I grew up in the UK in the 1970s and 80s, pre AIDS, and in the era of cosy sitcoms, and TV programming that was naturally sexist, racist, and definitely homophobic. As a society I’m not sure we were ready to be aware of how wrong that was. Political correctness, diversity training, and equal opportunities… the seeds were sown but it hadn’t made it as far as the BBC. This was the era that was shocked at women newsreaders. Angry of Tunbridge Wells wrote angry letters to the Radio Times and Points of View expressing their displeasure as frivolous ‘gels’ attempting to read the news. Of course, once we got a female Prime Minister, who had steel balls, their arguments were sealed in a lead coffin and dropped into the nearest ocean.
Okay, I have set the scene and I want to talk about three programmes that had an effect on me. I grew up with images of gay people as camp, effeminate people, such as John Inman in Are You Being Served? or Melvin Hayes in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum.
Although the characters sexual orientation was never explicitly mentioned, the limp wrists and mincing walk screamed queer.They were much loved characters by the nation. Middle-aged women wanted to hug them. The characters (and the actors) were cosy and the acceptable face of homosexuality because you could laugh at them and with them. They weren’t real, they didn’t have partners or lives. You didn’t see them being hugged or kissed. They were always alone, and that made them acceptable to the viewing public. “Inman reported that four or five members of the group Campaign for Homosexual Equality picketed one of his shows in protest as they believed his persona did not help their cause. Inman said that ‘they thought I was over exaggerating the gay character. But I don’t think I do. In fact there are people far more camp than Mr. Humphries walking around this country. Anyway, I know for a fact that an enormous number of viewers like Mr. Humphries and don’t really care whether he’s camp or not. So far from doing harm to the homosexual image, I feel I might be doing some good.'” (from Wikipedia – don’t shoot me)
As a kid, and then a teenager, I never thought about gay people at all, except as they were portrayed on the TV. I can remember certain landmarks that changed my opinion. The moments when I realised that gay people… I say people, I mean men. I wasn’t even aware of lesbians… weren’t all mincing and limp-wristed flamboyant characters. As with heterosexuals, gay people were ‘human’.
When you look at my first example you are probably going to roll your eyes.
Brideshead Revisited was the huge drama of 1981. Before you say, did you see Sebastian? He was effeminate. He was… but he wasn’t. And Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons together were hot! Hey, I was fourteen years old, give me a break. Teenage girls wet their knickers over these two. I was finally seeing two men together, comfortable in each other’s company, even if they were toffs and one walked around with a teddy bear. You didn’t see anything. It was lovie drama, and acceptable – just.
The real shocker came with Brookside and then EastEnders, who shock horror, had a gay relationship, and then OMG they showed them kissing. My God, the yuppie poofs (as declared by the tabloid The Sun) actually laid mouths on each other in 1989. The world is coming to an end.This at a time when Margaret Thatcher’s government was promoting family values and ‘the children might be watching.” Sounds familiar, huh?
It was a series of small revelations to me that a) it really didn’t bother me to see two men, and later two women kiss, and b) how much it bothered other people. Why? Every time there was any form of expression of gay love on the screen, Mr and Mrs Angry went wild.
The AIDS era programming was full of films of men dying with the most appalling of conditions. That is for another longer blog. I want to move onto…
The first time I can remember seeing a programme saying we here, we’re queer and fucking deal with it. Queer as Folk,the UK version bloody exploded onto the screens in 1999. I LOVED it. It took no prisoners and Mr and Mrs Angry could go forth and multiply (in the missionary position of course). This was about celebrating being gay. No tentative kisses, no cosy queens. This was full on in-your-face being gay, the good, the bad and the bloody gorgeous. Was it good for gay people? Is it a responsibility a programme should have to bear?
“A gay teacher told me that Nathan inspired a 15-year-old boy at his school to come out. (Good.) In the yard, he was beaten up so severely, he had his cheekbones crushed. (Bad.) The teacher was so shocked that he and other staff members came out. (Good.) They formed a policy against homophobic bullying, to the extent that the word “gay” is no longer used as an insult in that school. (Good.) But weigh it up. Do three Goods cancel one Bad? Is that policy worth that kid’s face?”
Since QAF there have been many depictions of gay characters on TV. Most soaps have gay storylines, and wow, lesbians have made an appearance. Bisexuals and transgender people are pretty much non-existent, but that reflects current thinking to some extent. Are gays reflected positively in programmes now? I don’t know, I don’t watch TV anymore. I am not the person to ask. I do know since Channel 4 stopped making and showing them, gay movies on mainstream TV are virtually non-existent.
We have moved on from Mr Humphries. Openly gay people are shown on TV with relationships, almost I hate to say it, too cosy. I’d like to see a UK version of The New Normal over here. Mr Angry could choke on his gin and tonic once more. I want the programme world shaken up again.
Since I posted this I have noticed two adverts on British TV depicting or mentioning gay couples. I leave you this one for its normality.
Sue can be found at her website, http://www.suebrownstories.com/; her blog,http://suebrownsstories.blogspot.co.uk/; Twitter, https://twitter.com/suebrownstories; and her Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/suebrownstories.