Gay Life: The UK’s First LGBTQ+ TV Series

I’m so bored of Netflix.

Netflix original films, in particular, aren’t exactly my cup of tea: self-indulgent, overacted and engineered for Oscars glory. (Yes, even Pieces of a Woman).

Instead, I’ve recently turned to other streaming platforms.

For my money, BFI Player is the best out there. And, as I was scrolling through their LGBT Britain collection, I came across an absolute gem.

BFI Player is home to three episodes of Gay Life – the UK’s first ever LGBT TV series.

Admittedly, it didn’t get a national audience. It was broadcast by London Weekend Television at 11:30pm, which is hardly prime time material. But, looking back, it was a groundbreaking piece of television.

The series aired between 1980-1981, just as the AIDs epidemic began to change the life of the LGBT community forever.

‘Heaven’ takes viewers on a whistle-stop tour around London’s queer nightlife scene. LGBT people are not seen as a homogenous group; rather, we meet the ‘camp’ drag queens of Vauxhall tavern and the ‘masc’ gay men part of the leather community.

Although the episode presents them in an almost binary opposition, it reveals the many ways in which gay men, in particular, rejected midcentury gender norms – and sometimes the LGBT community itself.

‘Being Gay in the Thirties’ meets gay men who were in their early 20s at the time. It’s a fascinating study of gay life before the major police crackdown on homosexuality in the 50s and 60s.

Rightly so, lesbians protested that the first series of Gay Life excluded women. So, in 1981, an episode titled ‘Lesbians’ aired.

In it, we meet two contrasting figures: Sybil, who was a suffragette, and Julie – a politically active young feminist living in an all-woman household.

Like all episodes in the series, it effortlessly moves between the history of sexuality, contemporary academic theory and the lived experience of actual LGBT people in the early 80s.

I hate to admit it, but I find queer theory to be painfully dry. What Gay Life does brilliantly is illuminate these ideas via real people by simply giving them the space to share their experiences – which had, literally, never been done on UK television before.

Explore the LGBT Britain collection on BFI Player here.

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