A piece about queer representation in the TV and media by our training co-ordinator, Fiona:
''Picture this – The year is 1989. Section 28 had been imposed on us for almost a year. I was a gay, goth, theatre kid living in a North Nottinghamshire mining town, about to turn 15. And I had just discovered Sheridan Le Fanu’s masterpiece Carmilla.
The school library had already been stripped of all things Oscar Wilde, Forster forgotten, Byron hanging on by a thread. But the school librarians didn’t know much about vampires and horror, so Carmilla managed to stay. Word went around amongst the lads I was friends with, regarding which books might have something a bit queer about them. All of us, desperate to unearth anything that might have the merest crumb of gay subtext. They had hit the jackpot just a couple of years earlier, with Merchant Ivory’s lavish screen adaptation of Forster’s Maurice. A very pretty Hugh Grant and an extremely stoic James Wilby had given the gays something to treasure. VHS copies were shared, and shared again until the tape was consumed by crackling interference. But still, there was nothing for lesbians. Or so I had thought, until I discovered Carmilla.
Written in 1872, 26 years before Bram Stoker released his classic horror story Dracula, fellow Irish writer Le Fanu published his ode to the genre, Carmilla. I remember the hushed conversation on the stairs ascending to the school library, where a friend from my theatre group told me about it. Told me the section it was in, and which shelf to find it on. No need to ask a librarian. Ten minutes later, the contraband was in my rucksack and I was cycling home to read it in private. What I found was a story centred on women. A story where the men are peripheral. For me, this was probably the first story I ever read where the focus fell entirely on two teenage girls, their relationship, and where neither were pining over a boy. Revolutionary enough in itself, without Laura and Carmilla’s nascent lesbian sexuality. It wouldn’t be too much to say that this novella changed my life, in an era where I had searched and searched, and found no representation anywhere. There was no one to tell me about Radclyffe Hall, Jeanette Winterson, or Leslie Feinberg. These were the days before the internet, the days before gay characters appeared on TV as anything other than a joke to be ridiculed - the camp best friend, or the girl boys don’t find attractive. This was a time before the ‘bury your gays’ trope landed. The first, and last, lesbian kiss had been screened on the BBC 15 years earlier on the TV drama Girl. One small kiss, never to be repeated. Eastenders had started the year off with the first gay kiss between two men, which was swiftly followed by a flurry of hate and bile from the UK press. This was an era where the majority of the population felt LGBTQ+ rights already had gone too far. An era where the media were busy trying to terrify us all into silence.
Fast forward to 2022. At the start of the summer the TV was full of all the brand new LGBTQ+ shows, and even more that were about to continue with a new season. I was thrilled to see Netflix announce their new teen lesbian drama First Kill. Articles were popping up all over social media talking about it. Stills from various scenes in the show were shared long before it aired, and it really felt like whilst LGBTQ+ leads in TV shows were still something for critics to remark upon, queer representation wasn’t as hard to find as it had been for me 30+ years earlier.
This representation flew in the face of some of the more right wing politicians. MPs in the UK had started to glorify the dark days of Section 28. Politicians had started to speak about how schools should out LGBTQ+ children to their parents, without any concern for safeguarding, or awareness of how much danger some of those children would be exposed to. In America, this threat was becoming a reality, as some states began to bring in their own Section 28 style ‘don’t say gay’ laws for schools.
I suppose you could say that most of the TV production companies at least had the good grace to wait until the week after Pride month, before they started to issue statements informing us of all the LGBTQ+ shows that were being cancelled. Including First Kill, which had barely aired before it was finished. That wasn’t the case when ‘Batwoman’ was cancelled. All three seasons received high praise from critics, particularly for its authentic LGBTQ+ representation. Nonetheless, The CW issued a statement that there would be no fourth season for the queer action hero during Lesbian Visibility Week!
Almost as if the TV networks were waiting for Pride month to be over, July brought with it a torrent of LGBTQ+ cancellations. The bulk of the cancelled shows had a common denominator –queer women were the lead characters. The Wilds, which had been nominated for Outstanding Drama Series at the GLAAD Media Awards was cancelled after two seasons. Gentleman Jack, made by BBC/HBO and aired in the coveted prime time Sunday evening slot - A show that The Guardian had lauded as being “one of the greatest British period dramas of our time” - was cancelled after two seasons. ‘Work in Progress’ was cancelled after two seasons. Showrunner and The Matrix director, Lily Wachowski, tweeted that shows such as this “get trotted out to illustrate how networks and studios are soooo committed to diversity,” but are axed before they can “establish a viewership”.
Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled to see the representation that all of us within the LGBTQ+ community have on mainstream TV. ‘Heartstopper’ was a revelation - and it’s been renewed for a second season too – But isn’t it time that shows that include us and celebrate us aren’t seen as the easiest to dispose of by the TV stations and production companies who produce them? Let’s see what 2023 brings!''