It’s 1987. And 17 million people are watching Eastenders on the BBC when something remarkable happens. A kiss. A gay kiss. Between the yuppie go-getter Colin and the cuddly market trader Barry. It wasn’t, it is true, the first gay kiss on British television – that came the decade before – but it was the first in a soap opera. And that meant it was mainstream.
To understand how mind-blowing this was at the time – including, I can testify, in the case of my 14-year-old mind – you have to understand the context. Homophobic language and outright hostility towards LGBT+ people back then was as normal as discussing the weather. The very next year, in 1988, the brutal Section 28 – which targeted local authorities that, in its view, committed the crime of “promoting homosexuality” – was implemented by the Conservative government (and wasn’t fully scrapped until 2003). The effect on LGBT+ people, and especially children, was traumatic.
And into this atmosphere came a kiss between male lovers on a primetime family soap. The kiss itself was a quick peck on the forehead as Colin left for jury service and Barry lay nursing a cold, but it caused an uproar. “EastBenders!” the tabloids screeched the next day. Michael Cashman, who played Colin alongside Gary Hailes’ Barry, got a brick through his window.
But Eastenders was grappling with these tensions even as it was trying to move past them. In one scene, Dot Cotton, a much beloved resident of the soap’s fictional borough of Walford, refused to drink from a cup of coffee given to her by Barry. Nor will she clean his flat once he confirms that he and Colin are gay. She is petrified that she will “catch AIDS,” and tells Barry that it is a disease sent down by God to punish gay men like him. This was also a time, lest is need saying, when the newspaper described AIDS as “the gay plague”.
I had a deep, dark secret back then. I really fancied Joanna Lumley in the TV show Sapphire & Steel. And Mahony’s girlfriend in 1984’s Police Academy. But admitting this out loud was utterly unthinkable. In fact, I barely dared acknowledge it to myself – these were fantasies that I considered abnormal, and they filled me with shame.
The Colin and Barry storyline, however, was the first time I’d seen two men in a relationship presented as “normal”. And it went a long way to normalise same-sex relationships for me and, presumably, for many others. It gave me the courage to stand up for lads who were being picked on for being gay. And to join protests for “gay rights,” as they were called then. Boy George, Jimmy Somerville and Peter Tatchell became my activist heroes.
A few years later, us 1980s kids were bouncing around at parties to Billy Bragg’s ‘Sexuality’, screaming “Just because you’re gay, I won’t turn you away’ and “Safe sex doesn’t mean no sex, it just means use your imagination” into each other’s faces. And, really, it all started with a kiss. That gentle peck on the forehead, from Colin to Barry, on our telly in 1987.
Illustrations by Phillipa Warden Hill