How LGBTQ+ Pop Culture Shaped Me
I was very lucky to grow up in a household that wasn’t just accepting of LGBT people, but also celebrated LGBTQ+ pop culture and achievements. For me, being gay or trans was just a thing that some people were, including many of my parents’ friends. I grew up knowing the words to the Time Warp, even if I had never seen the musical (until I stole the DVD off the shelf and watched it when I was home alone at age 13). In fact, I clearly remember my dad joking that he hoped I would grow up to be a lesbian so I wouldn’t bring any boys home – if this was But I’m a Cheerleader, that would definitely be in consideration for my ‘root’.
Disclaimer: it is important to acknowledge that this list is by no means exhaustive, nor am I saying that these shows and films should be heralded as the ultimate representations of LGBT people, especially considering the definite oversaturation of cisgender, white, gay men. This is, rather, a list compiling many moments in pop culture which hold a lot of meaning for me personally.
The first time I saw two men kiss on TV was very likely in Doctor Who when I was four years old. I was brought up, in a very real sense, to love Doctor Who; I had the action figures and the toys, I went to multiple exhibitions over the UK, I read the books and the comics. I even had the soundtrack on my iPod Nano (featuring the iconic Scissor Sisters hit ‘I Can’t Decide’), and for my Y5 project I programmed a point and click Dr Who adventure game on my dad’s computer. In short, the show had quite the impact on me.
In 2005, it was rebooted under showrunner Russel T. Davis, best known for creating the seminal show Queer as Folk. The very first onscreen kiss of any kind in this new reboot was between Captain Jack Harkness and the Doctor himself, followed seconds later by a kiss between Jack and Rose. It’s important to note as well that RTD cemented both Jack and the Doctor as overtly bisexual from the first moment they were on screen together, flirting and joking about their past. While encounters like this are immeasurably important, the thing that really stuck out to me about the show was how Davis embedded LGBT characters into his writing; all writers inherently reflect the world around them in their works, and, as a gay person, he saw gay people as normal and everyday.
In particular, I remember the episode ‘Midnight’, which is often praised as one of the best episodes of the new seasons. It featured a character who had recently been broken up with, and when asked what happened she simply replies “Oh, the usual. She needed her own space,”. This character effectively comes out to the audience in this sentence in such a casual way, as if to say that being bi or a lesbian is completely ordinary, which, of course, it is.
“My sister and I during the peak of our Doctor Who obsession.”
As I grew older, I began to search out LGBTQ+ media and LBGTQ+ pop culture for myself. At the time I didn’t know why I cared more about movies if the leads were gay, or why I felt so odd when my dad would shout “Just kiss already!” at the screen when we watched Merlin on a Saturday night. I found myself regularly checking the LGBTQ+ tab on Netflix and watching movies on my own secret Channel 4 account so it wouldn’t show up in the recently watched on the family TV. This brought me to viewing many very sad films such as Get Real, Holding the Man, and Blue is the Warmest Colour.
Of course I loved these very much, but the big issue was that, despite the feeling of connectedness I had to these characters, I couldn’t relate to their stories. By the time the film Pride came to TV screens I was 14 and had figured out I wasn’t straight after a sleepover in which I naively asked “Do you have any girl crushes?”, to which my find replied “Like friend crushes?”, and I said “No, girls you would date if you were a boy… or if you were into girls.”. I was then kindly informed I may not be straight.
The characters in Pride experienced a joy and celebration, different from the vaguely paedophilic relationships in coming-of-age flicks like Blue is the Warmest colour and Stuart and Nathan in Queer as Folk, and the tear-jerking AIDS sufferers in Philadelphia and Dallas Buyers Club.
Pride was fun and silly with a powerful soundtrack and politics I could sink my teeth into, as any film focusing on LGBTQ+ characters will be inherently political because, whether we like it or not, our identities are inherently a political issue, at least for the time being. The characters felt love and trust and camaraderie, as the film focused on friendships both within the community and outside of it. In Pride, I was allowed to see gay people not just living, but thriving.
Moving back to TV, My Mad Fat Diary was possibly the first show I had ever seen in which I truly related to the protagonist. It didn’t matter that it was set in a different decade or that Rae was straight and we were in therapy for different reasons. What mattered was that she loved someone who she felt could never love her back because society couldn’t see them together. Rae was ashamed of herself and of her love because of who she was, there was no representation of her love in society so she didn’t believe it could be real. This is the reason that the friendship between Rae and Archie (the gay character she initially has a crush on) is so important.
According to LGBT+ organisation Just Like Us, young people who identify as LGBT are over twice as likely to experience mental health difficulties, so it makes sense that I would gravitate towards a character who is explicitly shown to have mental health difficulties (side note: this and LGBT Australian sitcom Please Like Me were also the first times I saw characters experience panic attacks like I did).
Another TV show which had a great impact on me, Adventure Time, started airing when I was in the later years of primary school. Of course, I didn’t have Cartoon Network, and it would be another three years before I figured out how to pirate media, so I can admit I was late to the party on this one.
For a while the relationship between Marceline and Princess Bubblegum was all about the implication of a lesbian song written by queer country singer Evil about a straight girl they had a crush on. Recently, the spinoff show Adventure Time: Distant Lands devoted an entire episode to their delightfully domestic relationship featuring multiple kisses and a love song which made me cry with thoughts of the many young people who have been given the opportunity to learn to love and accept themselves for who they are.
Finally, I want to end this list with an honourable mention. Buffy is my favourite show of all time, and the first one I ever binged after I got a TV in my room as a young teenager. The love between Willow and Tara (despite its faults), will always be one of the most passionate, caring, and heart-breaking relationships in visual media. I owe a lot of who I am as an adult to that show, and the anthem of love ‘Under Your Spell’ which I imagine dancing to at my wedding some day.