Cultural history is often reliant on the expressive industries to tell the story.
By Grace Toovey: Culture Columnist
This January, Channel 4 kicked off a year of telly with the highly anticipated release of Russel T Davies’ new drama, ‘It’s a Sin’ which explores the harsh realities of the AIDS epidemic which devastated gay communities from the 1980s.
Davies is renowned for his spectacular, direct story-stelling which brought to our screens ground-breaking shows such as Queer as Folk and Years and Years but It’s a Sin is particularly hard-hitting. In amongst Davies’ catalogue of LGBT+ storylines, this is the first that tackles the horrors of AIDs head on.
Upon the show’s release, conversation was sparked in relation to AIDs and how much of this tragedy that tore apart an entire community, took the lives of a generation of gay men, is still largely unknown. Social media saw an outburst of stories from the people who were there, sharing their experiences of devastating loss, isolation and stigma. This begs the question: why are these stories still so widely uncovered?
In reference to his own experiences, Davies says that he only chose to tell these stories now – stories that run through the very core of LGBT history – because when the tragedy was all around him he “stayed busy, looking away” because the reality was too much to face. So much was the stigma around this so-called “gay disease” that families fabricated the causes of their sons’ deaths, funerals were largely unattended, and undertakers refused to handle the bodies.
So, it is understandable that these stories are too difficult to tell. In Davies’ 2015 release, Cucumber – which follows the life of a middle-aged gay man – the main character alludes to the endurance of this shame by making reference to the “icebergs” seen in a 40 second AIDs awareness campaign.
Even these public health campaigns were met with scorn and Margaret Thatcher criticised the adverts by claiming that warning people about safe sex practices would make them more likely to engage in such acts. This opinion is difficult to attribute logic to but it was only one example of Thatcher’s government’s attempts to suppress LGBT+ voices and limit public knowledge of LGBT+ history. And here we encounter a particularly sinister explanation for lacking awareness in Britain.
This suppression of LGBT voices became insurmountable with the introduction of Section 28 of the Local Governments Act in 1989. This section imposed a ban on the “promotion” of homosexuality, nor could schools address homosexuality as a “pretended family relationship”. So, it became ratified in law that, unless intended to prevent the spread of disease, homosexuality was not to be discussed. This resulted in a generation of young people who would never learn the history of the LGBT+ community.
This left very few ways in which these stories could be shared outside of the community itself which is often a very “adult” community which operates in places young people can’t access. So where do young people turn to explore their own identities? Well, if they were perhaps lucky, young gay men and women could access LGBT publications but these were curbed by Mary Whitehouse in the 1970s via the Obscene Publications Act of 1959. Even when section 28 was repealed in 2003, it took a long time for significant change to occur.
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One way in which LGBT stories are and have long been accessible would be through music. The 80s saw a surge in the numbers of charting singles exploring gay narratives. For example, The Communards with their release “For a Friend” which was written in memory of activist Mark Ashton (brought to the world’s attention through the film “Pride”) who died of AIDs. Through songs such as this, people’s stories have been told and this is just one way in which popular media has helped to keep LGBT+ history in people’s minds.
Another cultural milestone brought by Davies was the 1999 hit, ‘Queer as Folk’ which took to Channel 4, yet another example of how the broadcaster has taken LGBT storylines into its stride. While the series received a mixed reception at the time of its release due to very minimal mention of the AIDs crisis, it now serves as a historical relic for recent gay history in and of itself. With themes such as being closeted in the workplace, drug use amongst gay people, and the experiences of young gay people, the show offers a realistic depiction of urban gay life in the 90s.
While the significance of Queer as Folk is arguably yet to be matched, the exploration of LGBT history and culture does not stop there. With releases from My Beautiful Laundrette which provides a snapshot of the relationship between gay relationships and race from 1985, to episodes of EastEnders which aired the first gay kiss on television in 1987, media plays a continuous role in amplifying LGBT voices.
More recent retellings of LGBT+ history can be found through the 2014 film ‘Pride’ which shares the very real relationship between Lesbians and Gay men and striking minors. It is likely that this story would have remained widely unknown if not for this film. Even more recently, The Danish Girl tells the story of one of the first known recipients of gender reassignment surgery, Lili Elbe. This release was starkly contentious and was met with much scorn due to its heavy-handed management of a poignant story but at the very least, it placed the name of a previously forgotten trans woman into people’s mouths.
A starting point?
Even in 2021, the value of popular media to LGBT people is not to be scoffed at. Despite the introduction of LGBT issues into the school curriculum, this is entirely optional and has not been without debate. Protests were seen outside of a Birmingham primary school in 2019 where age-old cliches such as “it’s Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” were chanted for the nation to hear. Evidently, the classroom is yet to become a safe space for discussions of LGBT stories.
Popular media has a long way to go yet but It’s a Sin is a great place to start. LGBT history didn’t start in the 1980s, nor does is begin and end with gay men, but all progress, every single story matters just as much as the next. So, if the education system cannot accommodate the generations of LGBT people that have been and gone, the media must pick up the slack. The only question is, whose story will they tell next?