TV & Movies

10 Times British Soaps Pioneered LGBTQ Representation On TV

From Brookside's Gordon Collins to the complex love story between Eastenders' Iqra & Ash.

LGBTQ representation in British soap operas.
Channel 4 & BBC One

Nothing embodies British pop culture quite like a beloved soap opera. And whether you like keeping up with Corrie or following the drama over on Albert Square, true soap fans will know that these long-standing shows represent more than just entertainment. Soaps play an important role in shining a light on real-life experiences, including those of people within the LGBTQ community. To mark LGBT+ History Month 2021, I've taken a look back at some of the most monumental LGBTQ moments in British soaps to understand the impact these shows have had.

Whether it be the first gay kiss broadcast on mainstream television, the introduction of PoC in gay roles, or the casting trans actors in trans storylines, soaps have been leading the charge when it comes to representation for decades. They have helped spotlight important topics that weren’t being discussed elsewhere in mainstream media and humanise marginalised communities when society didn’t give them such grace. That kiss, for example, aired in 1989, one year after the introduction of Section 28, a homophobic piece of legislation that outlawed the “promoting the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”

Of course it's important to acknowledge that soaps didn't always get it right. Much like the wider media landscape, not all LGBTQ storylines presented in soap operas are happy, heathy, or positive, and there has often been criticism over casting. Nonetheless, there's no doubt that soaps – with their millions of loyal fans from all different walks of life – have helped push LGBTQ narratives into public consciousness in a way no other medium could have.

Brookside's Gordon Collins Becomes The First Gay Character In A UK Soap Opera, 1985

Channel 4

Portrayed by Nigel Crowley (and later Mark Burgess), Gordon Collins was first introduced to Channel 4's Brookside 1982 and later came out in 1985, becoming the first openly gay character on a British soap opera.

Through Gordon, Brookside explored the topic of homophobia, with his family becoming subject to harassment as a result of him coming out. It's now widely believed that Gordon and the Brookside writers paved the way for other soap operas and popular TV dramas to introduce their own gay characters. Although Brookside ended in 2003, Gordon Collins is still remembered as one of the most important characters in soap history.

Eastenders Airs The First Gay Kiss On Mainstream TV, 1989

BBC One

In 1989, another character named Collin made LGBTQ history when he took part in the first gay kiss on mainstream television. (The first ever gay kiss took place during a BBC Two broadcast of Edward II, between Ian McKellen and James Laurenson in 1970 and, nine years later, there was a kiss between two men one BBC One drama Coming Out, but the Eastenders kiss was seen by millions.)

The Eastenders kiss – which consisted of a peck on the forehead between Colin and Barry (the couple pictured above) – received widespread backlash, made worse by the increased stigmatisation that had come as a result of the AIDS epidemic. It even led to actor-turned-politician Michael Cashman (playing Colin) to have a brick thrown through his window. But the scene was seen as a groundbreaking moment for many in the LGBTQ community and, when Collins' second gay kiss took place – this time on the lips with a character named Guido – the reception was mild in comparison.

Brookside Airs The First Lesbian Kiss On Pre-Watershed TV, 1994

Channel 4

As well as being the soap to air the first gay character, Brookside was was the first soap to show two women kissing before the 9 p.m. watershed back in 1994. Before that, the only kiss between two women had taken place in the BBC Two drama Girl, starring Alison Steadman, in 1974.

The Brookside kiss was between Beth Jordache (played by Anna Friel) and Margaret Clemence (Nicola Stephenson). Speaking to the Radio Times in 2016, Friel said she was "proud" to have been part of that groundbreaking moment. The now-famous kiss was later broadcast during the 2021 Olympic opening ceremony, making it the first of if its kind to be shown in a number of countries where same-sex relationships are still illegal.

Eastenders Introduces A Bisexual Character, 1995

BBC One

Another first for Eastenders came in 1995 when they introduced a character who identified as bisexual. Tony Hills, played by Mark Homer, appeared in the soap for four years and began a relationship with Simon, played by Andrew Lynford, during that time.

Speaking to the Huffington Post years later about the role, Homer said "it became apparent very quickly that there were lots of young men and women in the same position as Tony. I used to get so many letters from vulnerable teenagers who felt totally alone in the world. All of a sudden there was a person on the telly who they could identify with. I felt some kind of pressure to make sure everything was well represented. It was too important to get wrong." Since then, Eastenders has gone on to have a number of bisexual characters including Sonya Fowler and, most recently, Ash Panesar.

