Queer TV 2007

The Queer Year in Review: LGBT Storylines on British Television – 2007 and the Presence – and Conspicuous Absence – of Bisexual Characters

With a higher than average number of offerings from both sides of the pond this year, I’d like to just take a quick look back at what there has been to shout about on our TV screens. This won’t be a comprehensive list – I’m only basing this on my own television-viewing experience, and while I do watch an awful lot of television, I stay as far away as possible from reality shows, talk shows, and the like. So while I acknowledge a queer presence in Any Dream Will Do, with John Barrowman, of Torchwood fame, as one of the judges, and in That Antony Cotton Show, starring, of course, Antony Cotton of Queer as Folk and Coronation Street fame, I shall not include them here. I shall confine my discussion to fictional storylines on popular (and perhaps not-so-popular) television programmes.

Just a quick explanation – I will be using the American terminology of season and series because I find them more specific and descriptive than the corresponding British terminology of series to mean both. As an American myself, I just can’t get used to the very confusing British use of series to mean both the specific season of the programme’s run and the programme as a whole, so my apologies for not sticking to the British conventions here. So without further ado, let’s begin.

It wouldn’t be a comprehensive queer listing, of course, if we didn’t mention Torchwood and its lead character, Captain Jack Harkness. The first season of Torchwood officially ended on New Year’s Day, with the episodes titled ‘Captain Jack Harkness’ and ‘End of Days’ showing rather a lot of male-on-male action from Captain Jack himself. And, as we all know, the series as a whole tends to blur the lines of sexuality to the point of removing categories from the mix altogether. Yay Torchwood.

Jack appeared yet again towards the end of season four of Doctor Who, helping the Doctor and Martha to battle and defeat the Master in the episodes ‘Utopia’, ‘The Sound of Drums’, and ‘The Last of the Time Lords’. Alas, no parting kiss for the Doctor and Jack this time around.

But there was plenty else to shout about with teen soap opera, Hollyoaks. This year was a veritable whirlwind of queerness on that show. First, I shall examine the lesser of the two storylines. Bisexual, cross-dressing character, Kris, came out to his homophobic brother, Malachy, in late March when Malachy came for a visit and accidentally happened upon Kris kissing his then-boyfriend, Nathan. Fast forward to November when Malachy reappears to do a construction job in the village. The two butt heads again over Malachy’s rejection of Kris’s sexuality. Malachy does NOT like having a cross-dressing, bisexual brother.

Another Hollyoaks mainstay, Jake Dean, Malachy’s newest pal, also has a bisexual brother, as it turns out, though that particular character, Craig Dean, never explicitly said as much. In fact, the only two times the word bisexual was even mentioned were on Craig’s final episode, at the airport on his way to university in Dublin, when Jake asked him whether he was bisexual and Craig’s response was “No. … (dramatic pause) … I don’t know,” and in an episode about a month later when Craig’s ex-girlfriend, Sarah, tells new pal, Summer, that her last boyfriend “turned out to be gay … well, bisexual anyway.” This storyline dominated most of 2007 on Hollyoaks and was, in fact, the most popular storyline the soap has ever had. In late January, Craig’s best friend, John-Paul McQueen, revealed to Craig that he was in love with him. This threw Craig for a loop, and he was confused, and a little angry, but by the beginning of February, come time for the school dance, a very drunk Craig grabbed a slightly less drunk John-Paul by the collar and said, “remember this – I love you, I love you, I love you”, kissed him, and then backed away in a sort of “what the f**k” moment. When they returned to the dance and their girlfriends, unbeknownst to them, John-Paul’s girlfriend, Hannah, had witnessed the kiss. She, of course, blabbed to the whole class, and by the next day, the secret was out. In the days that followed, John-Paul came out and Craig emphatically denied being gay. The boys were estranged for a month or so as Craig got back together with Sarah, John-Paul found a new boyfriend in Spike, and Hannah became obsessed with John-Paul, refusing to accept that he was gay. But when the boys made up and became friendly again, Hannah wasn’t the only one who was jealous of Spike. Craig found that he couldn’t stand seeing the two of them together. The first time he saw John-Paul and Spike kissing, Hannah ran away in tears, Sarah went running after her, but Craig stayed and stared at them, fixated on the sight of John-Paul kissing another man. Over the following weeks, he struggled with his jealousy until, in late May, he walked out on one of his A-level exams and ended up at John-Paul’s door. All the feelings he’d been having came gushing out as he asked John-Paul if he still loved him, kissed him, and even slept with him, which he immediately regretted. In the ensuing weeks, Craig comes to terms with his feelings for John-Paul, they sleep together again, and again, and again. John-Paul splits with Spike, and Craig avoids splitting with Sarah. He insists that he isn’t gay, but he equally admits that he’s in love with another man. Even when Sarah finds Craig in bed with John-Paul at their engagement party and Craig actually chooses John-Paul over Sarah, he still denies being gay. John-Paul is set to go to Dublin with him, but when Craig’s homophobic brother Jake turns up at the airport to apologise and say goodbye and Craig yet again denies being gay, and when Jake asks if he’s bisexual, says only that he doesn’t know, John-Paul can’t take it any more. He doesn’t want to be with a boyfriend who won’t even touch him in public, so he stays in Hollyoaks, leaving Craig to head to Dublin on his own. The later assumption by Craig’s ex-girlfriend, Sarah, is that Craig is bisexual, and Jake prefers to think that Craig is now “back to normal”. And John-Paul is single once more.

