The History of Pride and LGBT+ Representation

Lucy HoyleBy Lucy Hoyle16th June 202014 Minutes

We interviewed Dr Sebastian Buckle, an author and historian of homosexuality who regularly tweets about politics, culture and LGBT+ issues. Here’s his take on Pride Month, on-screen representation and why TV will always trump TikTok.

What interests you about the history of homosexuality as an academic discipline? How did you get into this area of work/research?

When I started reading about gay history I was really interested in the way historians approached the subject. While some were keen to re-examine the past and place homosexuality back into it (as had been done for gender, ethnicity, etc.), for the most part historians of homosexuality argued instead that this was not possible. Since women had existed throughout history, their absence from the history books was a challenge that could be addressed, but what we mean when we talk about homosexuality in a modern context just did not exist before the nineteenth century.

As someone who grew up in the 1990s, and always knew I was gay, I found the idea that society had not defined people by their sexuality, or even defined sexuality, fascinating. Growing up with these ideas of what it meant to be gay seemed to me to be a permanent feature of life – at least in Britain – so when I realised that it hadn’t always been that way, I wanted to understand where these modern ideas had come from.

 

What does Pride Month mean for the LGBT+ community? How can everyone get involved?

I find that most years see the usual debate between those who don’t think pride is important anymore and those who still value it. For those who value it, there are further divisions between people who think it has become too commercialised and those who enjoy the opportunity to be part of the mainstream.

Either way, this battle between apparent assimilation (changing your behaviour to fit in) and integration (society accepting your difference) has been at the heart of the gay rights movement for more than half a century. Like most things, the answer lies somewhere in the middle, and really highlights the diversity within the gay community. While some want to get married and adopt children, others want to live in open or polyamorous relationships; neither is wrong, and accepting that difference is key.

Pride is a great opportunity to remind the world that gay people exist in a myriad of different forms. Maybe you can become involved in a network at work (as an LGBT person or an ally), or learn more about gay history (LGBT history month has hundreds of events up and down the country where you can do that), or just turn up to show your support. History tells us that nothing should ever be taken for granted, and maintaining hard won rights is just as important as fighting for them in the first place.

 

In Homosexuality on the Small Screen, you explore the interactions between television, as a medium for the representation of homosexuality, and the reality of gay lives in Britain. How realistic was the on-screen treatment of homosexuality in the 20th century? Has it evolved since?

In Homosexuality on the Small Screen I argued that in presenting homosexuality on screen, television both examined homosexual identity and also contributed to its construction. And unlike the early sexologists of the nineteenth century who did the same when they wrote books on homosexuality that were used by men and women in constructing their homosexual identity, television’s ubiquity meant that it was something available to anyone who happened to be watching at the time.

Unfortunately, early television usually presented homosexuality as a disorder, leading to isolated, depressing lives. Often sexuality and gender were confused, and many programmes portrayed gay men and women as sinister characters. Even when they were more realistic, they inevitably showcased the difficult and sometimes criminalised reality of life for gay men and women.

But there were exceptions – The Naked Civil Servant is the most obvious early example as well as the documentary series This Week on ITV. As television evolved, so did these representations, leading to what I consider to be a watershed moment – the arrival of Queer as Folk in 1999 – when gay men were presented as their full, unapologetic selves. There was no turning back.

 

Do films and TV shows still have political potential, or is their influence drowned out by social media?

I wrote Homosexuality on the Small Screen because I love watching television and film! For me, there is no comparison to the reach of a well-made story versus a TikTok video. The celebration (and blacklash) from Disney fans after the inclusion of some gay characters in their television programmes shows the continued power of the medium to confront homophobia.

And the regular representation of LGBT+ people in soaps still plays a vital role in maintaining the visibility of gay people to those who would not otherwise see gay life on television or in person. And for anyone who watches RuPaul’s Drag Race, they will know the power of one show in influencing an entire generation of drag fans across the world!

 

Which five key moments in LGBT history do you think every student should know about?

  1. Speaking from a UK perspective, everyone should know how the battle for law reform was won in 1967, as well as the limitations of the Sexual Offences Act – it only applied to England and Wales, it did not include any man working in the armed forces or the merchant navy, it only applied to men over the age of 21, and only in private, with no more than two people present.
  2. They should understand why Section 28 was introduced and the damage it did – primarily in schools. The insidious argument that sexuality could be taught and the clear associations with paedophilia were deeply damaging and long-lasting.
  3. Everyone should be aware of the British Empire’s role in exporting anti-gay laws to Africa and Asia. Before the British came along and decimated these cultures, there were no stringent rules against homosexuality. Now Africa often has the worst record for LGBT discrimination, which many there assume to be an integral part of the African psyche. It’s not, it’s another horrible British export.
  4. HIV/AIDS should never be forgotten. The lost lives, loves, and culture were a huge blow to a gradually emerging gay community. People need to understand what was lost, and also remember how gay people were blamed for the disease, and treated like second-class citizens because of it. They also need to learn about the resilience of the community in organising itself, fighting for access to medical treatment, caring for each other, and memorialising those lost.
  5. But they should also learn the positive story. How law reform was won, how same-sex attraction has always existed, and how far we have come as a society. It’s frowned upon in academia to talk about a positive trajectory in history, but for now at least we have arrived at a much better place for LGBT+ people. And Pride Month is exactly the opportunity to celebrate that.

 

Sebastian’s books, The Way Out and Homosexuality on the Small Screen, can be found on Perlego.

Follow him on twitter for more updates.