The theme for this LGBT+ History month is ‘behind the lens’, a theme which aims to celebrate LGBT+ storytelling in TV and Film as well as celebrating queer people who work in the industry. Network members have shared their stories of how seeing representations of LGBT+ people in TV and Film affected them.
A beautiful thing.
When I was growing up in the late 90’s in Northern Ireland, being LGBT+ wasn’t something talked about in families or even positively at all, there was very little visibility and hardly any positive representations of LGBT+ people or families in mainstream media, EastEnders had their ‘first gay kiss’ but my Dad had banned EastEnders in our house, so I never got to see it. The only time I ever heard the word ‘gay’ used was as an insult in school. The only time I heard people talk about ‘homosexuals’ was the seemingly endless procession of society’s leaders queuing up to denounce and berate the community, calling us deviants and perverts. The newspapers were filled with hateful headlines such as, “Britain threatened by gay virus plague”, “My doomed son’s gay plague agony” and “AIDS is the wrath of God”. There was a moral panic that seemed to surround anything there was to do with queer people, at the time being gay was grounds to be sacked or refused employment, we couldn’t get married, the age of consent was unequal, everything about us was unequal. It was not ok to be gay. I knew I was gay, I felt different, acted different and I had fallen in love with another boy, albeit unrequited. I was so afraid and isolated at that time. There was no visible LGBT+ role models, no youth groups for us, no one like me I could turn to or talk to, at 15 years old it felt like I was the only person like me in Northern Ireland.
NI was changing at the time, it felt like change was constantly all around us, after decades of conflict, the prospect of real peace and societal change was on the horizon. For people of my generation born in the early 80’s, it finally felt like the future was full of possibilities, positive change and peace. Maybe there could be change for us queer people too, I hoped. Maybe we would be allowed to exist as equals, in the new society that was being created around us. The present looked bleak but hope for better existed.
In the midst of all this and what I was feeling I saw a group of LGBT+ activists appear time and time again in the papers my Dad read and in the news on TV. They were called Outrage and were led by Peter Tatchell. I was able to find a phone number for their London office using directory enquiries, (remember that?) the internet was around but it was difficult to access and information was so limited. I called Outrage from a phone box on the main road near my home, terrified what would happen if anyone knew who I was ringing. I got through to a very kind and well-spoken Scottish man called David Allison, I was shaking and crying talking to him, telling him that I was gay and terrified to tell anyone, he was the first person I had said those words out loud to. David talked to me till my 10p coins ran out then he called me back to the phone box so we could keep talking. We spoke many times since then for the best part of a year. He was my lifeline and support, a voice in the dark that told me I was ok to be me. David connected me with the LGBT+ community in Belfast and sent me a video tape (remember those?) in the post of a film he wanted me to see.
The film he sent me was called ‘Beautiful Thing’, I watched it in secret one night when my parents went out. It was a revelation to me. It was the first time I saw a story about people like me framed in any sort of positive light. The story is set in a working class estate in east London, it follows two teenage boys Jamie and Ste, who meet at school and fall in love, it tells the story of how they eventually find community and acceptance from one of the boy’s parents by the end of the film. The story is sweet, probably a bit tame and prosaic by today’s standards. There’s no dramatic twists, salacious moments or sensational elements, it’s just a simple story of two young men falling in love and the people around them. The characters around them are arguably more interesting that the two central characters, as it’s them that add the drama and tension to the story. The colourful characters surrounding the two boys show how ordinary the love between Jamie and Ste was. The film makes the case that Gay love was the same as any other love and it too could be a beautiful thing. This was the main message I took away from the film. This was in stark contrast to the messaging and moral panic around gay people at the time. That negativity had made me feel like a freak, who wasn’t worthy or capable of love. Seeing this representation, this nice wee story of two young men falling in love, shattered that negative perception which society had given me. Seeing this story, empowered me and let me know that love was meant for queer people too, that we weren’t all doomed to die alone, miserable & in agony. That our stories and our lives mattered. We have community, we have each other, we have love, just like everyone else. This seems obvious now but back then it wasn’t so apparent, nowadays the stories of the queer experience are all around us, nearly every show on TV has a queer character (or several). Shows like Queer as folk, Heart stopper and Sex education have empowered this current generation to be themselves. This is a good thing but it wasn’t always like this, seeing representation of queer people and our love in the 1980’s and 90’s was a rare thing. I’m glad it’s not anymore. I’m really glad our stories are out there for everyone to see.
Seeing ‘Beautiful Thing’, this piece of representation at such a pivotal and sensitive moment of my life and the support I got from David had a dramatic effect on me. I didn’t feel afraid of being alone anymore, because I knew I wasn’t. I was a part of something, I had community and in that community there was love. This is why representation matters, seeing ourselves reflected in the stories around us, lets us know that we are not alone, and that we are heard and understood. No one should grow up feeling isolated because they’re different, we as queer people need to keep telling our stories, so that those young people coming up now don’t feel the isolation and fear I did when I was a teenager. Our stories are part of building a better future for all of us and that is a beautiful thing.
I tried to reach out to David, to let him know I was writing this, to tell him how he had helped me accept who I was and the impact he had on me as a young man. Sadly I found out that he passed away just last year. This is a timely reminder that we don’t have all the time we think we have, if someone had a big impact on you or helped you at a difficult time. Tell them, let them know how much they mean to you and that you appreciate them, before that time runs out.
Beautiful thing is not available on any of the current streaming platforms although all4 and Amazon Prime video do have it listed. It is available on DVD (remember those?) on Amazon and is well worth a watch. When Paul isn’t dancing or doing DIY, he’s a Trainer at the Northern Ireland Police College, communications lead for the National LGBT+ Police Network and Co-Chair of the PSNI LGBT+ Network. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org