I love TV! I feel guilty for saying it, but it's true. Growing up, I reckon I probably learned more from watching telly than I ever did in a classroom.
When I was eight years old, I thought I could qualify as a vet simply by committing to memory all the knowledge I gleaned from nature programmes like Survival and Animal Magic. As a gay teenager growing up in 1980s Northern Ireland, I certainly gained a better understanding of sex and sexuality from Channel 4 than the meagre homophobic offerings from our biology classroom.
So why do I feel guilty even a bit ashamed for declaring my love of the telly? Is it because it's too lowbrow and reveals my working class upbringing? Isn't it better to talk about books and plays and classical music, to have been shaped by works of art and visits to museums? For me, those cultural artefacts came much later in life and novels, Shakespeare, art and music are regular features of my life now. But my first love has remained and so I'm going to write more about this stuff I'm watching and why I love it.
It hasn't been long since the death was announced of the African-American actor Michael K. Williams, at the age of 54. His portrayal of Omar Little in The Wire was incredible on a number of levels. It was the first time I had ever seen a black gay character portrayed on TV who wasn't either in denial or deeply closeted. Omar was a black gay hero, completely atypical of previous portrayals of LGBT plus folk on telly. He was victimised, but never a victim. He was a complex, powerful, intelligent, sensitive gang leader with a strong moral compass. Omar has been described as a ‘possibility model’ for queer black kids and I hope that is true. But I think he spoke to a much wider constituency, delivering a message of empowerment in the most horrendous of circumstances.
The portrayal of the lives of LGBTQ+ people on television is still a bit of a mixed bag. Over the last few months of lockdown, I've been watching a lot of television. Three series in particular have caught my attention because of their depictions of gay love, sex, and relationships.
It's A Sin premiered on Channel 4 before Christmas. Like everything that Russell T Davis puts his hand to, it is pure gold. Set in the early 80s in the midst of the growing AIDS/HIV crisis, Section 28 and Thatcherite economics, it tells the story of a small group of young gay men and their friends, allies and families. For those of us who came of age in those years, it didn’t make for easy viewing, sometimes reviving memories of traumatic episodes of homophobia, self loathing and active persecution, meted out to LGBTQ+ individuals at the time. I remember hearing from someone who was a young nurse at this time being told by the Sister in charge of the ward that she didn't have to treat ‘those people’ (patients with HIV or AIDS) if she didn't want to. When faced with that kind of hatred, delivered in a million microaggressions, it's almost impossible to keep it from seeping into your soul. To seek to love when all around you calls it a perversion or sinful or disgusting is a constant internal battle against the demons of internalised homophobia, and victory is never assured. Watching It’s A Sin reminded me of how far things had come in my adult lifetime, but also revealed the hidden scars that many of us carry from those very dark days. For all these reasons, I cannot recommend this programme highly enough.
It's A Sin is a stark contrast to the other two series I've watched recently: Schitt’s Creek and How To Get Away With Murder. These are not even the same genre of shows, with one a comedy and the other a complex, if fanciful, drama. But what connects them for me is the really positive way that gay relationships are portrayed. Rather than depict gay male love as either desperate or destructive, each series shows gay men trying and succeeding in building loving relationships. Dan Levy, the co-creator of Schitt’s Creek, said he wrote it as if homophobia wasn't a thing. For that reason, it is both beautiful and visionary and, of course, fictional. In both series, I love the honesty revealed in each relationship and how the brokenness of the characters doesn't deprive them of the opportunity for love. Not so much an antidote to It's A Sin, but a helpful and hopeful counterpoint.
Both series deal with brokenness, loss and healing. Transformation, in very different ways, lies at the heart of both, and make them compulsive viewing. Schitt’s Creek in particular is memorable for its bon mots and life hacks; I leave you with two.:
“You know, being approachable isn't that important anyway. The Queen hasn't smiled since the 70s and her birthdays are still very well attended.” David Rose
“If aeroplane safety videos have taught me anything, David, it's that a mother puts her own mask on first.” Moira Rose