I was eight years old when Brian Dowling won the second series of Big Brother in 2001. I would be lying if I claimed that I had followed the series closely (it aired far past my bedtime) but my parents, along with half the country, were addicted to the show. As a Friday night treat, I was allowed to stay up with the adults to watch Davina, dressed in a sleek, black, sequined dress, steer the series towards its conclusion. As a child who was gay but didn’t quite know it yet, I will never forget watching Dowling, an openly gay man, triumph in a competition voted on by the public. As he walked down the stairs, fireworks decorated the sky and the crowd cheered.
This was the first time that I had ever seen a gay person on reality television. I marvelled at the fact that Dowling’s difference was being celebrated. Whether I knew it at the time or not, I recognised myself in him.
Three years later, came another watershed moment, when Nadia Almada became the first transgender person to appear on Big Brother. More than five million people tuned in to see her crowned the winner. More recently, in an interview with James O’Brien, trans activist and writer Paris Lees described the impact this moment of TV had on her as she struggled with her gender identity as a teenager.
Nadia’s series of Big Brother represented a turning point. As Channel 4 chased ratings and housemates pursued magazine deals, the show drifted further away from its original remit as a “social experiment”. Since Channel 5 took the reigns in 2011, the Elstree compound has been filled with even bigger personalities to fit the growing demand for structured conflict and controversy.
Yet this season of Celebrity Big Brother has seen a partial return to the show’s original mission. To celebrate the 100-year anniversary of women winning the right to vote, an all-female cast entered the house early, with men entering on day four. From former MP Ann Widdecombe to glamour model Jess Impaizzi, the show aimed to showcase women from a diverse range of backgrounds.
Not everyone was convinced. On launch night, singer Lily Allen tweeted that a show produced by a “Murdoch owned company” (the media baron has a stake in the production company, EndemolShine) featuring “Ann Widdecombe, Boris Johnson’s sister and the Police Woman in charge of Rochdale Grooming Gang investigation feels agenda driven in a very bad way”. Channel 5’s casting of notorious comedian Dapper Laughs, alongside anti-feminist Jonny Mitchell of ITV’s Love Island, seemed to confirm Allen’s suspicions.
In fact, equality has been at the forefront of the conversation. The casting of lesbian actress Amanda Barrie alongside gay ballet dancer Wayne Sleep, bisexual drag queen Courtney Act (real name Shane Jenek) and trans newsreader India Willoughby has created the queerest Big Brother house to date. In fact, I can’t recall any UK reality show representing the LGBT+ community so widely.
As a gay man, it has been fascinating to see queer issues being discussed on the show every night. We have seen beautiful moments, such as Wayne and Amanda reminiscing about their experience of coming out and finding love later in life. In Courtney, the heterosexual cisgendered housemates had someone they felt comfortable putting questions to about gender identity and sexuality. Watching these questions, which clearly came from a genuine desire to learn and empathise, being answered calmly and eloquently warmed my heart, but also acted as a reminder of how limited the understanding of LGBT+ issues can be outside the queer community. The inclusion of so many LGBT+ housemates in “the year of the woman” has provided an opportunity to discuss how both groups continue navigate oppression in 2018.
But watching this series of Big Brother as a gay person has also been incredibly frustrating. Trans housemate India immediately stated her dislike for drag queens, before claiming she didn’t see the point in trans people being in the same community as lesbian, gay and bisexual people. This is despite the fact that, as Courtney promptly reminded her, she has benefitted from decades of shared activism from across the very community that she rejects. Footballer John Barnes claimed that gay men make him feel uncomfortable because they might “make a move” or “touch” him. In a move that viewers condemned as homophobic, Ann (no last names in reality TV) nominated two male housemates for rolling around on the floor in “sexual” positions. Channel 5’s desire to turn the anti-gay, anti-abortion former Tory MP into some sort of lovable figure has also caused distress, with many LGBT+ viewers taking to social media to express their despair.
In one of the series’ most contentious moments, Amanda, who came out as a lesbian later in life, even defended Ann’s anti-gay views, despite Courtney reminding her that she owes her rights to those who stood up against them.
In much of popular culture, queer narratives rely on the binary stories of unequivocal acceptance and rejection. Once the heterosexual majority grants us their approval, our story is presumed to be over. The problem is solved. But this series has shown queer narratives are intrinsically complex. The corrosive feelings of shame felt by those who have spent years hiding who they are, such as Amanda and Wayne, can create an antagonistic relationship with the younger generation. While they now have freedoms they never dreamed of, young queers like Courtney Act are not afraid to dream bigger.
Watching the reactions of Big Brother’s predominantly heterosexual audience, who are mostly unaware of the messy undercurrents of these confrontations and the generational tensions within the LGBT+ community, has been maddening. After the above confrontation, the TV presenter Eamonn Holmes tweeted in defence of Amanda, claiming that Courtney must dress in drag because he doesn’t “like himself”. Evicted housemate Andrew Brady defended Courtney, but labelled Amanda and Wayne “an embarrassment to their community” in the process.
While such a comment is misguided and ignorant, it does raise an important point concerning representation of LGBT+ people. With their unexpected “year of the queers”, Channel 5 have created an environment where LGBT+ people are no longer required to be flawless representatives for the community. Surely equality means that LGBT+ people can be just as stroppy, complicated and flawed as straight people? Being a perfect ambassador for all queer people is too much pressure for anyone to handle alone.
Each queer housemate in this year’s Celebrity Big Brother has given audiences a different version of what an LGBT+ person can be. It might not always be pretty, but the queer community have been having these kinds of debates behind closed doors for years. Imperfection is an inevitable consequence of greater representation. When Emma Willis announces this year’s winner, I’m sure that some queer kids may be up past their bedtime watching. I can only hope that the result inspires them to dream a little bigger, just as it did for me 17 years ago.
Celebrity Big Brother final is tonight from 9pm on Channel 5