‘I’m coming out’ – LGBTQ TV characters over the last 50 years

Peter Wildeblood, the notable gay rights campaigner, wrote in the conclusion to his 1955 book, Against the Law, ‘The right which I claim for myself, and for those like me, is the right to choose the person whom I love’. Wildeblood’s memoir was in large part responsible for substantial reform of Britain’s draconian homosexuality laws, and sparked a chain of events which resulted in the Sexual Offences Act 1967 and eventually the complete decriminalisation of homosexuality, which actually only occurred in 2003.

July is the 50th anniversary of that important Act of Parliament and that key moment in history is being marked across the UK by a series of events. These include everything from exhibitions like Tate Britain’s Queer British Art, an exploration of how queer sexuality was represented in the century leading up to decriminalisation, to the BBC’s Gay Britannia season, a number of programmes which are casting a light on the history of gay Britain as well as taking an in-depth look at what it means to be gay today.

We thought this important anniversary was a valuable opportunity to revisit some of the LGBTQ characters in the UK who have graced our screens and who epitomise the shifting representation of queer characters on TV. According to Gay Star News, the UK has more regular gay characters on TV than in the US. In many ways soaps have led the charge in their representation of LGBTQ characters, offering an insight into their everyday lives. Here are some of the stand out characters:

Colin and Guido (1989) – EastEnders: The passionate embrace between EastEnders’ first gay character Colin and businessman Guido, which was screened in 1989, marked the first time two men had ever been seen kissing mouth-to-mouth on British TV. The reaction from the media was reflective of attitudes at the time; according to the Huffington Post, national newspapers ran headlines which included ‘EastBenders’, ‘scum’ and ‘poofters’. Here’s Dot’s classic reaction to the news Colin is gay – a must watch!

Beth and Margaret (1994) – Brookside: ‘Brookside’ aired British TV’s first pre-watershed lesbian kiss in 1994 when Beth and Margaret shared a passionate embrace. Beth was one of the Channel 4 soap’s most popular characters, contributing to the show’s enormous ratings at the time, so this was no small thing when she and the family nanny, played by actress Nicola Stephenson, got together on screen.

Hayley (1998) – Coronation Street: Hayley Cropper was the first transgender character to be cast in a British soap and it was recently revealed that the character was intended to be a ‘two-week joke’. In the end, the public loved the character and she was on screen for 16 years. Julie Hesmondhalgh, who plays Hayley, described how she saw the role, “You make people like this woman – understand her – and you say more than any political speech or lobbying.”

John Paul, Craig and Ste (2006) – Hollyoaks:  Hollyoaks dealt with the topic of homophobic bullying when Craig reacted badly to finding out best friend John Paul was in love with him. However, it later turned out it was a way of dealing with his growing feelings towards John Paul and eventually the pair ended up embarking on a relationship. In addition, the story of Ste’s HIV diagnosis has received a positive response from audiences. Kieron Richardson, who plays Ste, described how the Hollyoaks team approached the storyline, “We had a motto that we had from the start, which was that we wanted Ste’s HIV to be the tenth most interesting thing about the character, so he wouldn’t be defined by it.”

Aaron (2008) – Emmerdale: The on-screen pairing of Aaron and Robert or ‘Robron’ as they’ve become known, has proved immensely successful. Aaaron’s ‘bad boy’ image and multi-faceted character has been a challenge to gay stereotypes and the sometimes-two-dimensional portrayal of gay people on screen.

Kyle (2015) – EastEnders: Riley Carter Millington who played Kyle in EastEnders was the first trans man to play a regular transgender character in British soap history. On being cast in the role he commented, “I can honestly say that I have now fulfilled my two biggest dreams – to be living my life as a man and to be an actor.”

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If you’d like to discuss the representation of LGBTQ characters on TV in more detail, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

About Matthew Macaulay

Matthew Macaulay is a Research Manager at MTM working in the qualitative team. He is particularly interested in youth trends and the impact of changing perceptions of gender on the media landscape.