Homosexuality on British Television 1960s-1990s

Whether channel surfing or browsing streaming platforms, it is difficult to find a television programme airing in Britain that doesn’t portray gay or queer people in some shape or form. This Pride Month, Heather Sadiq reflects on these advancements and asks how did Britain get here?

old fashioned TV, speakers, books

Whether channel surfing or browsing streaming platforms, it is difficult to find a television programme airing in Britain that does not portray or involve gay or queer people in some shape or form. From long running soaps such as Coronation Street to boundary pushing series like Sex Education, gay and queer characters and relationships are ubiquitous on British television. Moreover, many actors, directors, producers, and presenters are openly gay or queer. This is a remarkable feat considering legal and social proscriptions against homosexuality existed until at least the twenty-first century.

This pride month, it is worth reflecting on this history and the many achievements and challenges along the way. This article traces how gay people emerged on the small screen in non-fiction television programmes, from tentative pleas for tolerance in the 1960s and 1970s to bold challenges of gender and sexual norms in the 1980s and 1990s. It focuses primarily on gay men and lesbians as they were the central, and often sole, focus of television programmes on homosexuality in the twentieth century.

‘Homosexuals’, This Week, ITV, 1964

Watch an extract from 'Homosexuals' on YouTube

This Week’s ground-breaking episode ‘Homosexuals’ was the first non-fiction programme about homosexuality in Britain. When it aired, male homosexuality was illegal and men could face up to two years imprisonment for sexual relations with other men. In 1957, the Wolfenden Report had recommended the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting men aged twenty-one and over in private. Upon publication, the Report’s recommendation regarding homosexuality was widely criticised in the press and in Parliament. In this highly homophobic environment, homosexuality was rarely, if ever, explicitly discussed or represented on the small screen. However, throughout the late 1950s and 1960s, there was a gradual shift in opinion among the press, public, and Parliament as knowledge about homosexuality and debates about its morality and legality became more widespread.

This Week’s ‘Homosexuals’ was a product of these debates and changing attitudes. The episode aimed to educate heterosexual society about the plight of homosexual men under the contemporary law. The presenter asked homosexual interviewees, whose faces were cast in shadows to protect their identity, questions about their experiences. The questions aired several heterosexual concerns, including the belief that homosexuality among men was ‘physically disgusting’. The tone of the programme was serious and male homosexuals were constructed as lonely, sympathetic figures who were fundamentally normal people but lived a depressing existence searching for love, relationships, and family. The episode compared Britain with Holland, where homosexuality was legal among adults in private and men were free to live without fear of prosecution. Through this framing and comparison, the episode subtly called into question the contemporary British law criminalising homosexuality. 

‘Lesbians’, This Week, ITV, 1965

Watch an extract from 'Lesbians' on YouTube

Three months after their investigation into homosexuality, This Week aired the first non-fiction programme about lesbians in Britain. The episode’s intended audience was heterosexual society and the presenter continued his probing questions which addressed heterosexual concerns. Unlike ‘Homosexuals’, many of the interviewees in this episode showed their faces, likely because female homosexuality was not illegal. This episode emphasised the normality of lesbians, with interviewees stressing it was a ‘myth’ that lesbians could be recognised at first glance. Only a ‘minority of lesbians’, the episode stressed, fit the ‘tomboy’ stereotype. The episode emphasised the fundamental importance of love, rather than sex, in lesbian relationships. One interviewee explained she was attracted to both men and women, however the episode suggested that ‘most people’ might find her relationships ‘perverted’.

‘Consenting Adults 1: The Men’, Man Alive, BBC, 1967

Watch 'Consenting Adults 1: The Men' on BBC iPlayer

In June 1967, Liberal MP Leo Abse introduced a bill calling for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in private among men aged over twenty-one. Motivated by their sympathy for gay men, Abse and others had made numerous attempts to enact into law the Wolfenden Report’s recommendation. In 1967, Abse finally succeeded. Although the law did not apply to Scotland, Ireland, the armed forces, men aged under twenty-one, and homosexual acts in ‘public’, this was a monumental step for gay rights. One month before the law passed, sensing a shift in attitudes in favour of decriminalisation, the BBC current affairs programme Man Alive dedicated two episodes to the exploration of homosexuality among men and women.

Like This Week, Man Alive was aimed at heterosexual society and highlighted the dangers the criminalisation of homosexuality posed to homosexual men, leaving them vulnerable to suicide, blackmail, and violence. Unlike This Week, most Man Alive interviewees showed their faces, indicating they felt the risk of prosecution had decreased on the eve of decriminalisation. Although the experiences of homosexuals were once again framed as pitiful and the fundamental normality of homosexual men and their relationships were emphasised, some interviewees demonstrated greater confidence in breaking heteronormative conventions. One interviewee smiled as he admitted his ‘promiscuity’ and expressed no desire to be ‘cured’. 

