From It's a Sin to Strictly: How 2021 became a landmark year for LGBT television

‘There was one television executive who referred to it as “that miserable Aids drama,”’ said Russell T Davies, accepting the National Television Award for his drama It’s A Sin.

It’s hard to believe the most celebrated programme of the year was initially turned down by TV stations, but it eventually kicked off a seismic shift in LGBTQ+ representation on screen over the course of 2021. 

It’s A Sin follows a group of gay men who have flown the nest and landed right at the heart of London’s gay scene, packed with sweaty dancefloors, unapologetic sex and an entire community of beautiful LGBTQ+ people buoyant with love and freedom, unaware that a deadly virus was silently killing them.

It was the show that had everyone talking when it was released in January. As the nation entered another lockdown, one which for many would be the toughest yet, Channel 4 unleashed its most impactful LGBTQ+ series since Davies’ breakout hit Queer as Folk 21 years ago. 

Hunger for LGBTQ+ television had reached starving point. It had been totally absolved from terrestrial television, but in Davies’ trailblazer, it returned with a roar, breaking records for Channel 4’s streaming service All 4 and became the biggest new drama of the year. 

As well as inspiring thousands of people to get tested for HIV, no doubt saving countless lives, it was the first domino to fall and start a new chapter for LGBTQ+ people on screen; from involvement in reality TV series – aside from Love Island, the show which still calls us a ‘logistical difficulty’ – to the visibility of trans and non-binary people breaking through with blisteringly brilliant shows such as Feel Good, Sex Education and Sex and The City reboot And Just Like That, one of the most anticipated and precious new series of the year.  

Looking at new dramas, you’d struggle to find any that didn’t feature LGBTQ+ women at the helm: Gossip Girl, I Know What You Did Last Summer, Saved by the Bell, Cruel Summer, Yellowjackets, The Sex Lives of College Girls and One of Us Is Lying were just some of the debut (and excellent) shows to flaunt LGBTQ+ girl power at its finest. 

After Nicola Adams and Katya Jones were forced to drop out of Strictly in 2020 before really making their mark, in 2021, John Whaite and Johannes Radebe showed just how gorgeous two men romantically gliding across a ballroom could be – and on the biggest family show in Britain, boasting over 11 million viewers each week.

Following years of being told same-sex partnerships wouldn’t work, John and Johannes proved not only to be a huge success, soaring all the way to the final, but that same-sex dancing can be absolutely breathtaking. 

‘We have been trying to make this happen for a very long time,’ Johannes tells Metro.co.uk. ‘But as I said, it’s a bit too late, but I’m so happy that it’s happening now. 

‘It just sets a standard for everybody else around the world, and it’s amazing that the world has been touched by this. And that’s all we want, right? We just want to display some visibility.’

Initially, John ’panicked’ at the thought of being partnered with Johannes.

‘I thought I’d be better off with a straight partner, then there’s no hate about it. But then I realised that the importance of this actually is to undo injustices from many, many years and to just represent; it’s so important to have that kind of representation.

‘Johannes and I both said that if we had that kind of representation on television on Saturday night TV when we were younger, life would have been a hell of a lot easier for us. 

‘I think it would have led to more people growing up comfortable with who they are. Suicide is a huge problem for the LGBTQ+ community – queer kids are 120 times more likely to be homeless because of rejection from the family. So it’s massive, we just realised that the significance of this partnership is beyond us.

‘It is groundbreaking, it’s history in the making, and hopefully it will release a lot of people from the captivity of shame that they grew up in, and it will help people be comfortable in their own skin.’

Before John and Johannes moved millions throughout the winter months, Daniel McKee and Matt Jameson were the first gay couple to tie the knot on reality television in the UK, becoming husband and husband in Married at First Sight. 

When Love Island flat out dismissed introducing LGBTQ+ couples, insisting its format doesn’t cater to the community, Married At First Sight determined that actually it can be done, and the first series featuring a gay couple also happened to be the most popular to date.

For Dan and Matt, it was important to show another side to gay relationships. While the MAFS dinner parties were packed with explosive rows, tears and break-ups, Dan and Matt seamlessly sailed through the process and are now looking forward to their future. 

‘There are other reality shows where there is maybe that one gay couple, and there’s a lot of drama, but it’s nice to show that there is that normality to a gay relationship,’ says Matt.

‘I think that’s been a big shift.’

Dan explains: ‘I think if I was to have watched this, as a young teenager with my family, to see guys with genuine intentions, showing a three-dimensional character within ourselves, it would really have been life-changing for me, to be honest.’