But that’s not all we’ve got in the way of queerness in Hollyoaks. The newest character, who just debuted this week on the show is Myra McQueen’s long-lost son, Niall, whom her mother forced her to give up for adoption when she was 14 years old. Niall comes to Hollyoaks as the new hairdresser at Evissa, and is ambiguous about his sexuality from the start, telling a group of gushing women that he has neither a girlfriend nor a boyfriend, and later implying to his new boss, Warren, that he is gay, which may or may not be the case. He could be gay, he could be straight, and he could well be bisexual. But the writers intend to keep us guessing on that for a while more yet.

Other British soap operas featuring gay characters (always male) include Coronation Street, with Sean Tully and the assorted men in his life – the most recent storyline for him being that of fathering a child with gal-pal Violet, as well as transgendered character, Hayley Cropper, dealing with her marital issues and the discovery of a long lost son she had fathered before her gender reassignment surgery and her son’s rejection of her when he finds out she’s his father.

And then there is also Emmerdale, which recently had a same-sex union. I am not a loyal viewer of either of Coronation Street or Emmerdale, however, so please forgive my short synopsis of these two in comparison to the veritable novel I’ve written about Hollyoaks.

Another surprise offering was the BBC One programme, Jekyll, which featured Meera Syal and Fenella Woolgar as private investigators hired to investigate Jackman/Jekyll, and who also happened to be a couple – indeed, Woolgar’s character, Min, was pregnant with their first child. This is one of the exceedingly rare examples of a female couple to grace our screens this year.

The offerings from the other side of the pond have been no less male-centric, with only The L Word featuring regular lesbian and bisexual female characters, as well as having one of only three transgendered characters on this list, and the only one who is female to male rather than male to female. To be sure, The L Word is always a delight to watch for its all-star cast as well as its treatment of queer women’s lives in a thoughtful and thorough way. And it’s the closest to my own experiences with queer women that I’ve ever seen on television.

Then we’ve got the hit US drama, Brothers and Sisters, with one gay brother, Kevin, his gay ex-boyfriend Scotty, his bisexual ex-boyfriend Chad, and his sister’s fiancé’s gay brother Jason. And at the end of the first season finale, we also learned that Kevin’s Uncle Saul had once had a relationship with a man and is bisexual as well. Hey, two whole bisexuals. That’s more than most shows have, Hollyoaks and Torchwood excepted.

Another queer favorite out of the US is Ugly Betty, a witty but sweet comedy-drama centred around the life of a fashion magazine’s assistant, Betty. Betty’s not queer but her near-adolescent nephew most likely is. So is one of her co-workers, Marc, and his boyfriend, Cliff, and her boss’s sister is a male-to-female transsexual played by supermodel Rebecca Romijn.

