BBC’s Gay Britannia: A Step in the Right Direction (Part 1: Non-fiction)

16 mins read

by Stuart Graham & Amy Allard-Dunbar

This summer saw the BBC create a whole season of content revolving around the 50th anniversary of The Sexual Offenses Act, a political ruling that partially decriminalised male-male sexual acts and defined British queer culture for decades.

Taking on the name Gay Britannia, the season saw radio and television, both factual and fiction, examine exactly what it meant to be queer in the 1960s and how the landmark legislation affected the LGBT community.

1gay brit
Credit: BBC

A history lesson is most probably required before I take a metaphorical red pen to the hours of content I have laughed, sobbed and scoffed through over the last month.

In 1954 there was an investigation launched which looked into both homosexuality (here referring to only male-male homosexual acts) and prostitution. This investigation culminated in The Wolfenden Report being published in 1957. In a nutshell this report stated that acts such as “practising homosexuality” and prostitution that, although sinful, if committed within the privacy of the perpetrators’ homes should remain none of the law’s business.

Ten years later, after years of debate and knock-backs, the Sexual Offences Act was passed which permitted gay males to have sexual relations if, and only if, they were both over the age of 21 and they were behind closed doors in private property and only two participants were present at the time of the “sexual indecency”. The law change was significant but also still heavily restrictive and prejudiced. For example men serving in the armed forces still could not “practice homosexuality” without being arrested and dishonourably discharged.

It is also worth noting this law was only passed in England and Wales. Scotland was to wait another 13 years before it decriminalised any form of homosexuality.

Despite the Act being driven by the motivation to incarcerate less homosexual men, the number of arrests after the Act passed actually increased due to the police clampdown on practices like cottaging and all non-private, underage forms of practising homosexuality (if you are unfamiliar with the term cottaging, find a room alone in your house, open up yourself a little incognito tab, have a little Google and delicately peer through at the glory).

However, with all this happening there was never any discussion being had about acts of female-female homosexuality within the law.

Although this kept them out of prison, this lack of acknowledgement of their sexual practices was an underhanded way of society saying their sex wasn’t real or valid enough to be illegal in the first place, a public opinion that has strongly impacted the lesbian community for over a century.

Additionally, in 1967 the concept of being transgender wasn’t one many were aware of or understood, however due to this ignorance those who lived as trans women would suffer the same penalties as males as in the eyes of the law they were male – still having traditionally male genitals.

With all this in mind, Gay Britannia could be said to hold mix of positives and negatives with the season commemorating the 50 year anniversary.

So as to not simply drown this article in my semi-cis white perspective, I asked fellow student Amy Allard-Dunbar to comment with some of her thoughts with the season, she states, “Having seen little LGBT content on British television growing up, and recently, the prospect of an entire block of multi-media representation of the history of Gay Britain was something I was going to fully indulge.

I must admit I was highly sceptical of the BBC’s coverage to begin with. Dedicating the entire series to this 50-year mark is a problem in its own regard. The 50-year mark was only notes the legal decimalisation of the act of sex itself yet many loopholes remained that allowed the police to continue to target and prosecute gay men.”

Although it’s important to celebrate the milestones in LGBT+ progress throughout history, it’s equally important to remain aware of the struggles that many still faced in those times.”

Firstly I begin by commending the two-part documentary Prejudice and Pride (one of the better names for a piece of queer media I admit) as a strong positive of the season.

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Credit: BBC

Prejudice & Pride: The People’s History of LGBTQ Britain, to call it by its full name, was presented by Stephen K Amos and Susan Calman as they combed through archive footage, historical documents and meaningful testimonies in the effort to try create a timeline of events and form a real sense of exactly what queer life was like for the community in years gone by.

From the inclusion of interviews with celebrities, personal accounts from activists and some quite raw tales from the presenters themselves, the two hour-long features packed an emotional punch and brought to light some truths that I feel history has overlooked until now.

Having me both punching the air in pride and sobbing into a pillow within the same 10 minutes, the documentaries stood out as one of the more diverse, inclusive and moving parts of the season.

A head nod should be given here to the Scottish sibling, Coming Oot! A Fabulous History of Gay Scotland.

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Credit: BBC

Although the Scottish retort held less prominence and emotional weight than the former, the feature still managed to do some amazing work telling the story of Scotland’s journey from one of the most homophobic places in Western civilisation to the most LGBT inclusive country in Europe, stopping off at gay nightlife, activism and the fight for marriage equality.