In 2020, when Nicola and Katya were confirmed as the first partnership of the same sex on Strictly Come Dancing, the BBC was hit with so many complaints it was forced to defend the move. Until recently, gay relationships on television only had a firm place in soaps, the platform which truly broke down barriers for the LGBTQ+ community, particularly throughout the 90s and noughties. 

Still, though, a gay kiss would be headline news, followed by a tsunami of backlash with critics furious that a simple kiss between two men or two women could be poisoning childrens’ minds before the watershed. 

I think if I was to have watched this, as a young teenager, it would have been life-changing for me

Dan and Matt say they had ‘no negative comments’ at all when they appeared on Married At First Sight, which would have seemed unimaginable not too long ago.

‘I had a few messages that came through on Instagram from parents with young teenage sons in particular, and they were just so complimentary and so positive about the fact that we were representing the LGBTQ+ community and actually showing how two men can fall in love and can get married. 

‘It really, really has been represented in a great way, so that their children then see it as well as because there are so many young people now that are struggling with their sexuality.

‘There are a few teenagers saying “we’re not out to any family or friends, but watching you guys and realising you can have a normal relationship showed me actually it is normal”. That has been really encouraging and makes it even more worthwhile.’ 

While the toxic discourse surrounding the trans community has continued to be unbearable in various headlines and on social media, in part to a blog post by a particular children’s author who shall not be named, television has notably made a continued effort to include trans and non-binary characters, and celebrate them as heroes.

There’s a fresh place in hell for Carrie Bradshaw’s podcast on And Just Like That, but its non-binary host Che Diaz has emerged as easily the most accessible and well constructed new characters to be introduced to the Sex and The City reboot, becoming a hit with viewers. Sex Education season three – the most informative TV show aimed at teenagers of all time, attracting tens of millions of viewers across the world – introduced Cal, who is navigating through their own non-binary journey of shame, strength and discovery in a series that was packed with queer stories. 

And thousands of non-binary teenagers across the UK found the courage to come out to their own parents after watching Ginny Lemon and Bimini Bon Boulash discuss their experiences of being non-binary on RuPaul’s Drag Race season two, an unbeatably educational moment for everyone watching at home, LGBTQ+ or otherwise.

Of course, Drag Race has been setting the precedent for queer representation since its launch in 2009. But for the first time in the show’s 12 year ‘herstory’, Drag Race crowned its first-ever transgender Drag Race star in Kylie Sonique Love. 

‘The fact that in 2021 there is a growing representation of trans, non-binary and gender diversity in the media is a great sign that as a society as a whole we are moving forward in the right direction especially when it’s in some of the biggest shows of 2021,’ says Darren Mews, Digital Engagement Officer for Mermaids, the largest organisation providing support for transgender, non-binary, and gender-diverse children in the UK.

‘For young people being able to turn on the TV (or laptop) and watch a number of shows, in a variety of genres and see themselves reflected, can really help with loneliness, isolation and confusion – I can only imagine how it would have helped me better understand my own gender growing up.

‘I hope that as the representation of trans people grows and the diversity of this representation expands more people understand that trans people are just people who just want to live their lives like everyone else.

‘But like our recent Trans Awareness Week campaign, #AwarenessIntoAction, pointed out we need to make sure this representation moves people into action, into standing up for the trans community who are under constant attacks much of the time from these same media companies.’ 

There’s been plenty to celebrate for the LGBTQ+ community on television in 2021, but this has to be just the beginning of a new start – when it’s not monumental or game-changing to simply include LGBTQ+ people. 

While It’s A Sin has, quite rightly, been hailed as one of the most important (and best) dramas in recent memory, it proves broadcasters have cruelly underestimated the hunger for televised gay programming, told by gay people – for everyone.

‘The extraordinary performance of It’s A Sin is a reminder that powerful drama with something important to say about the world can also be commercially successful,’ said Channel 4’s Chief content officer, Ian Katz.

Why then did it take so long for an LGBTQ+ drama to be given the platform of It’s A Sin and more importantly, why did Channel 4 initially turn it down?

Thankfully, 2022 is already off to a promising start. The BBC’s two most anticipated shows will see Ben Whishaw will star as gay man Adam Kay in the adaptation of the former junior doctor’s best-selling memoir This Is Going to Hurt, while Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends with a bisexual lead is at the centre of BBC Three’s February relaunch – both stories following three-dimensional LGBTQ+ characters where their sexuality is merely a detail, not a plotline. 

While for a lot of us there has been little to toast in 2021, hopefully, at least on screen, there is plenty to look forward to for the LGBTQ+ community in the years ahead.

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