An Exploration on the Importance of Queer and LGBTQ+ Literature and Television in the United Kingdom

For LGBTQ+ history month, I channeled my energy into writing an essay-turned-personal-essay-turned-blog-post on LGBTQ+ media throughout my childhood, and some thoughts on improving the appearance of LGBTQ+ portrayals in said media.

The UK’s stance on LGBT+ is slowly but surely becoming progressive, no doubt in part thanks to the acceptance and encouragement of diverse shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, Channel 4’s It’s a Sin, and the 2014 historical biopic Pride that really helped open the eyes of queer youth to the importance of alliances, the Welsh Miner Strikes, and the injustice and inequalities of a not-so-long ago government. Queer representation in television (including streaming services such as Netflix, Prime, and Disney+ which all produce their own shows and films) is growing in importance as we thrive in the digital age – even more so, perhaps, as lockdowns force us to spend more time indoors.

Figure 1 below highlights the sexual orientation percentages from the ONS Annual Population Survey; in no way is this an accurate representation of queer identity within the United Kingdom.

Not only is this old data – despite being published in 2020, this data only exists up until 2018 – but it is incredibly restrictive. The strategy for ONS is a sample and estimation one; whilst this can be a reliable method for general populations, it is in no way accurate or a full reflection of LGBTQ+ population within the UK. For a full breakdown of the method, see their explanation here. Furthermore, the sexual orientations listed are not inclusive – rather, they are exclusive of important identities. Sexual orientation is, for many, fluid – there are no strict definitions they feel as though they adhere to when it comes to where their attractions may lie. The use of ‘other’ promotes identity erasure, signalling that sexualities outside of ‘heterosexual’, ‘homosexual’, and ‘bisexual’ are not valid nor worthy of highlighting.

It is positive, of course, to witness the trend of the data: there is a gradual but steady increase for the options of ‘Other’, ‘Bisexual’, and ‘Gay/Lesbian’. This doesn’t necessarily mean there is an increase of people discovering their sexualities or identifying with something they had previously not, but rather, an exhibition of changing attitudes and the implication that people within the UK are more comfortable to disclose their orientation. Internalised homophobia can be so rife in some queer people that to even disclose ones’ sexuality anonymously is not something they are comfortable with; this more often than not arises from prejudice exhibited by peers, family members, authority figures, and even celebrities.

It is a commonly regarded fact that LGBTQ+ populations have a ‘higher risk of psychological distress compared to their heterosexual counterparts’ (Cornish); this is theorised to be a result of feeling a minority status, which is something a lack of representation in the media can create. This theory is not, of course, limited to just LGBTQ+ representation. Increased mental disparity can also arise from internalised homophobia, which is often onset by parent or familial relations/influence, and a lack of exposure and or understanding of homosexuality. The problem with internalised homophobia is that its effect is not limited solely to the self; youth who exhibit internalised homophobia are far more susceptible to substance abuse and addictive behaviours, as ‘they may attempt to self-medicate their feelings of anger, confusion, denial, shame and self-hatred’ (Kanbur). These forms of behaviour will undoubtedly have a ripple effect into the wider community, and often on those relationships in close proximity.

There is still a lot to be done for the NHS, and one major area for improvement is mental health awareness and the accessibility of mental health resources for patients – including pastoral care within school for adolescents, wherein the risk of mental health problems developing is far greater than in later life as youth (especially LGBTQ+ youth) advance through puberty. More specifically, LGBTQ+ mental health is a key area within the NHS that is in need of development.

In 2016, The Proud Trust (formerly LGBT Youth North West) released a report entitled ‘Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans (LGBT) Young People’s Health in the UK: A literature review with a focus on needs, barriers and practice’, exploring the as-of-then current state of awareness for health practitioners on the needs of LGBTQ+ persons. It is unclear if the recommended improvements have been implemented, but some key takeaways from the review were:

  • There was a lack of LGBT-tailored support or knowledge from healthcare staff;
  • A complete lack of LGBT-tailored safe sex advisories and resources;
  • Healthcare providers were not aware of the demographics they served – it was unclear how populous their area was for LGBT+ persons.

I, personally, would like to highlight the second bullet point. As I have previously spoken about in this blog post, it is incredibly vital to practice safe sex no matter what stage of life you are at, what sexuality you are, or which gender you identify as. Sexually transmitted infections do not care for any of the above – they only care if you are safe. In 2019, government statistics reported that 299,411 citizens in England tested positive for chlamydia – a number which does not account for those who do not test regularly. Gonorrhoea was 70,936, and herpes was 34,570 – these are all positive increases from the year before. Chlamydia and gonorrhoea are curable. Herpes is treatable and manageable. And, amazingly, so is HIV – if caught early.

The HIV/AIDS pandemic is actually still ongoing, and still classed as a pandemic – stats from 2018 showed that there were nearly 40 million globally living with HIV. Whilst medication can supress the virus with incredible effect, it is still a life-threatening disease to live with. HIV/AIDS related deaths peaked in 2004-2005, where approximately 2 million people died each year. 2017 was the ‘first year since the peak in which fewer than 1 million people died from AIDS’ (ourworldindata.org) which is, of course, extremely positive. But it is still proof that it is an on-going issue, in particular in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Last week (Feb 1-7) was National HIV Testing Week, and if you’re over 16 and live in England, you can order a free at-home postal kit from the NHS here: https://freetesting.hiv/. All it takes is a prick of a finger. If you’ve never before had a test, please do so. It’s always good to know!

