Visibility and inclusivity, the perfect match for a happier ending to life’s stories

In 2015 former Health Minister Norman Lamb created a bit of a furore by suggesting that more LGBT characters should be visible on children’s TV, in the likes of the Peppa Pig stories. On social media, those who are not homophobic — those who genuinely long for equality and inclusion — nodded their heads vigorously in comments of passionate support, while those who are homophobic — and genuinely don’t want to embrace diversity — spouted their venom in comments of disdainful disgust.

Most of the responses however (with data taken from a very unscientific assessment of a scroll down my social media feeds) seemed to be from those who genuinely think they’re not homophobic, but actually have little understanding of what ‘acceptance’ and ‘inclusion’ really mean.

You might know the sort, the ‘I’m not homophobic, but…’ people.

They dropped a diatribe of comments littered with such gems as;

‘I’m not homophobic, but I don’t want my children to be exposed to these sorts of things till they’re much older!’

and;

‘I’m not homophobic, but I don’t think it’s right to let my child read a book with gay people (or pigs…) in it!’

and;

‘This is RIDICULOUS! I’m not homophobic, but Peppa Pig is a toddler pig! Toddler humans don’t know about gay people so why should we expect a toddler pig to know?!!’

I’m not quite sure what ‘sort of things’ they thought Peppa’s new gay neighbours might get up to on morning TV, but I’m sure it wouldn’t have been anything more questionable than those people’s attitude. What they actually seemed to be saying was:

“I won’t have a problem if my little Johnny turns out to be gay as I’m not homophobic. But I just want him to grow up surrounded by my idea of ‘normal’… I don’t want him to be ‘exposed’ to gay people on the telly or in books until he’s older. If he grows up to be gay then that’ll be fine, I won’t mind, I’ll love my Johnny no matter what. And, of course, he’ll tell me if he’s gay as I’m a very open and accepting mum… But it’s not something we need to think about for a long time, not until he’s older…”

…by which time, of course, it’ll probably be too late for Johnny. He’ll have grown up feeling different. He’ll have felt like he doesn’t fit in, every day. He’ll not have been sure why at first, then he’ll have had his first crush. He’ll have felt ashamed that his crush was on a boy. It’ll have felt wrong. It should’ve been on a girl. That’s normally what happens.

His mum will have asked, ‘Is this your new girlfriend?’ when he’s brought one of his female pals home. She’ll never have asked, ‘Is this your new boyfriend?’ when he’s brought one of his male pals home. He’ll probably never have seen two men holding hands but he will have seen the look of disgust on the faces of his friends when there’s been any mention of anything associated with being gay. He’ll have watched his dad turn his head when two men kiss on the telly. He’ll have heard his mum say, ‘Did you hear that Simon’s gay? I always wondered if he was gay?’, and Johnny will have wondered if anyone wondered if he’s gay. It’s something to be talked about, commented on.

Every single day at school he’ll have heard, ‘That’s so gay!’ being used to mock, or shame someone. He’ll have wondered why the teachers let that happen. Why they think it’s OK to use ‘gay’ to tease someone, or to make someone feel bad. Maybe it’s because they see gay as being wrong too. He’ll have seen the ‘camp’ boy at school being bullied. He’ll have felt grateful that he’s not camp. It’ll have meant that he could easily bury how he really felt, and not appear to be gay. He’ll have created a character, one that fits in with the society around him. And the real Johnny will have become more and more invisible.

Just like those proposed gay characters on children’s TV. Hidden and invisible.

When Johnny grows up, he’ll find things much tougher than he did as a child. He’ll probably eventually come out because he’ll reach a breaking point. It’s hard, really hard, to live under layers of pretence. His parents and friends will say, ‘Why didn’t you tell us before? We don’t mind at all that you’re gay! It’ll be fine, things have changed so much and society is so accepting of gay people now…’.

After he comes out Johnny will probably continue to face all sorts of issues, mostly around shame-based trauma, such as depression, addictions and feeling suicidal. Things will be tough for Johnny, and he’ll be much more likely to take his own life than any of his straight male friends.

But, let’s not forget to look on the bright side here! It could’ve been so much worse for Johnny; thankfully he was never exposed to the horrors of watching a gay character appear on Peppa Pig…

There will probably always be people who have an extreme and irrational aversion to homosexuality and homosexuals. Being one of those people, a homophobe, is not illegal. But acting on your feelings and actively discriminating against someone who’s gay is. And, while some of our politicians and our legal system should be applauded for ensuring that laws are now in place to prevent non-inclusion or discrimination, there’s a long way to go before that legislation is fully embraced and enforced in our schools and in our wider society.

Of course, there’s no suggestion that everyone who spoke out against the idea of a gay character in the Peppa Pig stories should be threatened with legal action. But speaking out against the inclusion of gay characters from our children’s stories does equate to speaking out against the inclusion of gay people from our society.

Our children — whether they’re gay, straight, bi-sexual, transexual, transgender — should grow up in an environment that embraces and celebrates diversity. They should grow up understanding that to be gay is nothing to be ashamed of, that it’s absolutely OK to be gay. For that reason it’s vital that gay, and other more diverse, characters be incorporated into the stories that our children grow up with — because keeping those characters hidden endorses the attitude that being gay in real life is something shameful, and should stay hidden.

And that, for many young people, creates life stories that are full of heartache, sadness and tough battles before they, hopefully, eventually find the courage to strip away the fantasies and live their lives to a happy ending as the beautiful, real characters they were always meant to be.