Token attractive gay couple
In the past decade or so gay couples have become a mainstay in films, soap operas and mainstream TV. Many view this as a positive move ensuring gay relationships are normalized and celebrated. We would agree making gay relationships visible is positive. However there is a problem with what kind of gay relationships are shown. Typically these are young or middle-aged men in monogamous/married relationships, or men who wish to be in such relationships. Lesbian relationships are shown less often while bi relationships or those that are openly non monogamous are rarely featured. The inclusion of a conventionally attractive (usually young) male couple both fails to show diversity in same sex relationships and also reinforces the idea that youth and beauty is vital for gay men. Critics argue the focus on monogamous/married gay men is a means of repackaging homosexuality in a media-acceptable format, suggesting that any other form of sexual activity is still taboo or immoral. Indeed it has been argued the exclusion of other genders, sexualities and relationships implies these are still inferior or wrong.
This is a problem as it means those who are lesbian, bi, trans* or interested in alternative sexual relationships are not included. Many people do not consider themselves gay or bi but still have sex with people of the same gender. These experiences are often not shown in media unless as part of reporting on ‘problem’ behavior (usually related to HIV, drugs, ethnic minorities, sex workers or ‘promiscuous teens’). This can mean people who might identify as not being straight or who have sex with people of the same gender, who are genderqueer, asexual or prefer not to give themselves any sexuality label may assume that there is only one choice – being straight or gay, but monogamous.
Media companies, particularly those making ‘youth’ focused programmes are often keen to show they are not prejudiced or exclusionary by the fact they have a ‘gay couple’ in their programme, or feature ‘gay sex’. Even here this is misleading since ‘gay sex’ is often defined as training men to enjoy anal penetration (rather than exploring diverse experiences of men who have sex with men). A focus on cheery, attractive gay couples can mean those who’re experiencing homo/bi/transphobia in their homes or communities may feel even more excluded, not least in countries where homosexuality is illegal. Sensitivity is required to acknowledge while some gay relationships can be celebrated, in many places this is not possible due to religious and civil laws – without ignoring that faith is important to many LGBT people and their allies.
This can be addressed by focusing on a wider range of genders, sexualities and relationships within media, with content informed by diverse groups. Also it can be addressed by not simply including a LGBT person or mentioning homosexuality while continuing to have a general focus of a programme or publication viewed through a lens that regards heterosexuality as the only natural or normal way of doing sex and relationships. That means not presenting diverse sexualities as ‘different’, problematic or unusual; or seeing heterosexual, monogamous and sexually active relationships as ‘normal’. It does not mean you have to simply include LGBT characters, storylines or issues for the sake of it, nor that you can’t celebrate heterosexual relationships (including marriage). It does involve being aware of the issues, histories and needs of different communities. While the popular view in media (and gay marriage campaigning) is ‘we’re all the same’, a more realistic message is that we’re also quite different. And approaching this diversity in responsible and accurate ways makes for fairer and more interesting sex and relationships media coverage.