Queer and LGBTQ+ Representation in Literature

I was incredibly fortunate to have an entire module in my undergraduate degree dedicated to LGBTQ+ literature – ‘Contemporary Queer Literature’ – where I studied works by Jeanette Winterson, Alison Bechedal, and Sarah Waters. But before this module, my exposure to queer literature was so limited. I was an egregious reader when growing up, and yet the first LGBTQ+ book I recall reading was one of David Levithan’s, when I was already into my teens, and by this point I was already devouring as many M/M fanfictions that remotely fitted my interests on Archive of Our Own. But reading queer fanfictions, to me, did not feel like reading. My viewpoint has changed drastically, now, and I cannot believe the ferocity at which I read. It truly was as though I had been starved up until then, and now I was determined to consume more than my fill.

It is my view that diverse and LGBTQ+ literature should be promoted far more at a lower level – primary school and most definitely secondary school. If I can study an entire module dedicated to contemporary queer literature, then the school curriculum can definitely be improved by the inclusion of books with diverse protagonists.

‘But LGBTQ+ literature is just full of sex!!!’ – this is absolutely incorrect. Yes, LGBTQ+ inclusive literature includes purple passages in some instances, but so does every genre. It also would not be difficult for one to omit said purple passages from the studying and focus on the more positive portrayals of LGBTQ+ literature.

‘But all LGBTQ+ literature is written for kids!! What could anyone possibly learn from studying kid’s literature? There are no LGBTQ+ classics!’ This is also absolutely incorrect. Not to mention, children’s literature and young adult literature are two entirely different genres, both with valid criticism and literary recognition. They’re often not just kids’ stories. They’re often real life stories that could happen to any real life person – and who wouldn’t want to read about an experience they have gone through, and know that they are not alone? As for classics, the ‘literature canon’ is an outdated, slightly misogynistic, and highly irrelevant set of literature in 21st century. Forcing adolescents to read that which does not even remotely apply to them does nothing but hinder and suppress any enjoyment they may find from reading and studying literature. A true, good, piece of literature that is authentic and teaches – whether it is moral teachings, explorations of classes and identities – does not need to be decades (or even centuries) old to have literary value. Schools should expand literature teachings into modern society. Lessons on surveillance (Orwell, 1984) are not pertinent to today’s social media and internet users – they don’t care if the FBI is watching them through their laptop webcam. The rise of influencers and the online celebrity concept have resulted in many millennials forgoing any online privacy in a bid for fame. I am grateful for what I did study – but I would have been far more grateful to have studied something that was more relevant to myself and my current society. As much as I love The Great Gatsby, all it did was fuel my distaste for bourgeoisie classes and those who use money and power to escape the consequences of their actions (cough Trump cough).

One of my favourite childhood authors, Jacqueline Wilson, publicly came out in 2020. I wish her books had been more LGBTQ+ inclusive when I was growing up. I definitely believe Roxy Wellard would be a lesbian.

Queer and LGBTQ+ Representation in Television

Yet again, this was a representation I was thoroughly lacking exposure to when growing up. The first LGBTQ+ television representation that I recall seeing is that of Skins second generation, between Naomi and Emily.

Every portrayal of LGBTQ+ in television that I have come across, or become consumed by at a young age, has been problematic. Full of deceit, cheating, scandals, they have all been a far cry from positive. ‘But that’s the nature of television! To entertain!’ Yes, but, hear me out: these portrayals are damaging. They reinforce negative stereotypes (such as bisexuals are ‘greedy’ or ‘refuse to be monogamous’ or ‘will always cheat’) and even showcase predatory behaviour (looking at you, anime). And yet these were the only mainstream (and non-mainstream) representations available to me as I was growing up.

Today is a far different story. Television has become far more progressive, but it’s not a finished journey. The Disney Channel’s first depiction of a family containing two mothers ultimately led to Good Luck Charlie’s cancellation due to complaints and threats from homophobic viewers. Low ratings and high volumes of complaints probably don’t mean much money is made, but that’s a pay off that should be taken when the subject is so important to so many young people.

The positive reception of shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race and Queer Eye are incredibly vital, but as much as they supply in terms of representation, diversity, and the promotion of queer lifestyles, they do little to give viewers the assimilation of society. The focus of these shows is their queer lifestyle, and thus (in my eyes) this detracts from a portrayal of LGBTQ+ immersion in a real-world setting.

You can probably tell that I studied literature, and not television and film studies, by the fact my queer representation in literature section was practically 3x the length. I don’t have a conclusion, per se, but I hope you have taken something away from this reading.

References

  1. ‘Internalized Homophobia in Adolescents: Is it really about Culture or Religion?’ by Nuray Kanbur, MD. in J Can Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2020 May; 29(2): 124–126. Published online 2020 May 1.
  2. The Impact of Internalised Homophobia and Coping Strategies on Psychological Distress Following the Experience of Sexual Prejudice by Michael Cornish, available at: https://uhra.herts.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/2299/9178/09212277%20Cornish%20Michael%20-%20final%20DClinPsy%20research%20dissertation.pdf?sequence=1
  3. STD Statistics – gov.uk
  4. OurWorldInData: https://ourworldindata.org/hiv-aids#:~:text=The%20number%20of%20AIDS%2Drelated,well%20and%20was%20since%20halved.

Resources

Struggling with coming to terms with your sexuality or gender identity? There are lots of resources out there to help – here are some that you may find useful (UK & elsewhere).

https://www.bipride.org

https://www.stonewall.org.uk/

https://www.glaad.org/resourcelist

https://mindout.org.uk/resources/

https://www.lgbthealth.org.uk/online-resources/

https://lgbt.foundation/

https://www.thebeyouproject.co.uk

And, if you can spare a £ or two for these amazing organisations, I’m sure they would be incredibly grateful.

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