Despite an increase in on-screen representation and hits such as It’s a Sin and RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, being LGBTQ+ and working in television can still be difficult. It has been described as a “cloak-and-dagger” industry where most people work freelance and therefore are often afraid to speak up about incidents of homophobia or transphobia. The discrimination and harassment that LGBTQ+ people experience is often horribly insidious; dressed up as “banter” or dismissed as ignorance.
Here, seven anonymous LGBTQ+ people who work in television, in front of and behind the camera, share their experiences.
When I entered the industry, I was incredibly guarded about my sexuality. There were a few gay or bisexual men, but as a cisgender woman who identifies as queer or a lesbian, there’s a different skew on it. I don’t think I always felt safe or listened to.
I was working on a documentary about a brothel and the executive joked about whether they should be sending me in there to speak to these sex workers because I was a lesbian. That was really offensive, because it implied that, as a gay person, I was a predator. I found that really concerning.
I have also had experiences of working with talent who have often been outwardly homophobic, transphobic or racist. The company I was working for at the time didn’t get that, as an LGBTQ+ person, I didn’t want to be around them. But you don’t want to say no to a job, so it then feels really wrong having to drive this person around or get them a cup of tea.
I do think we are seeing a change in perspective at companies that are trying to be more inclusive, although they’re struggling to make headway, especially behind the camera. It’s all about optics: if they feel like the stories being told on screen are enough, they don’t put in the effort to diversify their crew or production staff.
Sometimes I sit in a writers’ room and think: “I’m here to tick a box.” It’s not ever explicit, but it’s a feeling I get. That said, I do feel I offer a different perspective and that I’m valued.
The thing that can be tricky is that people in television don’t trust audiences enough with queer stories. That means we’re often stuck telling the same stories over and over, mainly coming-out stories – and basic coming-out stories at that.
A few years ago, I pitched a story about a trans guy coming out to his brother as gay. It was quite a simple and sweet story. But the reaction from someone very high up, who was on a six-figure salary, was that she didn’t think audiences would find it believable. What I think she was saying was that she didn’t think audiences would be able to handle the idea of somebody being gay and trans.
I do think things are changing, though. There are more opportunities and people are more open to telling stories that aren’t straight. But you can feel competitive with your contemporaries because there are still so few seats at that table. Also, things like the hostile and transphobic environment alleged at the BBC do make me second-guess the projects and stories I’m pitching. I don’t think that’s a good place to start from creatively.
I came out only two years ago, but I feel like once you come out there is extra pressure in writers’ rooms to make sure you are challenging representation. I remember feeling really uncomfortable once when I had to explain the “bury your gays” trope to an older writer. I come across those tropes and try to challenge them when I can. I do that with race as well, because I often feel like I am the only minority in a writer’s room.
With my project now, my producers have all been really encouraging and pushed for the queer storylines. I feel like I’ve been heard. But other writers have struggled to get things off the ground. I have heard of writers trying to launch a UK version of The L Word, but only Russell T Davies ever manages to get that stuff through. I think producers see shows about queer women and lesbians as a risk.
I am hopeful for the future. Look at a show like Sex Education and what it’s doing in terms of representation. I feel like commissioners are really hot on the [age] 16-25 market at the moment, and those generations are more fluid and open. The output has to match your audience, so I feel like commissioners will start not to see things as risks.
I work in the kids and family space. I have seen times where we have skirted or actively avoided LGBTQ+ issues under the umbrella of keeping our brand safe and not wanting to have that conversation in kids’ content.
But the company I work for would now never cast a cisgender person in a trans role and we would never have a two-dimensionally written gay character. We also wouldn’t have a straight writer or a straight writer’s room working on a predominantly gay storyline.
The only thing that makes me despair is seeing what’s going on at the BBC. That makes me nervous for the wider UK landscape. If the culture there continues to be as toxic as many feel it is for LGBTQ+ people – and trans people, or non-binary people, are just the tip of the iceberg – there are a lot of people who are going to be concerned for what comes next. My concern would be that this treatment of trans people by the BBC could bleed out into wider industry.
While TV is one of the more inclusive industries I’ve worked in, in my experience, it has been dominated by white, gay, cis male voices. And so it appears inclusive on the outside, but actually, when you dig deep, we’re not looking at all the intersections.
We had someone non-binary on our show and a senior individual who is a white, gay cis man tried to engage me in a negative conversation about pronouns. So even with people of a certain age who belong to the LGBTQ+ community, there’s still a battle when it comes to intersectionality.
I think what happens with people like me – and I can see it happening in other marginalised communities – is that we shrink and camouflage ourselves in our personal and professional lives to fit in. Over time, that’s really damaging to our mental health. People are also afraid to speak up against negative comments made by senior execs because the freelance model means that you are essentially trying to protect your career and trying to get your next job.
Ultimately, what it comes down to is power and what people do with that power. I’d like to think that, if those of us going through negative experiences stick with this industry, hopefully we can turn the tide. Maybe, one day, there will be a controller of a channel who isn’t white. It’s only when we start seeing those changes at the very top that positive change will filter down.
I am definitely on people’s lists as the queer writer, so people just expect me to write that stuff, which I obviously do anyway. I have also had some experiences where I’ll be pitching shows and companies will be like: ‘Oh, we’ve already got our gay show.’
Until recently, it’s been about hiding the queerness as much as possible for actors. I was told at drama school that I sounded too gay and I was given one-on-one training to de-gay my voice, which is basically conversion “therapy”. So, I was coming into the industry being like: “OK, I need to hide this big part of myself.”
As much as people may want queer shows, they also don’t put their full weight behind them from the get-go. They ask you to do a lot more work before they will push them forward. It feels limiting, as a lot of mainstream shows just want a gay character. But, really, I’m more interested in queering the whole show – the form, structure and the characters. My intention is political, so I have to try to bring that in through the back door.
I had a job recently where the director wanted me and a scene partner to improvise on camera. It was a really loose brief and I was misgendered in the improvisation. In the improvisation, I ended up having an argument with the other character about my pronouns. It felt really uncomfortable.
When a new actor joined in, I said: “Oh, just to let you know, my pronouns are he/him.” I thought that would make things better for when I had to work with them. And then when we improvised together, he said to the initial character about me: ‘Oh, what? So you’re seeing someone who’s a he and a she now?’
I imploded. It was awful. But I just brushed it off. It was only after I left the situation that I felt I should have said something. So I ended up contacting the director to say: ‘Just to let you know, that little exchange will really harm your film.’ I know it wasn’t meant in a cruel way. It was an off-the-cuff thing in a comedy sequence. But I felt the effects of it for a week after. I just felt really crappy.
I have to be hopeful. We’re in the thick of it now and having to fight fires all the time, but I do think we’ll get there. I’m already seeing things like pronouns on call sheets. However, this particular call sheet, which I had very recently, had one person’s pronouns on, which were they/them. But why weren’t everybody’s pronouns there? I can see what they were trying to do, but they were outing that person as a special case.