Eastenders' Syed Is The First Muslim Gay Character In A Soap, 2009

BBC One

Who can forget when Syed (played by Marc Elliott) became the first gay Muslim character on the square? In the now famous storyline, he fell in love with Christian (John Partridge) but still ended up marrying his girlfriend to appease his family. But, in true Eastenders style, the truth eventually came out and, happily, the two ended up together and had a civil partnership ceremony in 2012.

In an interview with The Sun that year, Elliot said: “Playing Syed meant I’ve had loads of letters from people of all religions coming to terms with their sexuality. That’s what I am proud of most, portraying a normal, loving gay relationship. That’s quite an important thing, it’s normalising it, two men being affectionate with each other. And when someone tells you they’ve found the strength to tell their parents, you feel proud.”

Ste & Brendan’s Storyline Explores Abuse In LGBTQ Relationships In Hollyoaks, 2010

Channel 4

The relationship between Hollyoaks's Ste (played by Kieron Richardson) and his boss Brendon (Emmett Scanlan) shined a light on abuse in LGBTQ relationships in a way that hadn't been done before on mainstream television. After the two started a relationship, things soon become physically and emotionally abusive. Ste was eventually encouraged by his ex to report Brendon for domestic abuse. The storyline went on to be nominated for a TV Choice Awards in 2011.

Hollyoaks Introduces An HIV Storyline, 2015

Channel 4

In 2015, Hollyoaks introduced an HIV storyline when Ste was diagnosed with the condition. Hollyoaks worked with HIV and sexual health charity Terrence Higgins Trust to make sure they were delivering the storyline sensitively and in a way that would help educate people about staying safe and getting tested.

Kieron Richardson later told The Daily Star: "I’ve had really inspirational letters from people who saw the storyline and because of that they went and got tested. They found out they were positive early because of it, which is great. If people are getting tested earlier that’s a good thing because if you don’t find out and you leave it then it can be very dangerous. So the storyline is saving lives."

Eastenders & Hollyoaks Casts Trans Actors In Trans Roles, 2015

Peter Macdiarmid / David Fisher / Shutterstock

Although Coronation Street has the first transgender character, they cast a cis person to play the role. In 2015, Eastenders introduced Stacy Slater’s half-brother Kyle, played by trans actor Riley Carter Millington. Along with this groundbreaking casting, the exciting thing about Kyle's character was that, once came he out to Stacy as trans (news she is supportive of), his storylines no longer revolved around his identity and he was afforded the same treatment as other characters on the show.

Also in 2015, Hollyoaks also introduced a trans character played by a trans actor, Annie Wallace, who went on to be nominated for a Scottish BAFTA for the role.

Emmerdale Explores Asexuality, 2018

ITV

Asexuality is an identity in the LGBTQIA+ spectrum that often gets forgotten or misrepresented in media. But, in 2018, Emmerdale decided to introduce an asexual character, Liv, and fans praised the soap for representing the ace community with care and thought, and opening up this experience to a wider audience.

One Twitter user wrote: "Liv's storyline in #Emmerdale has already got me feeling emotional. Asexuality is such an important subject to tackle. I remember in my teens and early twenties, wondering why I was the only person who didn't feel sexual attraction to anyone ... So glad a UK soap, and one of my favourite shows, is finally giving some ace representation."

In Eastenders Iqra & Ash's Relationship Explores New Complexities, 2019

BBC One

Iqra became the first Muslim lesbian represented in the UK soap opera world when she stepped onto Albert Square in 2019. While Iqra's family believed she was destined for an arranged marriage, she actually had a massive secret to tell them: she already had a girlfriend, Ash. However, in contrast to Syed's storyline 10 years earlier, Iqra's family accepted her identity (bar a few hesitancies from her grandparents). As for Iqra's girlfriend Ash, her family’s main problem was the fact that she was dating a Muslim person, as they are Sikh.

Through Iqra and Ash, Eastenders was able to move beyond the traditional on-screen struggle (which sees characters being outcast simply because they are gay) and instead explore new depth and complexity within LGBTQ relationships.