When it comes to the portrayal of gay and lesbian people on TV, it's still the same old issues and cliches
Last week saw the publication of the Corporation's "Portrayal of Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual People on the BBC", a document only marginally more anticipated than the local phone directory. It runs at a mammoth 226 pages and, having read all of it, I can say with certainty that this is one dossier no one could be accused of "sexing up".
Let me begin by saying that whatever conclusions I draw, they will be incorrect. I will have said the wrong thing, sold out, screwed over the sisterhood or dissed my brothers. I'm simply not capable of representing the diverse and dizzyingly rich panorama of gay existence, and neither, it transpires, is television.
Although the BBC and Channel 4 fare well in this report, there is much left to do. The responsibility must fall on the biggest hitters – soap operas. Watched by millions of middle Englanders week after week, they could change the perception of gay people where it matters most. In 1987, EastEnders' Barry and Colin shared a chaste mouth-graze. In 1994, Brookside's Beth and Margaret locked lips. Coronation Street discovered lesbians this year. If gay history had evolved as slowly and timidly as television portrayed it, then the first drag queen would be tiptoeing out of the primordial ooze around about now.
What saddens me is that the same issues keep arising. For gay men, it's the predominance of the camp cliche. For lesbians, despair at the outdated butch-femme stereotypes. Gay women generally are under-represented, unless you count the number of times the word "lesbian" or "dyke" features as a lazy comic's punchline.
As compensation we have gay-centric dramas; the excellent Sugar Rush and the groundbreaking Queer as Folk. Maybe the up-and-coming Lip Service on BBC3 will join those ranks. But surely, in order for true ground to break, there has to be a middle way – something between the tepid sexlessness of the soaps' queer couplings and the separatist universe of the US show The L Word, in which the characters are like something out of the Barbie Lesbian Range: the tennis pro with detachable miniskirt, the hairdresser with blow-drier.
For me the solution is less "L" word than "I" word. Issues. Gay characters are a gift because they can deliver the shock value that soap operas are hardwired to. But surely, by normalising rather than pathologising gay culture you please not only gay respondents, but the 19% of heterosexual viewers that the report reveals are still squeamish about our presence on their screens.
When gay characters stop cat-hoarding, scatter-cushion throwing and compulsively shagging — when we're just sitting around paying bills like Average Jos – then middle England, and the Queer Nation, will be happy