LGB on the BBC

One of the more interesting issues raised in the report published last week by the BBC on the portrayal of lesbians, gays and bisexuals across its various TV channels and radio stations was the importance of genre in determining an audience’s comfort level in relation to depictions of LGB people and behaviour.

For the “uncomfortable heterosexual people” who comprised 19% of the BBC’s national sample the portrayal of LGB people in any programmes intended for early to school-aged children was completely taboo.

Encountering someone who finds this surprising would be a surprise in itself. But this doesn’t make observations like, “Yes, you want to protect them, protect their innocence, don’t you?” any less depressing to read. This group may represent a minority of the population, but it has a loud and persistent voice.

So why does the view that it is inappropriate to include LGB content in children’s programmes endure?

Leaving aside the loons on the fringes of society who think that all gays are paedophiles, the answer is that, generally speaking, broadcast media treats LGB content in much the same way as the newsagent who puts Attitude Magazine on the top shelf next to the porn – as a fundamentally adult affair.

This doesn’t just mean post-watershed hanky-panky. Whether it’s a coming-out storyline or a news piece on adoption, LGB life as conveyed by the media is too often couched in terms of uncertainty, angst and controversy. It is depicted either as a move away from innocence or existing in a world defined by upheaval and impermanence. Children are at odds with this picture.

In his book A Writer’s Tale, Russell T Davies, creator of Queer as Folk and former executive producer of BBC television series Doctor Who, locates the root of homophobia in the power of imagery:

“The fundamental image of life, of family, of survival, is man and woman. Every story, every myth, every image reinforces that. Even the images of the real world reinforce that, because statistically heterosexuality is the norm. It’s the default. It’s the icon. Man/man or woman/woman disrupts a fundamental childhood image.”

This resonates with the BBC report, which makes the obvious but crucial point that the “visual potency” of television makes it by far the most influential media platform for shaping opinion, particularly on the portrayal of lesbian, gay and bisexual people.

Davies’s view that people get upset “when the pictures are played with” is evident in the distaste expressed by the report’s uncomfortable heterosexual contingent at the images of gays and lesbians with children contained in the clips DVD that accompanied the survey. Two mums? Eh? Where’s the dad then?

To combat this kind of homophobia, Davies argues, you must “stress visibility. Change the law, have education classes, do whatever you want, just be seen…. We have to become visible, especially to the young, as part of the norm, then the picture starts to develop and widen.”

During his time in charge of Doctor Who Davies was frequently accused of having a “gay agenda”. But, frankly, if including LGB characters is a conscious decision intended to draw attention to a section of society that has always existed but until fairly recently was entirely absent from our screens, it should be applauded. Certainly, Davies has never denied (or apologised for) this – and nor should he be expected to. And more often than not, those who complain about an “agenda” would rather see no LGB portrayal at all.

Developing the picture is something the BBC needs to do much better when it comes to children’s programming. For example, how many LGB characters are there on CBBC? And when did a Newsround item on, say, bullying in schools feature an interview with two concerned dads?

The latter kind of “incidental” coverage (to use the BBC’s own term), where the subject is not sexuality for its own sake, is essential to normalising the image. Being gay, lesbian or bisexual does not automatically mean having a crisis-ridden, unstable existence, and single-sex parenting is hardly a groundbreaking notion these days. And yes – to anticipate one well-rehearsed objection – LGB families may be a minority, but this is a long way from, “do not exist”. The opposite of “commonplace” is not “abnormal”.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that everything is roses and wine. Life is always complicated and there are still issues and injustices in need of redress that should be in the media spotlight. But to only show the difficult or turbulent side of LGB life runs the risk of simplifying and distorting the picture to the point at which it becomes more damaging than enlightening – a twenty-first century stereotype that, however well-intentioned, reinforces prejudices rather than dispelling them. This is particularly important when it comes to educating children, who use television as a way to interpret and evaluate the world around them. Schools can only do so much.

LGB people are not segregated from children in life and they should not be so on television by genre.The BBC has achieved a lot in recent years, but it still has much to do if it is to live up to its mission statement to reflect the reality and diverse inclusiveness of British society.

First published by openDemocracy