No LGBT+ Love Island - are there really too many gay characters on TV?

ITV studios boss Kevin Lygo dismissed the idea of an LGBT+ version of Love Island. 

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Just over a month has passed since the finale of ITV2’s Love Island. After reluctantly agreeing to watch one episode on a rainy July evening, I’m not ashamed to say that I instantly became hooked - and it turns out I wasn’t alone.

Although this was the third series since ITV decided to revive the show back in 2015, it struck a chord with viewers that few could have predicted. From Labour MP Jess Phillips to The Times columnist Caitlin Moran, it seemed that those on my Twitter feed who weren’t hashtagging #LoveIsland were in the minority. Reality TV hadn’t been this good since the golden age of Big Brother 7 with Nikki Grahame.

Read more: Why is Love Island so Tory?

But while the show gained praise for its handling of sensitive topics including feminism and controlling relationships, diversity wasn’t exactly its strong point. With sculpted bodies and perfect smiles, the islanders rigidly conformed to conventional beauty standards. Black and minority ethnic contestants were also a rarity.

As the stars of Love Island 2017 attempt to cash-in with club appearances, clothing ranges and dead-eyed detox tea Instagram posts, plans for the next series are already underway. During this year’s series, there was much discussion about whether there should be LGBT+ contestants on the next season. There were even rumours that ITV were developing a gay version of the show, with Love Island creator Richard Cowles saying he would be open to exploring the concept.

Yet during an interview at Edinburgh’s TV festival, Head of ITV studios Kevin Lygo remained sceptical towards the idea. Later in the interview, he even joked that, “there are already quite enough gay characters on TV.” This statement has inevitably been met with fierce condemnation on social media. Two bisexual women were allowed to "couple up" in 2016’s Love Island, so it would seem that LGBT+ storylines are only acceptable when they can be fetishised for the male gaze or enjoyed as a gimmick.

But is Lygo right? Are there already “quite enough” gay characters on TV?

The Diamond report, a comprehensive analysis of diversity in UK TV by the Creative Diversity Network, revealed that 13.2 per cent of on-screen contributors on the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Sky and Channel 5 were LGBT+ between August 2016 and July 2017. It also states that the British public perceived 7.5 per cent of characters to be LGBT+ during the same period. Both of these figures are significantly higher than Public Health England’s most recent estimate that 2.5 per cent of the UK population are LGBT+.

While these findings may appear to back up Lygo’s claims, the number of LGBT+ characters on TV this year has been uncharacteristically high due to programs surrounding the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. Both Channel 4 and the BBC commissioned documentaries and new dramas as part of their Gay Britannia and 50 Shades of Gay seasons.

Inconsistencies in research findings alongside changing attitudes and behaviours also make comparing numbers on this issue somewhat pointless. For instance, a 2015 YouGov poll revealed that less than half of 18-24 year olds consider themselves to be fully heterosexual. This figure rose to 72 per cent when factoring in all adults, but this still indicates that the 2.5 per cent cited in recent government findings is too low. Each of these surveys becomes more irrelevant as the way we view sexuality and relationships changes.

Being queer, just like other supressed minorities, is a lived experience. LGBT+ representation isn’t a matter of ticking boxes or making up the numbers, and the fact that the head of ITV studios thinks its funny to joke about this subject is deeply concerning. It is important that LGBT+ characters are included in TV shows that queer people are likely to watch, and we must ensure that these characters explore narratives that are authentic, thought provoking and relevant to LGBT+ people.

As a gay man, witnessing the amount of LGBT+ friendly programmes on TV this year has had a profound effect on me. It has also been an uncomfortable reminder of how rare it is to see queer stories told on mainstream platforms when it’s not a special anniversary. A gay journalist who I follow recently addressed this on Twitter, saying: “I identified with a TV show's main character for the first time ever recently. Then I realised it's what TV's meant to be like all the time.” He’s 25. Imagine waiting that long to see yourself on screen.

Research from LGBT+ charity Stonewall reveals that 96 per cent of LGBT+ school pupils hear the words "gay" and "queer" being used to describe things that are broken, flawed or undesirable. When we enter the classroom, over half of us never hear LGBT+ people mentioned by teachers in an educational setting. This type of rejection can have a devastating effect on our self-worth. Allowing queer contestants to compete in a show that is so popular with teenagers would have been a big step towards normalising LGBT+ relationships.

With so many LGBT+ young people growing up in shame, we need to start giving them hope that life will get better. Although it may seem trivial, seeing a queer couple kissing, laughing, or saying, “I love you” in a Mallorcan villa could do just that. With a staggering 34 per cent and 48 per cent of LGB and Trans young people having made at least one suicide attempt respectively, increased LGBT+ visibility on TV can save lives. Far from being a laughing matter, it is a vital step that we cannot afford to ignore, and I’ve had “quite enough” of being told otherwise.

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