A surprise showing of queer characters also appears in the new US sitcom from the makers of Friends, called The Class. This show features two confirmed gay characters and one character of ambiguous sexuality played by an openly gay actor. The two confirmed gay characters are a couple – Kyle and Aaron, and the character of ambiguous sexuality is Perry, the husband of Kyle’s high school girlfriend, Holly. Kyle and Holly broke up when Holly found Kyle in bed with another guy on prom night. Now married to Perry, who has a definite crush on Kyle’s partner, Aaron, it seems there may be a pattern. But is Perry gay or bisexual? He and Holly do, after all, have a daughter together.

And on another show out of the US, Men in Trees, starring Ellen’s ex, Anne Heche, there is a gay hair dresser (trés cliché) who has appeared in only one episode so far, and IMDb.com reveals that another gay character will be brought into the show soon – the son and half-brother of two main characters on the show, but not, as far as I know, a series regular. Not the queerest show on earth, but it does have queer characters nonetheless and so is worthy of a mention.

Another show worth mentioning is Gray’s Anatomy, which has had a major cast change this year largely due to actor Isaiah Washington’s homophobic comments about gay co-star T. R. Knight, which also, of course, resulted in the high profile outing of Knight. His character on the show, George O’Malley, is heterosexual and is doing a precarious balancing act between two different female love interests. But there is a gay male couple on the show in the form of bartender, Joe, and his partner, Walter. The end of the most recent season to air in the UK has shown Joe and Walter supporting a pregnant girl who is planning to give up her baby for adoption – Joe and Walter are one of the families she is considering, and the other is an infertile heterosexual couple. Turns out she’s having twins, so there’s always the chance that the guys will soon become parents.

Finally, I expected a good helping of gay and bisexual leads on another new show brought to us from Canada, Blood Ties, because I’ve read the books upon which the series is based and they are most definitely more queer than the television series. Written by queer Canadian author Tanya Huff, the ‘Blood’ series of books has four main characters – main character ex-cop turned private investigator, Vicky Nelson, her ex-partner Detective Mike Cellucci, bisexual vampire Henry Fitzroy, bastard son of Henry VIII, and a gay former-street-kid and part-time lover of Henry, Tony Foster. The television series has managed to completely de-queer itself. Tony is non-existent, and Henry is only ever shown with beautiful, sexy women. Mind you, that’s not the only change – in the books there is a very definite love triangle between Vicky, Mike, and Henry, and she is clearly sleeping with both of them. In the television show, the two men are jealous of each other, but Vicky is definitely not sleeping with either of them, and has barely even kissed either of them in the 16 episodes that have aired so far. I really expected better of Canadian television! Especially considering that Huff’s novels always portray homosexuality and bisexuality as perfectly on par with heterosexuality, and while her ‘Blood’ series and its spin-off, the ‘Smoke’ series, are set in modern-day Canada and thus use terminology to more explicitly define the sexual orientation of their characters, most of her novels are thoroughly populated by characters whose choices of whom to bed and whom to love are completely independent of gender, without ever actually defining that sexuality as bisexual or otherwise. Her books far surpass the television series based upon them. Alas, Canada seems to be pandering to American conservatism in cleansing this programme of queer content, and, indeed, sexuality in general.

While I’m certain there must certainly have been other shows with other queer characters out there this past year, they are undoubtedly ones that are not on my radar. But I hope this has highlighted some of the gains – and losses – in terms of LGBT characters on offer on British television today. There are, undoubtedly, more bisexual and transgendered characters than has been the case in the past, while lesbians have been more of an afterthought than anything else everywhere except for on The L Word. However, the majority of queer characters on our television screen this past year have overwhelmingly been white gay men. Most of the bisexual characters have been white men as well. Only on Ugly Betty, The Class, Grey’s Anatomy, and The L Word have any of the queer characters highlighted above belonged to minority ethnicities, with Hispanic queer characters appearing on all but Grey’s Anatomy, which had the only Asian queer character of the lot, and The L Word also having queer African-American characters, as well as being the only show to include a queer character with a disability – the deaf character, Jodi, played by deaf actress Marlee Matlin. The gay son who will soon appear on Men in Trees is also African-American, but he is not yet on the scene. There’s still quite a way to go, to be sure, before LGBT characters are proportionally represented in terms of sexual orientation, gender identity, minority ethnicities, and disabilities, but the face of queer television is changing slowly but surely. Maybe by this time next year, there will be even more queer faces to count, and even more bisexual and transgendered characters as well. We can hope, anyway!