Just under a fortnight ago the BBC announced that transgender actor Riley Carter Millington would be portraying a new character on the popular UK television soap opera Eastenders. This is a significant step forward for the transgender community as history has shown that societal acceptance of the LGBT community has been boosted as a result of becoming more openly part of mainstream pop culture and entertainment. The presence of LGBT people in the entertainment business is nothing new however openly identifying as LGBT has often resulting in facing widespread stigmatisation; the prevalence of LGBT characters and entertainers humanises the community and can only result in greater acceptance.
This isn’t the first time that Eastenders has challenged social stigmas around the LGBT community. At the height of public hysteria around the outbreak of HIV/AIDS and the increased hostility toward the gay community as a result, the characters of Colin Russell and Barry Clark (portrayed by Michael Cashman and Gary Hailes respectively) were in a same-sex relationship which led to the first gay kiss on prime-time television in 1987. Similarly on Boxing Day 1991 the character of Mark Fowler, played by Todd Carty, told his parents that he was HIV-positive, which, it is worth remembering, was a brave storyline as much of what we now know about HIV/AIDS had yet to be discovered and the first suspected death of British person with AIDS happened only a decade before in 1981.
British soap operas have had a number of LGBT characters over the years. In Coronation Street there have been twelve LGBT characters, four of which are still in the show currently. The soap has also been commended for the specific storyline of the character of Hayley Cropper, played by Julie Hesmondhalgh. In the storyline of Hayley Cropper, the character was born male by the name of Harold Patterson and was the first transgender character in a British soap opera as well as the first permanent transgender character in any serialised drama in the world. The character first appeared in 1999, and was so influential that the then Labour government introduced legislation which, when passed, became the Gender Recognition Act 2004; despite first appearing over fifteen years ago, the storyline continued to challenge stigmas around LGBT issues including relationships, discrimination, and wider societal prejudice.
The other example that I want to look at regarding British soap operas, even though there have been many LGBT characters in many different TV shows, is the case of the character of Paul Lambert, played by Matthew Bose, in Emmerdale. The character was first introduced in 2004 and was openly gay. The significance of the character was that it was able to break down the idea of all gay people being ‘sexually permissive’ (which is a horrible phrase), as Paul became the first gay character to enter into a civil partnership on prime-time television since civil partnerships were legalised in 2005.
In wider British entertainment the LGBT community have gone from being shunned by the Establishment under Thatcher in the 1980s to becoming pillars within it. One of the most recent television shows to become considered part of Britain’s national identity, The Great British Bake Off, is hosted by the comedy double act of Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, the latter of whom is a lesbian. The significance of this, in my view, is that it normalises LGBT people because the show doesn’t mention that Perkins is a lesbian; watching the programme isn’t people struggling to make biscuits in the pauses between people demonstrating the logistics of lesbian sex, it’s showing an LGBT person as exactly that- a person.
One of the most popular comedy shows on BBC television, QI, has also normalised being gay, often addressing the subject head on through telling jokes and innuendoes. Although the long-running host of the show Stephen Fry has recently said that he will soon step down, the BBC has announced that he will be replaced by fellow comedian Sandi Toksvig which means that it will be the only TV show on the BBC, to my knowledge, that has had more than one host and that has never been hosted by a straight person.
In the related area of comedic chat shows Alan Carr’s show Chatty Man on Channel 4 has become a fixture of their Friday-night schedule and he’s more gay than Elton John shitting rainbow flags (which is actually a complement). On the BBC Graham Norton has been hosting the appropriately named The Graham Norton Show since it began in 2007 and it has also become a mainstay of BBC One’s programming. By having LGBT individuals referring to their sexualities in comedic contexts, or not mentioning it at all because it doesn’t define that person, the LGBT community is brought into the public sphere in a positive way.
Television shows in the United States have also been beneficial to LGBT people around the world as they are often broadcast around the world. In the late 1990s and early 2000s the 16-time Emmy-winning sitcom Will & Grace became incredibly popular due to its expertly written jokes and colourful characters but also continued to destigmatise the LGBT community as two of the main four characters, Will and Jack, were able to show that gay men are not always flamboyant and over-the-top with a repeated joke in the show being that Will was sometimes mistaken for being straight or pretended to be so in order to get out of the scene’s chaotic situation. The show was also important because viewers began to look at gay people as individuals and also included episodes about Jack’s son Elliot which challenged the notion of gay people being unable to be parents.
Apart from the obvious other examples of people in the LGBT community being on TV such as on The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Modern Family, the two shows that have recently been especially beneficial to the transgender community have been Transparent and Orange is the New Black. In the former Jeffrey Tambor plays Morton Pfefferman, a retired college professor who comes out to his family as transgender, identifying as a woman by the name of Maura. The show is especially significant because it charts the emotional journey of transitioning as well as more comedic elements in Pfefferman’s life; it has since been awarded a Golden Globe as well as another for Tambor personally. In the case of the latter Laverne Cox’s portrayal of Sophia Burset resulted in her becoming an influential transgender celebrity as well as the first transgender person to be nominated for an Emmy Award and the first transgender person to have a waxwork made and displayed by Madame Tussauds. I would also personally argue that Cox’s role in Orange is the New Black is more influential on society by virtue of Cox being a transgender actor thus making it more acceptable for transgender people to be seen in the public eye.
As we have seen in recent years with the growth of new academic disciplines relating to ethnic minorities, women and the LGBT community, pop culture is starting to be more inclusive of the transgender community. Television shows have always been a key way of changing people’s minds about the LGBT community and it can only be a good thing that across the world transgender characters are being created and transgender actors are being given the same opportunities as cisgender people.