‘Consenting Adults 2: The Women’, Man Alive, BBC, 1967

Watch 'Consenting Adults 2: The Women' on BBC iPlayer

One week after their investigation into homosexual men, Man Alive turned to lesbians. The episode underlined that although lesbians faced no legal penalties for their relationships, ‘unqualified acceptance’ by society did not exist and lesbians were often met with intolerance, suspicion, and disgust. The episode framed discrimination against lesbians for their appearance and behaviour as rampant.

Although, like This Week, it emphasised that many lesbians and their relationships resembled heterosexual married couples, Man Alive gave more space to interviewees who broke gender conventions through adopting a masculine appearance. One interviewee, Steve, expressed a strong desire to live as a man. The episode also underlined the importance of lesbian spaces such as clubs where they could ‘dance, drink, and flirt’ without the risk of discrimination. However, some lesbian interviewees blamed lesbians themselves for the difficulties they experienced in society, claiming ‘acceptance’ would only be granted if they ‘ceas[ed] to be obsessed with their own lesbianism’.

The Important Thing is Love, ITV, 1971

Watch 'The Important Thing is Love' on the BFI Player

Four years after the landmark legalisation of male homosexuality in private, ITV produced a documentary on lesbians, The Important Thing is Love. The documentary contrasted wider society’s prejudiced views that lesbianism was ‘queer’, ‘kinky’, and an ‘illness’ with the reality of lesbians’ experiences. It discussed key lesbian concerns such as feeling pressured to marry and lesbians’ experiences of wanting or having children.

Like This Week, the programme challenged stereotypes of lesbians, with interviewees problematising the popular image of the ‘big dyke who struts about in her tweeds and brogues’. Most interviewees emphasised their ordinariness and their desire to fit in to broader society. Gay spaces such as clubs were considered a place of refuge and relaxation for some but for others an unfortunate necessity due to their ostracisation from heterosexual spaces. Significantly, the documentary featured a section in which women dance and kiss in a gay club.

Although the documentary, like its predecessors, mostly seemed to explain lesbianism to a mainstream audience, it also discussed resources for lesbians such as the magazine Arena Three. Indeed, one closeted lesbian’s life was transformed after watching the documentary, she recounted, ‘they just looked so ordinary and that was fabulous… suddenly I wasn't an alien, suddenly there were people like me’. In hindsight, the progressive aspects of the documentary are slightly overshadowed with the use of a psychiatrist who explained that although lesbianism was not an ‘illness’ as many believed, it was caused by girls developing a ‘fixation’ with their mothers. Most of the interviewees agreed with this explanation.

‘Homosexual Equality’, Speak for Yourself, ITV, 1974

Watch 'Homosexual Equality' on the BFI Player

In 1974 the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE), an organisation which aims to promote legal and social equality for gays, lesbians, and bisexuals, produced an episode of the community access programme Speak For Yourself. The programme was the first to be produced by openly gay people and was the first explicitly pro-gay programme. It aired in London. The programme aimed to promote gay equality through demonstrating that gays are ‘regular’ people to mainstream audiences. It forcefully railed against stereotypes stating that most homosexuals ‘bear no resemblance to the collar and tie woman or the limp wristed queen’ as portrayed by radio and television comedians such as Kenneth Williams, Danny La Rue, and Larry Grayson. It argued that most gays were in fact ‘boring’, ‘ordinary’, ‘very natural human beings’. It promoted the tolerance and assimilation of gay people into heterosexual society, as opposed to celebrating the breaking of traditional gender and sexual norms. Not all interviewees shared this perspective, however, with one interviewee refusing to refer to his relationship as a ‘marriage’ because he did not want to ‘ape’ ‘heterosexual life’.

The documentary also introduced several useful organisations for gay viewers such as CHE and the counselling charity Friend. The positive effects of the 1967 Act were clear, as all male interviewees showed their faces and spoke openly about their homosexuality. Gay men were no longer constructed as miserable, pitiful, lonely people but instead outgoing, respectable men who built strong relationships with the gay community and their families.

Gay Life, ITV, 1980-1981

Watch 'Security Vetting and Gays in the Civil Service' on YouTube

Watch 'Being Gay in the Thirties' on YouTube

Watch 'Male Sexuality' on YouTube

Until the early 1980s, the legal and social position of gay people in Britain continued to gradually improve. The decriminalisation of male homosexuality in private was extended to Scotland in 1980 and to Northern Ireland in 1982. The 1970s had witnessed the birth of gay liberation, a movement that encouraged gays to challenge heterosexual society in radical ways, including through expressing gay pride. On 1 July 1972 the first Pride march was held in London. This was a significant step in the advancement of gay rights, as many gays no longer felt required to model heterosexual gender and sexual norms and instead expressed pride in their identities and visibility. This translated in the early 1980s into programming that more clearly showed the variety of gay identities and experiences, including those that challenged heterosexual conventions. 

