How Queer Kisses Became Television Mainstream
From Marlowe’s Edward II to BBC 3’s I Kissed a Boy: “The path to love (or queer representation) is never straight.”
June is Pride Month, and in 2023 we are seeing more LGBTQ+ representation on television than ever. Shows like Queer Eye, Ru Paul’s Drag Race, and Pose have brought queer people, figureheads, and characters into the mainstream and made undeniable strides towards increased visibility and acceptance for the community. Before these shows were readily available on our screens and across streaming platforms, however, depictions of LGBTQ+ people were saturated with over-the-top stereotypes, relegated to a suggestive, shadowy realm of queer-coding, or erased from existence altogether. Just over thirty-five years ago, even a tender forehead kiss between two men on television sparked vicious uproar. Now, with the release of I Kissed a Boy, the U.K.’s first gay dating show that sees matched-up contestants kiss before they converse, BBC 3 is flying the (rainbow) flag for queer representation. But how did we get here?
The television – a staple piece of furniture in any home - has always had the power to inform, educate, and open minds; it is a powerful medium for change. Nevertheless, LGBTQ+ representation on the small screen has moved at a slower pace than it’s bigger, brighter counterpart: cinema. The first recorded kiss between two men on the big screen was as early as 1911 in The Life and Deeds of the Immortal Leader Karađorđe, a Serbian silent film about The First Serbian Uprising of 1804. Later, in the 1927 American silent film, Wings, two aviators lock lips in a dramatic death-bed scene. While some critics argue that the kisses in these films are merely fraternal, many others herald them as the earliest depictions of queer passion in cinematic history. It was not until 1970, however, that U.K. television first broadcast a male-male kiss. So why did it take so long for television to follow suit? The answer perhaps lies in the differences between how film and television are consumed.
© Wings, 1927 via Youtube
Watching a film at the cinema is an entirely different experience to watching television. The duration of a film coupled with the dark, enclosed, and (almost always) distraction-free atmosphere of the cinema offers viewers an opportunity to escape into the world unfolding before their eyes. A trip to the cinema also involves a definitive choice; audiences elect and pay to see a particular film. Therefore, with no advert-breaks interrupting the action, a trip to the cinema is a distinctly elective and immersive experience. With these factors in mind, it can be argued that cinema possesses a freedom to push boundaries in a way that television does not; there is further scope to titillate in the name of “art”. Perhaps this is why in 1970, when the BBC broadcast a film adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, the first ever gay kiss to grace British television screens caused so little commotion. Sir Ian McKellen, playing the eponymous king, and James Laurenson, playing his lover, shared an impassioned on-screen kiss just three years after the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain. Yet, in an interview about this taboo-shattering moment, McKellen recalls that: “The BBC wasn't out to shock people or educate people […] nevertheless, there it was, and I don't remember anyone complaining.”
However, when EastEnders became the first soap opera to show a kiss between men in 1987 - a modest peck on the forehead between Colin Russell (Michael Cashman) and Guido Smith (Nicholas Donovan) – there was public outrage. Writing for The Sun newspaper, Piers Morgan voiced his erroneous concerns about the suitability of such content for a prime-time show: “The homosexual love scene between yuppie p**fs Colin and Guido was screened in the early evening, when millions of children were watching.”  Similarly, Tory MP Terry Dicks claimed that “it is absolutely disgraceful that this revolting scene went out at 7:30pm. If the BBC can’t stop showing these perverted practices during family viewing time, then it is time EastEnders was screened after 11pm or scrapped altogether.”
Although these views are outdated and appalling, there is an interesting point at their centre. Unlike film, watching television is a purely domestic act. Television shows are broadcast directly into the home and the act of watching is often shared between generations in the sequestered sphere of the living room. This is perhaps the crux of why television took so much longer than cinema to depict this simple act of queer love; while film oscillates in the public sphere, television’s modus is more private.
