It’s LGBT+ History Month (February), and this year our IP Out community and CIPA are collaborating on a series of posts to mark the occasion. In today’s, IP Out committee member Darren Smyth of EIP explains how LGBT+ representation has changed in the arts over the last half-century or so. His own experiences, as he witnessed some of these changes, make for a fascinating – and moving – read.
In my first post, I referred to the increased openness as a result of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967 in the UK. One area in which this is evident is representation in the arts. Earlier, gay authors either made reference covertly or in code, such as Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest, or wrote pieces that they never intended to be published, such as EM Forster in Maurice.
In its excellent series of materials for LGBT+ History month, the British Library has published an interview with Armistead Maupin (see https://www.bl.uk/lgbtq-histories/articles/armistead-maupin-on-tales-of-the-city). His Tales of the City series was mandatory reading for people like me coming out in the 1980s. I was, as it happens, the librarian of the Oxford University Gaysoc (yes, really) and my task was to carry a box of books to each meeting and lend them to members (we had such wonderful tomes as How to be a Happy Homosexual). Seeing gay and trans characters depicted was extraordinarily powerful. On the other hand, the world of San Francisco seemed impossibly distant and different from anything I could possibly imagine experiencing.
Then, in the early 1990s, there was a TV series adapting the first book, which was shown on Channel 4. We were transfixed. The main character Michael Tolliver was played by a hugely engaging actor called Marcus D’Amico. I was very sad to learn that he passed away at a still young age last December – one of the many tragic bereavements of the last year.
I was particularly affected by his passing as, unlike most of my other idols, I had actually met him. Twice actually. In one of those magical serendipities that seemed to happen a lot when I was young and don’t seem to occur so much any more, I was rung up on a Thursday while I was a DPhil chemistry student in Oxford by my boyfriend, who lived in London, to tell me that he had just seen this marvellous play at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, and I should get myself over on the Friday to see it. The problem was, Friday was the last night of the run, and he had no idea if any tickets would be left. Undeterred, I hopped on the Oxford Tube bus and got myself to London, and just managed to get one of the last tickets. By coincidence, I ran into someone I had met at a party a few months earlier, and so I had some company for the performance.
After the play was over (I am afraid I cannot recall what the name was), we retired to the bar over which the theatre was situated and had a drink. The cast, including Marcus D’Amico, did likewise. I told my friend that I was a huge fan of Marcus D’Amico in Tales of the City, but was embarrassed to approach and tell him so. My friend, older and wiser than me, said “He’s an actor. Trust me, he’ll love it”. So I wandered over and expressed my admiration, and he told me that he was about to be in Design For Living in the West End – the first play, he told me, that he was confident would be good before it opened. He said I should come by the stage door afterwards.
So I duly did go and see Design For Living (it was very good – he appeared with Rupert Graves) and went to the stage door after. This now being the West End, there was a minder to ensure that pesky fans like me didn’t annoy the emerging actors, and so I only got to exchange a few words, but I still left happy.
Turning back to Tales of the City, while it was wonderful to see depictions of gay life, it was a very long way from my life. In retrospect I think at the time I was probably too naïve to note the undercurrent of warning from the author of the more problematic aspects of the commercial gay scene, which often sacrifices appearance for authenticity.
It wasn’t until later in the 1990s that something that was closer to the reality that I had experienced hit our screens – Russell T Davies’s Queer as Folk that was produced for Channel 4. And so it seems fitting that now two decades later, Channel 4 is presenting us with It’s a Sin from the same creator (which I have not watched at the time of writing).
There is now no shortage of LGBT+ representation in the arts, whether in pieces that focus on LGBT+ characters and issues, or in pieces where the sexuality or gender identity is incidental to the main plot. The quality of representation in mainstream pieces is also improving – it is no longer essential that a gay character is tortured and unhappy, or is killed off in the first five minutes (although that still happens). But when I was a child, there was literally nothing, and so to me this constitutes huge progress.