TV

Why ‘The Secret Life Of Us’ Meant So Much To A Generation Of LGBTQI Australians

For once, I could watch a show that dealt with actual gay issues with my entire family.

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Growing up as a gay teenager I spent a lot of time searching for some way of seeing myself in the world. I used to sneak onto my family’s computer to search for gay chat rooms on MSN Messenger. After school I’d go to the two different newsagents in the mall, occasionally getting up the courage to pick up one of the gay magazines and have a look. But it was often in TV where I went searching for opportunities to see myself.

Every Monday night I hoped my family would go to bed early so I could watch the US version of Queer as Folk. I’d sit nervously in the living room, holding on to the remote so I could change the channel whenever I heard someone stir. Apart from these occasional ‘gay shows’ though, representation of gay characters were few and far between. That was until 2001 when The Secret Life of Us premiered.

The Secret Life of Us is the first mainstream — i.e. not ‘gay and lesbian’ — show I can remember including main gay characters. At the start of the show we’re introduced to Simon. Simon, at a glance, appeared as your sort of stereotypical ‘bit part’ gay character. He’s a bartender who pops up every so often to provide wisdom for the rest of the cast. But then the twist. Half-way through the first season, one of the main characters, Richie, who has been struggling with his girlfriend Miranda, has sex with Simon. Soon enough Richie’s entire life is thrown into turmoil — questioning his sexuality, and by seasons two and three, finding his way in the gay community.

The Gay Representation Revolution

Representation of gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans and other queer characters has gone through a revolution in the past couple of decades, with many agreeing it was pioneered in the mainstream by Ellen. As a show, Ellen is considered so important that there is now a prominent website titled After Ellen, charting gay representation following the show’s lead. Ellen was followed by a number of hits in the late ‘90s and early noughties. Will and Grace began on NBC in 1998. The UK and US series, Queer as Folk, provided relatively realistic portrayals of young gay life from 1999 and 2000 respectively. In 2003, Bravo released the gay makeover show Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. Gays and lesbians were finally being moved from being bit characters to receiving mainstream roles.

This wasn’t all as great as it sounds. Gay representation has historically followed one of two tropes — comedy and tragedy – and these shows were no exception. Characters in the mainstream like Will and Grace or Queer Eye tend to be there just for comedic relief. They’re presented as extremely stereotypical and very rarely actually deal with many serious issues. If not there for laughs, gay characters seemed to always face some sort of tragedy. This second trope has a long history with queer life being presented as a lifestyle that will always result in some form of tragedy, no matter what the circumstances. Early lesbian representation on TV was limited to “killers, tramps, thieves and therapists.”

These tropes are still relevant today. While gay men are much less likely to face tragic endings these days, this is not the case for lesbian characters, who seem to be killed off as quickly as they appear on TV. At the other end, two of the most prominent gay characters of recent times, Cam and Mitchell from Modern Family, are the perfect examples of stereotypical gay characters. As a couple, Cam and Mitchell virtually hate each other, with critics noting the show regularly “bury[s] any possibility of two men displaying any sexual desire for each other”.

In many ways Australia is seen as a leader in gay representation, with the TV series Prisoner and Number 96 both featuring gay characters in the 1970s and ‘80s. Yet, apart from these two early leaders it was noted that while gay representation was developing globally in the 1990s, Australia was largely left behind. There was little diversity to be found on our TV screens.

This is why I’ve realised The Secret Life of Us was so important. The gay story arc didn’t just give us tokenistic representation of gay characters: it gave us a real people to relate to.

The Secret Life Of Us And Accurate Portrayals Of Queer People

As a character discovering his sexuality, Richie goes through a range of the issues many queer people face. He battles through confusion and anxiety as he contends with the disappointment about his sexuality from the people he loves. This process of discovery continues once he officially comes out too. I remember a scene in which Richie has sex in a public toilet ‘beat’ at one of Melbourne’s beaches.

He then starts heading out to clubs and exploring different parts of the gay community. He deals with personal insecurities and negotiates the often complex gay sex scene. In another scene, I remember him returning from a sex club and explaining to one of his straight mates what a glory hole is (if you don’t know you should look it up, but probably not while you’re at work).

This was even more important when considering The Secret Life of Us was in prime time. I could watch a show that dealt with actual gay issues with my entire family. It foretold some of the very issues I’d face when I came out — the difficulties of having to explain to people about my sexuality and the anxieties I would face when going to gay venues. Perhaps most importantly, it spoke about and dealt with gay sex — something that is so rare, even today.

While I’m hesitant to argue that it was a leader in the pack, that was definitely how it felt to me. Despite the continuance of the standard gay tropes in much of our TV, this charge of accurate representation is now truly being felt. Though it could still be significantly better, we now have well-rounded representations of LGBT characters in many shows — True Blood, Sens8, Orange Is The New Black and Grace and Frankie among others. Grace and Frankie and Transparent dive into what it’s like to come out in old age. Orange Is The New Black tells stories of life as a queer prisoner. This is not just limited to these shows. In researching this piece I asked friends and colleagues for examples of queer representation on TV. I was absolutely flooded with examples, ones never even contemplated.

We can see this representation finally hitting Australian TV shows as well. New TV shows such as Please Like Me, The Family Law, Offspring, Wentworth and even Neighbours are introducing queer characters in a range of different and realistic, circumstances. Australia seems finally to be catching up with the rest of the world, and The Secret Life of Us has played an important role in that development.

Queer representation is important, but that representation is not actually valuable until it presents queer people in a realistic way. As the first mainstream show I can remember that actually did this, The Secret Life of Us will always have a special place in my heart.

Simon Copland is a freelance writer and climate campaigner. He blogs here and tweets at@SimonCopland.