Eric From ‘Sex Education’ Is A Queer Icon, And We Do Not Deserve Him
"Ah! Kelly Clarkson! Poet."
There’s a scene in Netflix’s extremely good, funny, and very horny teen comedy Sex Education, which has to resonate with almost every queer viewer of the show.
*Spoilers for season 1!*
It follows a scene in which the character of Eric Effiong is brutally attacked while wearing a drag costume for a performance of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
I don’t want to focus too much on the attack — it’s a pretty horrifying reality, but homophobic violence isn’t a subject that particularly needs more discussion amongst queer audiences.
It’s what happened after that really got me: the morning where he wakes up, and instead of putting on his colourfully queer clothes — the outfits that he’s chosen to represent himself and his confidence in his sexuality, that expresses who he is — he puts on bland, beige clothes, to help mask himself.
He cosplays as a cis-het man, he puts on straight drag.
It’s very sad, but very, very relatable.
He sort of puts himself back in the closet — in this case for only a few episodes, but it’s something that queer people are forced to do over and over, especially young queers, or those who are marginalised in other ways.
It’s such a heartbreaking and truthful depiction of a queer narrative to have on screen, and one of the reasons that Eric Effiong is the queer icon we need.
“This Is A New Frontier, My Sexually Repressed Friend”
Sex Education is a teen comedy that’s a very funny and often cringeworthy exploration of teen sexuality and how awkward it is to have Gillian Anderson as your hot mum. That’s the plot. It’s a great show — and one of the most beloved characters, especially amongst the gays, is Eric Effiong.
It is absolutely a disservice to talk about Eric’s queerness without placing it within the wider parameter of his character.
Played by the Scottish-Rwandan actor Ncuti Gatwa, Eric is a young black gay student, who comes from a religious and cultural tradition that we’re only just starting to see on our screen, let alone as an out and proud gay character. It’s incredibly refreshing and great! His queerness is inseparable from this larger background.
He’s also an absolute delight. Even though his role is the best friend of Otis, the extremely repressed pseudo-sexual therapist, Eric is never treated tokenistically, or as a sideline. He’s a beautifully rendered character, with a vivacity and flair by Ncuti Gatwa.
He’s often stupendously awkward, which is lovely. Probably the only thing I don’t buy is that he’s meant to be an uncool high school student, and he’s so handsome?
Honestly, he steals every scene.
Who deserves better? #SexEducation #Netflix pic.twitter.com/U9sYcvc8p0
— fia losbañes corpuz (@fiacorpuz) January 12, 2019
The bit at the party where he teaches blowjobs using bananas? His insanely beautiful outfit at the school dance? We live for him!
He’s also 100 percent the funniest character. That bit where he just points and laughs at Otis (who does NOT deserve this angel as a friend) when he has an erection in the pool is absolutely the energy I’ll be taking with me through 2019.
This Is What Representation Actually Means
There’s such a big drive towards representation on our screens that we sometimes forget WHY we want it — especially when we get served tokenistic nods towards representation, which replace actually doing the work — see, the entire oeuvre of J.K Rowling for example.
Sex Education is a show that helps us remember the kinds of stories that we can get once we start having a more robust ecosystem of representation and diversity on television.
Not only do we get the perspective of a queer person from a specific West African black background living in Britain, but we also get a new style of queer story. There’s no coming out narrative for Eric (thank god!), no tale of the disapproving or homophobic parents.
And while those stories are still happening in real life, they’re things we’ve seen before ad nauseum. We’re not defined by them, and neither are our pop-cultural narratives.
Wow #SexEducation really gave us the most layered and complex characterization of a gay teen of color!! He wasn’t there for comedy relief or for tokenism. He had his own storyline and grew into this BEAUTIFUL, FIERCE, and joy-spreading angel
WE MUST PROTECT ERIC AT ALL COSTS. pic.twitter.com/VBXnkiCRud
— ✨ (@wiiissssss) January 13, 2019
Instead, we get a more nuanced tale of a character negotiating the boundaries of their queerness after a traumatic event, or exploring their already established and visible sexuality “I’ve given two and a half handjobs” says Eric at one point.
In terms of his relationship with his family, it becomes extremely clear that his father is confused and worried by his son’s sexuality — but not homophobic. It’s a more complicated relationship to explore, and probably more realistic too.
Ncuti Gatwa puts forward the same idea in an interview:
“Normally, black people can be portrayed as quite homophobic or black communities can be seen as really homophobic. The black community is a lot more forward thinking and diverse than it’s quite often portrayed,” he said.
He added that the relationship with his dad, which was probably the most heartwarming in the show, helped exemplify that.
“It was so refreshing having a dad, a West African man, who completely loves and adores his son and accepts his son for who he is. He’s just scared for him and the world he’s about to inhabit because it’s a culture he’s not grown up in. That’s all it is. Every parent just wants their child to be safe, and that’s the only thing Eric’s dad is concerned about. That was really special.”
Sex Education Is Just So Good
One of the lines that Eric’s dad says at the end, after the learning and growing is done, is “Maybe, I’m learning from my brave son”.
Shit off, that’s SO nice.
Maybe I'm learning from my brave son. – Eric's Dad, Sex Education. pic.twitter.com/tCOmBhbP5x
— Niar (@niarysn) January 19, 2019
But here’s the thing, Eric’s storyline does show the braveness that’s sometimes required to be openly queer — especially for trans and gender diverse folk, or effeminate and camp presenting people, the process of simply being yourself outside in society brings with it dangers, as Eric discovers on that dark road.
And when we watch him retreat into himself for a while — out of trauma and fear — and dim his own light, try to reign in all that fabulosity (tbh, not even the brown cargo pants manage this), we see his braveness in coming back out again, and expressing the fullness of his personality. Once again, that outfit at the dance was amazing — but imagine having the force of personality to wear that after being beaten up?
It’s been written before about how being queer means constantly coming out, sometimes over and over again every day. This is usually in regards to constantly have to reinforce your identity — constantly positioning yourself as “not straight” or “not cisgender”, using the correct pronouns, etc.
But Eric shows us that sometimes coming out again is also something you have to do for yourself, that sometimes the world tries to force us back into that closet.
Protect Eric at all costs ❤️🌸#SexEducation pic.twitter.com/1oPXa0XCGx
— arianna. (@pieceofyou) January 20, 2019
I remember after a similar homophobic attack that happened to me, where I was beaten up in broad daylight in a busy park on my lunch break, I retreated back from what I considered “public” expressions of queerness for a while. Not that I was doing anything particularly queer at the time — I must have been eating my sandwich in a particularly salaciously gay way?
But Eric picks himself up, forgives his shit best friend, and rises even more magnificently queer than ever before.
“I’ll be hurt either way,” he tells his father. “Isn’t it better to be who I am?”
It’s an inspiring story of everyday queer bravery, and it’s why we do not deserve Eric — but we absolutely deserve these kinds of stories.
You can stream Sex Education Season 1 on Netflix, and you should.
Patrick Lenton is the Entertainment Editor at Junkee. He tweets @patricklenton.