Nevertheless, when a second kiss between the EastEnders couple was screened eighteen months later, this time a peck on the lips, there was much less commotion. In an interview with PinkNews in 2020, Cashman recalls that: “there was some negative reaction but by and large there weren’t the calls in parliament for the show to be axed. And that shows you what courage and leadership does. And I’m proud of that.” Mainstream media has always possessed the power to write new narratives in the cultural manual, but progressive representation only manifests when people dare to push boundaries. In depicting a positive and realistic relationship between two men, EastEnders opened the proverbial floodgates. From this point onwards, popular shows such as Dawson’s Creek (1998-2003), Queer as Folk (2000-2005), and Heartstopper (2022) all unashamedly depicting men kissing men.
© Heartstopper, 2022, Netflix
This trickling timeline of gay kisses subsequently paved the way for increased visibility across all facets of the LGBTQ+ community. In 1994, Brookside, a Channel 4 soap opera, became the first British television show to broadcast a lesbian kiss. In 2013, Channel 4’s Hollyoaks became the first British soap opera to feature a trans storyline. In 2015, Schitt’s Creek coined an iconic analogy for pansexuality as two characters navigate their unexpected attraction to each other. In 2020 Strictly Come Dancing, another prime-time, family-friendly show, made history when it featured Nicola Adams and Katya Jones as the first same-sex dance pairing.
This year, BBC 3 released I Kissed a Boy, the U.K’s first gay dating show. Echoing the familiar structure of other reality dating shows like Love Island and Love is Blind, this trailblazing celebration of queer love sees a group of good-looking guys thrown into a villa in the sun. The twist? The pairs, who have been matched by a behind-the-scenes cupid, must kiss each other before exchanging so much as a “hello”. Testing the chemistry from the get-go, the boys are then let loose to explore how – and whoever – they so choose because, “when everyone’s a possibility, the path to love is never straight!”
Irrespective of the cliché cliff-hangers and dramatic pauses that have become central to the reality TV script, I Kissed a Boy carves out a niche space in the cultural landscape because, in amongst the raunchy outfits and sex-positive flirtations, there are true moments of vulnerability and tenderness. The contestants on this show are authentic and open with one another; they cry, console, and comfort each other in a beautifully human way that television does not often afford to men. Breaking stereotypes by depicting real people and not caricatures, I Kissed a Boy has scope to incite change. In 2021, Channel 4’s It’s a Sin boldly depicted the horrors of the AIDS epidemic with an incredible cast of LGBTQ+ actors and actually led to an increased uptake in HIV testing among gay men. Similarly, speaking to The Guardian, contestant Gareth said that I Kissed a Boy “will help any child or teen struggling with their sexuality” because “it’s made viewers understand that the gay community have stories, hardships and the want for love.”
© It's a Sin, Channel 4
While representation – at least in terms of frequency – for LGBTQ+ people on television has improved over the years, there is still work to be done. The earliest incarnations of queerness on television were imbued with damaging stereotypes; queer characters were ridiculed, villainised, or killed off. Even now, the ‘Gay Best Friend,’ the ‘Gay Villain’, or the ‘Promiscuous Queer’ tropes - to name but a few - continue to perpetuate oppressive and outdated ideas about the queer community. What is more, an overwhelming amount of LGBTQ+ stories in mainstream media are still about white people. While Orange is the New Black was initially applauded for its representation of queer women of colour for example, critics soon accused it of veering into “tragedy porn”, exploiting POC stories while still focusing on the show’s white protagonist.
For too long, queer people and their stories have been redacted from the screen and, by extension, from cultural conversation. Over time, this enforced invisibility has systematically robbed the LGBTQ+ community of any historic or meaningful depictions of themselves. The limited roles and opportunities afforded to queer people are, even now, often assumed by straight cisgendered actors playing queer characters (think Will and Grace, 1998-2020 or The Danish Girl, 2015). Therefore, while positive depictions of LGBTQ+ people are becoming more mainstream, it is essential that queer actors, writers, and directors are given a prime platform so that LGBTQ+ stories can be told honestly and from lived experience.
BBC3 has already confirmed that I Kissed a Girl, a lesbian version of the show, is coming soon. Perhaps, then, I Kissed a Boy is our modern-day Marlowe; the first stepping stone towards more authentic, honest representations of LGBTQ+ people on our screens. But this is only the start of it; the queer experience is not “one size fits all,” and there are more stories to tell.