Amy however was particularly moved by Coming Oot! commenting that “It left me crying, laughing and feeling extremely proud all at the same time. Presented in a truly Scottish manor, with real down-to-earth accounts and experiences from Scottish people both young and old to provide a raw account into what it means to be LGBT+ in Scotland.

One of the most powerful areas explored was the concept of the importance of LBGT+ clubs and spaces. It was one of the moments I found the most emotional as every queer person who has entered an LGBT+ club or space for the first time can all share that feeling of freedom, acceptance and the desire to be apologetically yourself.”

The episode portrayed this beautifully by documenting the revolution by a small Scottish group that challenged the public rhetoric and carved the way for LGBT+ individuals to have a safe space, through discos, parties and cafes.”

These seemingly small acts of defiance began the movement that fought for the fundamental rights and safety of LGBT+ individuals and eventually named Scotland one of the best places for gay rights in Europe.”

Staying on the factual programming from the season, the online series Queer Britain presented by YouTuber Riyadh Khalaf did some incredible things in realistically representing some of the community.

Credit: BBC

Available on iPlayer as part of the new online BBC3, this series saw Riyadh tackle some, until now untouched, topics in modern day queer culture. The show stood out as it took a critical look not only at the discrimination the community face from society but also from within, the “LGBT in-fighting” that makes being truly out and proud so difficult even within inclusive spaces.

Ground-breakingly covering subject matters such as body image standards for gay men, trans porn and racial issues on hook-up apps, the series’ content balanced out the slightly poor execution of the vlog style of documentary. It just didn’t feel fitting for covering such topics. It was at times preachy and a little too millennial-ish for a show that holds so much potential to change opinions. I think more time and money could have been spent making this series one of the headliners of the whole Gay Britannia Season.

Amy added thatOne of the most important episodes in the series that really spoke to me was the Preference of Prejudice, exploring racism within the LGBT+ community.

The episode was attempting to highlight the fine line between sexual preference and when this crosses the line towards prejudice and just plain racism.”

She went on to discuss Queer Britain, stating that to her the show “presents many problems in the way it was delivered. The show is presented by a YouTuber Riyadh Khalaf, who is a cis white male of middle class appearance and sounding, who is able bodied and mono-sexual.

At times, it feels that he is speaking for rather than providing the platform for LGBT+ intersectional identities. At many instances his remarks feel clumsy and simply unwarranted, which in turn makes his presentation of the show feel unrelatable and at times his presence at sensitive moments makes the show extremely uncomfortable.

It feels like the BBC was pandering to the British perception of a gay person by finding someone to present the show who could appeal to the public and younger generations.

It feels like a call to millennials and at times lacked the depth to show the real historical importance of many of the episodes themselves.”

I feel like the issue with format detracting from content was also felt in Olly Alexander’s Growing Up Gay. Although the programme did well to focus in on subjects such as higher rates of mental health issues with LGBT people, eating disorders and drug addiction, these issues weren’t covered in sufficient depth.

Credit: BBC

This due to extended time spent watching Olly dancing around or the several teary, emotional moments that began to lose their weight after them cropping up every ten minutes. I feel like this show needed to know when to cut away from tears in order to cover more factual ground about the subject matter.

Another issue I found in the non-fiction programming was in the I’m Coming Out programmes. The two episodes followed two young boys, one per episode, in the build up to coming out to their parents – with each episode cumulating with the boys coming out on camera to their parents. The issue here is that with the introduction of a camera in front of the parents. Here, the audience don’t get a authentic reaction to the revelation of their child’s sexuality. With the camera pointed at them as almost a third party in the room, the parents would obviously play up to the part they feel they are meant to in this situation as opposed to expressing their real thoughts on the matter, making the whole coming out reaction style quite hollow as a concept and so weakening the show.

Although the intention of the programme was good, as a means of showing by example that the act of ‘coming out’ isn’t as daunting as it seems, the execution and authenticity of the show didn’t quite hit the mark it was aiming for.

Amy went on to summarise her thoughts on the season as a whole, she states “Overall my personal interpretation of the Gay Britannia series was that it fundamentally provided an emotional and raw insight into the struggles gay men faced before homosexuality was decriminalised, and the complicated hurdles to overcome after it was decriminalised.

It provided the British public with the opportunity to understand their experiences during that time and it gave those men a voice when previously they had been ignored and their struggles simply buried in history.

It allowed the British public to be provided with the tools to create a dialogue about the problems still rampant in 21st century Britain and was a much-needed step in the right direction.  I credit the BBC for being the front runners in the movement towards a more liberal and diversified British media, and being the ones to take the stand. However much more needs to be done by the British media to ensure that queer voices are heard, that our lives are represented and that we are validated.”

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