Today, gay characters are more included in primetime TV shows than ever. EastEnders aired its first gay wedding last year while in Corrie, the soap’s first ever lesbian, Sophie Webster, made it all the way to the aisle, before the traditional soap-wedding disaster occurred and the whole day was ruined. EastEnders’ first lesbian kiss back in 1994 prompted a record number of complaints to the BBC by viewers who felt it was inappropriate, so the fact that these characters have even made it onto our screens is a huge step forward for equality for the LGBT+ community.
Whilst it is undeniably a good thing to have homosexual characters in primetime shows, unfortunately it isn’t enough to have a token gay person living on the Square and be done with it. With LGBT History Month only just over and the British government’s plans to legalise gay marriage barely a month old, now more than ever, we need to seize the opportunity to get this right.
Fictional on-screen characters may be the only impression the average viewer has of a person belonging to a minority group. This means viewers can form ideas about the gay community as a whole based on the actions of the few fictional characters they seen on their screen. Are all gay men as flamboyant and Cher-obsessed as Jack from
Will and Grace? Do they love show tunes as much as Glee’s Kurt? Of course not, and it would be insulting for anyone to say so. Which begs the question, why are we obsessed with portraying gay men this way? It wouldn’t be acceptable to so consistently portray another minority group in a certain way, so why are the vast majority of gay men in TV shows so camp? Not that there is anything wrong with being camp – quite the opposite, in fact. But why is it such a common portrayal on mainstream shows?
And women have it no better. Over on Casualty, the short-haired “butch” lesbian Dixie was so desperate to hide her sexuality from her dying father that she married a man to convince him she was straight. What kind of message is that sending?
Gay and lesbian characters in drama shows seem to be constantly bullied about their sexuality, questioning themselves or coming up against rampant homophobia which, worryingly, is not always challenged. While this does sadly happen in reality, would it be so hard to have a mainstream, happy, gay couple who suffer no inner turmoil every once in a while? Sure, rule 101 of writing a good soap is that nobody is allowed to be happy, but why do they always have to be miserable because of their sexuality? Gay characters seemingly aren’t allowed to have a storyline other than being gay; it is always central to their plot, the be all and end all of their value to the show. Often, the characters seem to have long periods of denial about their sexuality, then try to hide it, and finally come out to mixed reactions from friends and family. It’s been done time and time again and frankly, it’s getting boring. Why must a character’s homosexuality define them?
Back in 2006, gay rights charity Stonewall did some research into the representation of LGBT+ on the BBC and found that shockingly, gay lives are five times more likely to be portrayed in negative terms than positive ones. What’s more, during 168 hours of programmes, gay lives were represented positively for just six minutes. Stonewall went as far as suggesting that “lesbians hardly exist on the BBC”, finding that on the rare occasions when the corporation’s programmes did make references to sexuality, a whopping 82% were about gay men. Interestingly, when gay couple Christian and Syed were shown in bed together on
EastEnders, the “Beeb” responded to complaints by ever-so politely reminding the British public that civil sex partnerships had been legal for a long time in the UK at this point, and that “the BBC cannot discriminate by treating gay characters differently to heterosexual characters.”
The fact is that it’s not enough to just give gay characters screentime. We must also think carefully about the way they’re represented and the message this sends to people in our country. The blessing and the curse of TV is that it has the power to influence us enormously, to shape our thoughts and to reinforce or dispel the stereotypes we have of minority groups. It’s high time the media was used to challenge homophobic bigotry and portray gay, lesbian and bisexual characters positively and accurately, and to banish the clichés once and for all.