Not such a gay old time

9th June 2006 at 01:00
Teenagers bullied by their peers in school are not being helped by stereotyped media depictions of homosexuality, says David Self

Television viewers were left either damning or enjoying the gay sex on offer in Andrew Davies's dramatisation of Alan Hollinghurst's novel The Line of Beauty on BBC 1. Besides some unrealistically beautiful young men, it contained a mix of Thatcherite Tories, cocaine and the mega-rich. It was safely set in the past and there was little to suggest that homosexuality might involve ordinary people.

Mundane, contemporary "suburban" gay and lesbian relationships are invisible in the media. Happy lesbian, gay, bi and transgendered (LGBT) teenagers do not exist. This woeful absence of role models for those growing up confused or worried about their sexuality is compounded by the recent demise of Gay Men's Press, one of the few UK publishers to publish "young adult" gay titles; and the cowardice of educational publishers in funking the subject when they commission series for personal, social and health education lessons.

This matters. Yes, of course homosexuality is now much more widely accepted than it was in the Thatcher years when, as one character in the BBC dramatisation conceded, it was tolerable "provided you don't mention it".

When my partner and I celebrated our civil partnership just before Christmas, we were not aware of any adverse reaction. For those of school age, little has changed. Bullying (ranging from casual verbal abuse and ridicule to serious physical attacks), rumour-mongering, isolation or even "gang" abuse are often the norm - and may well be supported by the school establishment.

The campaigning organisation Stonewall cites the recent case of a 14-year-old girl who, after confessing to a friend she might be lesbian, is now forced to sit outside the changing rooms before and after PE and games lessons until the rest of the class has changed. One bitter lesson of this incident is that any confused teenager is well advised not to come out, even to a close friend. Once out, you can't go back into the closet.

I am occasionally invited by more enlightened schools and colleges to speak to sixth forms on the subject. Afterwards, one or more individuals hang around hoping for a private word. It's obvious the presiding teacher is highly nervous of any such conversations which might be construed as "personal contact".

A number of schools now have highly respected and trusted counsellors. Even so, the majority of so-called "confused" teenagers need to explore their situation in something close to secrecy.

While the gay press contain many agony columns, if you're a LGBT teenager, uncertain of your sexuality and live in a small provincial town, you're unlikely to march into WH Smith, seize the latest polythene-wrapped Gay Times or Diva off the top shelf and happily watch it being scanned by a cashier your mother knows.

Many gay men remember with gratitude the stories of David Rees in which they first met "people just like us". His novel The Milkman's on his Way explored the tensions a West Country lad experienced as he grew up with a loving but homophobic father. It was published by Gay Men's Press, an outfit closed down by its Gay Times owners because it was insufficiently profitable.

In the United States, writers like David Levithan (author of teen novels such as Boy Meets Boy) are getting published. It's not easy to find their titles in British shops or the lists of library suppliers.

Ironically, publishers of teen non-fiction quote America as the reason they won't include homosexuality in their PSHE lists.

Drugs, gambling and alcohol abuse are all fine. As the author of many such books in the fields of RE and media, I've pushed hard at the publishers'

doors. "Great idea, we should be doing homosexuality. But for a title to be viable, we have to do an American co-edition and they'd never buy a book about that." Only if school librarians vociferously demand more gay fiction and non-fiction is there much chance of its publication.

Even the BBC seems unable to accept that about 5 per cent of its audience is LGBT. Stonewall recently monitored 168 hours of primetime television on BBC 1 and BBC 2. Only six minutes featured realistic portrayals of gay life. Thirty-two minutes featured offensive references - and half the total references were in jokes.

EastEnders has recently featured the story of Sonia: apparently she is soon to be written out of the series. As an astute teenage viewer recently pointed out, lesbians on television always steal married women. If not, they're murderers (as in Brookside). Channel 4 Education is at least showing (during the next academic year) a five-part series, Gay to Z, about LGBT teenagers. Executive producer Lisa Fairbank has had to make the series largely without the help of schools. They did not want to be involved.

This is a measure of the isolation LGBT students must feel within those schools -and one reason why young people turn to dubious internet sites in a desperate attempt to find information or meet anyone with whom they can discuss their orientation.

David Self writes non-fiction books for children and is a regular TES reviewer.

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