“I was given training to de-gay my voice”: what it’s really like to work on TV if you’re LGBTQ + | Television
DDespite an increase in screen representation and hits such as It’s a Sin and RuPaul’s Drag Race UK, being LGBTQ + and working on TV can still be tough. It has been described as a ‘cap and dagger’ industry where most people are freelance and therefore often afraid to talk about incidents of homophobia or transphobia. The discrimination and harassment that LGBTQ + people experience is often horribly insidious; disguised as “banter” or dismissed as ignorance.
Here, seven anonymous LGBTQ + people who work on television, in front of and behind the camera, share their experiences.
The production coordinator
When I entered the industry, I was incredibly careful about my sexuality. There were a few gay or bisexual men, but as a cisgender woman who identifies as gay or lesbian, there is a different bias. I don’t think I always felt safe or listened to.
I was working on a brothel documentary and the manager joked that they should send me there to talk to these sex workers because I was a lesbian. It was really offensive, because it implied that as a gay person, I was a predator. I found that really disturbing.
I have also had experiences of working with talents who have often been outwardly homophobic, transphobic or racist. The company I was working for at the time didn’t understand this, as an LGBTQ + person, I didn’t want to be with them. But you don’t want to say no to a job, so it’s really wrong to have to drive that person or offer them a cup of tea.
I think we are seeing a shift in perspective in companies trying to be more inclusive, even though they struggle to progress, especially behind the camera. It’s all about the optics: if they feel the stories told on screen are enough, they don’t make the effort to diversify their team or production staff.
Sometimes I sit in a writers room and think, “I’m here to tick a box. It’s never explicit, but it’s a feeling I have. Having said that, I feel like I offer a different perspective and that I am valued.
What can be tricky is that people on TV don’t trust audiences enough with queer stories. This means that we are often forced to tell the same stories over and over again, mostly coming out stories – and basic coming out stories.
A few years ago, I told the story of a trans man who revealed to his brother that he was gay. It was a fairly simple and sweet story. But the reaction from someone very high up, who was making a six-figure salary, was that she didn’t think the public would find it believable. What I think she was saying was that she didn’t think the public would be able to put up with the idea of someone being gay and trans.
I still think things are changing. There are more opportunities and people are more open to telling stories that are not honest. But you can feel competitive with your contemporaries because there are still so few seats at this table. Plus, things like the alleged hostile and transphobic environment at the BBC make me guess what projects and stories I come up with. I don’t think this is a good place to start creatively.
I only came out two years ago, but I feel like once you come out there’s extra pressure in the writers’ rooms to make sure you challenge the portrayal. I remember being very uncomfortable once when I had to explain the Bury your gays trope to an older writer. I come across these tropes and try to challenge them when I can. I do this with race as well, as 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 queer storylines. I have the impression of having been heard. But other writers have struggled to get things off the ground. I’ve heard of writers trying to launch a UK version of The L Word, but only Russell T Davies manages to get this stuff across. I think the producers see the shows about gay women and lesbians as a risk.
I have high hopes for the future. Watch a show like Sex Education and what it does in terms of representation. I have the impression that the commissioners are really hot on the [age] 16-25 right now, and these generations are more fluid and open. The outcome should match your audience, so I have a feeling commissioners will start not to see things as risks.
The content strategist
I work in the children’s and family area. I’ve seen times where we’ve sidestepped or actively avoided LGBTQ + issues under the umbrella of protecting our brand and not wanting to have this conversation in children’s content.
But the company I work for now would never put a cisgender person in a trans role, and we would never have a gay character written in two dimensions. We also wouldn’t have a straight writer or straight writer’s room working on a predominantly gay script.
The only thing that makes me despair is seeing what is happening on the BBC. It makes me nervous for the wider British landscape. If the culture there continues to be as toxic as many think to LGBTQ + people – and trans people, or non-binary people, are just the tip of the iceberg – there are a lot of people going worry about what comes next. My concern would be that this BBC treatment of trans people could spill over into a larger industry.
Although television is one of the most inclusive industries I have worked in, in my experience it has been dominated by white, gay, and cis male voices. And so it looks inclusive on the outside, but actually when you dig deep, we don’t look at every intersection.
We had someone non-binary on our show and a senior who is a white, gay cis male 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 is still a battle over intersectionality.
I think what happens with people like me – and I can see it happening in other marginalized communities – is that we shrink and camouflage ourselves into our personal and professional lives to fit in. Over time, it really takes a toll on our mental health. People are also afraid to speak out against negative comments made by senior executives because the freelance model means you’re basically trying to protect your career and try to get your next job.
Ultimately, it’s about power and what people do with that power. I would like to think that, if those of us with negative experiences stay in this industry, hopefully we can turn the tide. Maybe one day there will be a controller for a channel that is not white. It is only when we start to see these changes at the top that the positive change will filter through.
I’m definitely on the people’s list as a queer writer, so people expect me to write that stuff, which I obviously do anyway. I have also had a few experiences where I will present shows and the companies will say, “Oh, we already have our gay show. “
Until recently, it was about hiding queerness as much as possible from the actors. I was told in drama school that I sound too gay and given one-on-one training to de-gay my voice, which is essentially conversion “therapy”. So I would walk into the industry like, “OK, I have to hide this big part of myself. “
Even though people want queer shows, they don’t put all of their weight behind them right off the bat. They ask you to do a lot more work before pushing them forward. It seems limited, as a lot of mainstream shows just want a gay character. But, really, I’m more interested in the homosexuality of the whole show – the form, the structure, and the characters. My intention is political, so I must try to get this through the back door.
I had a job recently where the director wanted me and a stage partner to improvise in front of the camera. It was a really loose brief and I was frowned upon in the improv. In the improvisation, I ended up arguing with the other character about my pronouns. It was really uncomfortable.
When a new actor joined us, I said, ‘Oh, just so you know, my pronouns are he / him. I thought it would make things better when I had to work with them. And then when we improvised together, he said to the original character about me, “Oh, what? So you see someone who is a him and a she now?
I imploded. It was horrible. But I just erased it. It wasn’t until 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, this little exchange is going to really hurt your film.’ I know it was not cruelly wanted. It was an improvised thing in a comedic sequence. But I felt the effects for a week afterwards. I felt really shitty.
I have to keep hope. We’re in the thick of it now and have to fight fires all the time, but I think we’ll get there. I already see things like pronouns on the call sheets. However, this particular call sheet, which I got very recently, had a person’s pronouns, which was them. But why weren’t there everyone’s pronouns? I can see what they were trying to do, but they were pointing to this person as a special case.