More than two million Britons watch Alan Carr’s Chatty Man, nearly four million the Graham Norton Show and even more will watch just about anything Stephen Fry does. These men are the British icons keeping the nation entertained and they’re all openly homosexual; Carr with his cooing camp, Norton cracking gay sex jokes, and Fry fronting the urgent and enlightening Out There for BBC2, which explored gay culture around the world. There’s a host of other gay men on primetime TV, including Paul O’Grady, Gok Wan and Ian McKellen, and I haven’t even got to celebs like Nick Grimshaw, Will Young and George Michael yet.
Gushing about the openly gay women in the British media seems a much harder feat. Clare Balding, Sandi Toksvig, Sue Perkins and Mary Portas are the few out lesbians on British primetime, and while their contribution to raising LGBT awareness is huge, I can’t help feeling that their sexuality goes under the gaydar. In a time when lesbianism still seems to shock, frighten and offend a lot of people (just look at the tiresome controversy surrounding Blue Is the Warmest Colour), these women provide safe representations of lesbianism; they’re not too butch or too femme, they’re white, middle-class and middle-aged, and they’ve all been in long-term relationships.
There’s also the issue that if you’re under 20 and glued to YouTube and Instagram rather than the television or radio, then you probably haven’t even heard of these women. I know my 16-year-old sister hadn’t. When the Independent published its questionably titled Pink List last month, an annual list of the 101 most influential LGBT people in the public eye in Britain, I’d only heard of five of the 40-odd women on it; and the recent Stonewall awards also demonstrated the scarcity of well-known gay celebs when semi-successful lesbian X Factor contestant Lucy Spraggan was nominated for “entertainer of the year”.
Some argue that to conduct these kinds of ceremonial pats on the back for those who choose to come out as gay is reductive or patronising, but I disagree. I still hear kids slinging the word “gay” around as an insult, I notice some of my friends ashamed to admit they slept with someone of the same sex, and most vitally, I see the figures presented by Stonewallthat 23% of lesbian, gay and bisexual young people have tried to take their own life at some point, with 29% of girls likely to attempt this, compared to 16% of boys.
Ruth Hunt, deputy chief executive of Stonewall comments: “Young people growing up to be gay or bisexual can all too often feel isolated and alone. For many of us, it’s the celebrities and sports stars that we see on our television screens who help us develop our sense of self and to feel comfortable with our sexual orientation.” If this is the case, the number of lesbians represented in the British media desperately needs to catch up with that of gay men. We need more celesbians.
Yet, while Jane Czyzselska, editor of Diva magazine, notes the reluctance of celebrity PRs to allow their artists to appear on a lesbian magazine cover, openly lesbian US rapper Brooke Candy suspects that many famous women might be gay but afraid to come out. “There are a lot of them [closeted famous people] but they’re not willing to actually be the real role models that they can be. I think their management can say whatever they want but it’s the artist’s choice to come out.”
Candy’s part of an emerging group of young American female rappers who have publicly stated they’re into girls. Nicki Minaj and Azealia Banks have both professed to like women, and Angel Haze recently recorded a track, entitled Same Love, about just that. Addressed to her mother, the lyrics recall her coming out process from age 13 and give young girls a narrative they can empathise with, one that ends with the optimistic mantra “here’s to who you’ll be when you figure it all out”.
As someone who is 22 and identifies as bisexual, I’ll vouch that instances like Jessie J’s bisexuality and Cara Delevingne and Rita Ora’s “wifey” episode made me feel more legitimised in my sexuality. I wouldn’t expect bisexual celebrities to provide the same comfort to gay people though, as female bisexuality tends to be deemed more socially acceptable than lesbianism; maybe because it’s perceived as more edgy or porny, or because bisexual celebrities such as Drew Barrymore, Angelina Jolie and Megan Fox all wound up married to men.
Still, what Britain possesses in the stakes of gay male national treasures and America boasts in gay and bisexual female role models, there should be for British celesbians. We need young, strong, relatable lesbian role models who speak openly about their sexuality. It would make closeted gay girls feel more comfortable to come out, it would make openly gay girls feel more validated, and it would pave the way for a media that actually reflects the diversity of our culture, in terms not just of sexuality, but race, age and gender too.