that those are two of the more pressing issues when it comes to equality in journalism.”  

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Jake Walker-Charles

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November 2021
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