Gay Life was the first television programme in Britain dedicated to homosexuality. It ran for two series in 1980 and 1981 and aired in London. Gay Life’s eighteen episodes discussed a range of issues for gay people including gay relationships and sexuality, problems gay people encountered with the law and other institutions, and gay people’s relationships with their family. Gay Life was required to maintain the appearance of objectivity, which meant the views of people hostile to gays were openly discussed. Nevertheless, the programme was infused with a subtle pro-gay perspective, with most episodes tactfully considering anti-gay viewpoints before successfully challenging them.

The programme contained many positive depictions of gays, questioning the earlier assumption that most gays were isolated and depressed. Gay people were shown proudly breaking societal norms, such as men who openly admitted to cruising for sexual partners and women who challenged monogamy in their relationships. Significantly, some women explained they expressed attraction to multiple genders but ‘chose’ to be lesbians. These women challenged conventional wisdom that people were either only heterosexual or homosexual. However, the programme struggled with the prospect of representing the myriad opinions of the gay community.  Gays who were visibly and unapologetically gay, such as drag queens, were discussed in one episode without judgement or scorn, however in another they were framed as negative stereotypes damaging the image of gay people who wanted to fit in. Despite airing at 11.30pm on a Sunday night, Gay Life regularly had high ratings.

One in Five, Channel 4, 1983 

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One in Five was broadcast on New Year’s Day 1983. Channel 4 claimed it was the ‘first programme ever to even begin to show what it means to be positively gay’. Several MPs attempted to ban the programme’s airing, with the MP for Luton West claiming ‘it glorifies the act of homosexuality, which I think is a malady’. Nevertheless, Parliament and Channel 4 refused to shutter the programme. The programme combined a mixture of fun performances about being gay, sketches, and fly-on-the-wall snippets of conversations between different factions of gays. It lightly poked fun at a range of gay stereotypes, including radical lesbian feminists and cruising gay men. Nevertheless, it was not without political undertones, which included light-hearted discussions about representations in the media, a satirical skit about police targeting gay men, and coverage of the annual Pride parade. In its fly-on-the-wall conversations, it demonstrated the variety of appearances, behaviours, and attitudes of gay people. The programme was aimed at both gays and interested straights. However, one mainstream critic claimed it ‘did have the aura of a sermon aimed at the converted’. Thus, the programme made little attempt to explain homosexuality to a straight audience, instead revelling in the experiences and contradictions of being gay and being a member of the gay community.

Out on Tuesday, Channel 4, 1989-1994

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However, the 1980s offered new challenges for British gays. The AIDS epidemic caused great loss and anguish for the gay community. The 1980s also saw increased homophobia in public opinion and political attitudes. Under Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, the Conservative Government introduced Section 28 in 1988 which prohibited the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ by local authorities. This severely limited the ability of schools, councils, and other local government institutions to even discuss, never mind ‘promote’, homosexuality, as many institutions engaged in cautious self-censorship. The AIDS epidemic and Section 28 further galvanised the movement for gay rights in Britain, as seen in the television series Out on Tuesday

Out on Tuesday (Later OUT) was a weekly factual magazine series that ran from 1989-1994 and was the first national series devoted to homosexuality. It represented a variety of sexual lifestyles, cultures, politics, and history from lesbian mothers to gays in Nazi Germany. According to Birkbeck Institute for the Moving Image, anti-permissiveness activist Mary Whitehouse headed a campaign that called for Out on Tuesday to be cancelled prior to its airing. It also encountered hurdles in parliament. Nevertheless, the series persevered. Out on Tuesday was produced for Channel 4 by Abseil, a company named in tribute to the lesbians who abseiled into parliament to protest Section 28. Indeed, the programme was framed as a direct challenge to Section 28 and the negative perception of gays in the media following the AIDS epidemic. The series editor explained the programme did not intend to ‘inform’ ‘straight’ audiences. Rather, ‘we’re talking to us…. we’re making a declaration that we’re here but we’re not thankful for the opportunity as programmes were in the past’. Like Gay Life, Out on Tuesday had regularly high ratings. It also received positive feedback from the gay community. 

Like the path to gay rights more generally, the growing visibility of gays on television was gradual. Cautious examinations of homosexuality in the 1960s blossomed into gays speaking for themselves in the 1970s before proudly celebrating their identities in the 1980s and 1990s. While television was undoubtedly delayed in depicting homosexuality, which arguably should have been shown since the medium’s inauguration, British television has consistently proven to be slightly ahead of the curve in terms of legal and social rights for gay people. Homosexual men were shown sympathetically in 1964 despite homosexuality remaining criminalised for another three years. In the late 1980s television directly challenged the homophobic rhetoric of Thatcher’s Conservative government and Section 28. Television’s depictions of homosexuality from the 1960s to the 1990s were far from perfect, but they were nevertheless important landmarks in advancing the visibility, acceptance, and pride of gay people in Britain.

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