When I look back to my childhood years, I picture a barren wasteland of LGBTQ+ visibility. A tumbleweed of queers, if you will.
There were no LGBTQ+ characters in the kids’ shows I watched, and while I had a vague understanding that Graham Norton and George Michael were gay, I didn’t know of any gay women.
So when I heard that a same-sex kiss between two teenage girls aired on CBBC last month, it made me wish that I could have been afforded this kind of representation when I was growing up
The kiss in question appeared on an episode of The Next Step, a Canadian teen drama about a competitive dance studio. As two of the main characters, friends Jude and Cleo, perform a duet together, their exchanged looks become increasingly romantic.
After the performance ends, they embrace one another and kiss – passionately, yes, but it only lasts a few seconds. I don’t see it as any different, in the way that it is presented, to how you might see other teenage kisses on young adult shows.
But not everyone seems to agree. The BBC has received over 100 letters of complaint about the episode, leading them to issue a statement in response.
‘This is an important part of our mission to make sure that every child feels like they belong, that they are safe, and that they can be who they want to be.’ They added that they believe the kiss was ‘handled with sensitivity’ and was ‘appropriate for the audience’s age’.
What many of these concerned and outraged letter writers missed was the fact that CBBC actually aired their first same-sex kiss way back in 1994, when Noddy kissed another male character, Gary, on the cheek in the teen drama Byker Grove. According to Brett Adams, who played Noddy, the backlash at the time was extremely negative.
The fact that the BBC received so many complaints this time around proves exactly why the kiss on The Next Step was necessary: LGBTQ+ people today might have more rights on paper, but since 1994, LGBTQ+ acceptance in this country has not improved as much as we think.
In the UK, a lot of people support the idea of ‘LGBTQ+ equality’ but only to an extent. A 2012 Ipsos MORI poll found that while 73 per cent of the British public support same-sex marriage, only 60 per cent are in favour of primary schools teaching kids that there are different types of families.
Many people are also not comfortable with actually seeing same-sex displays of affection. I’ve heard this sentiment from my own family: one relative, who has always been supportive of my sexuality, told me that she wouldn’t want to watch the film Call Me By Your Name because two gay men kiss in it.
Likewise, I’ve had people who ostensibly have no problem with my sexuality express that they still wouldn’t want their own family member to be gay.
I was hurt but not surprised by these instances – queer people know well that some would prefer our acts of affection to be kept private. It’s why a 2018 study found that two-thirds of the LGBTQ+ community feels uncomfortable holding hands with a partner in public.
If we are living in a world where people are outraged by same-sex kisses on television and where the LGBTQ+ community don’t feel safe putting their love on display, then we desperately need to do more to normalise same-sex relationships for future generations.
Partly, this will come from 2019 government guidance that primary schools must teach about relationships and different family set-ups – including those with LGBTQ+ parents – as part of the curriculum. It will come into force in the UK from September this year and will hopefully affirm to LGBTQ+ children that their existence is valid, and reduce the bullying they face.
But it must also come from having queer characters, storylines and kisses in kids’ TV shows, books, and films.
This is already starting to happen more regularly. In 2017, the Disney Channel introduced their first LGBTQ+ storyline in a show called Andi Mack. In 2019, the famous kids’ cartoon Arthur featured a gay wedding.
In its statement about The Next Step, the BBC also highlighted the many kids shows on CBBC that are improving visibility: ‘Same-sex relationships have already featured in other CBBC shows such as Jamie Johnson, 4 O’Clock Club, Dixie and Marrying Mum and Dad.’
Kids’ TV is catching up with the diverse world we are living in, but we still need more representation.
The scarcity of visible queer women during my childhood in the late 90s and early 2000s led me to believe that being one wasn’t very common, or in other words, ‘normal’. A hard pill to swallow when you’re also realising that you might be queer yourself.
To have seen not only young queer women, but young queer women portrayed positively, would have been a gamechanger. It might have helped me come out sooner, and helped me to feel less alone. It certainly would have taken away a lot of feelings of shame.
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