We British love our soap operas, and the increasing presence of their LGBT+ characters have probably changed more minds towards gay rights than any number of leaflets or banners.
There’s only so much that can be achieved from a protest lectern, but true progress comes by engaging with people in the place they spend the most time: their living rooms.
Soaps show that LGBT+ people are just like everybody else: pretty normal folks with normal concerns, capable of being good, bad and, on the right day, pretty extraordinary.
So set the other side to record (it’ll only be a repeat anyway), and sit back to enjoy our list of the top soap gay characters.
Todd Grimshaw – Coronation Street
Hunky Todd Grimshaw (Bruno Langley) seemingly had it all, including a loving girlfriend (Sarah Platt), but when questioning his sexuality, he made a pass at Sarah’s brother Nick in that famous scene (it was probably the first time younger readers saw themselves reflected on TV, and you always remember your first time, right?).
He embraced his identity, having a proper gay kiss with hunky nurse Karl on Canal Street, and coming clean to Sarah. Todd’s no longer a frightened kid anymore, but a wise, assured (and sometimes devious) older gay man. He’s handled a lot of big storylines, too, and his gayness isn’t the story anymore – as it should be.
Sean Tully – Coronation Street
The Todd saga brought not one but two gay mainstays to Corrie – Sean (Antony Cotton) was first glimpsed in a Canal Street club with Todd. 13 years later, he’s still entertaining us.
He’s a loud, proud, fabulous gay man with no end of witty one liners or dirty puns, and he’s perennially unlucky in love – which just makes him more endearing (we can certainly relate). Some have criticised him for perpetuating camp stereotypes of gay men – but camp guys are just as much a part of our community as any other, and no list of iconic gay soap characters would be complete without Sean.
Antony delivered the perfect riposte to the naysayers, saying: “People like Blanche, Emily and Norris, and the classic characters… They’re all more camp than Sean – I’m Grant Mitchell compared to them.”
Well when you put it like that, Ant…
Aaron Livesy – Emmerdale
Sashaying over the Pennines, we arrive at the chocolate-box rustic splendour of Emmerdale (just don’t touch the scenery or it may fall over). Aaron Livesy (Danny Miller) has struck a chord – Danny’s won more awards than any other Emmerdale actor.
Aaron’s ground-breaking: a gay character who smashes every stereotype people have of gay men – it’s hard to imagine him settling down to binge-watch RuPaul, let’s put it that way. Angry, sometimes violent (against the bad guys), and tortured – he’s a proper bad boy.
His storylines have ranged from drug abuse, imprisonment, and self-harm. If Sean sees himself as Grant Mitchell, Aaron’s basically Clint Eastwood. We salute Aaron: a true original.
John-Paul McQueen / Craig Dean – Hollyoaks
We’ve cheated here (sue us) – but the infamous John-Paul/Craig coupling even gave birth to its own nickname: McDean, so it’s only fair to group them. John-Paul and Craig’s coming out story was instrumental in introducing nuanced LGBT+ characters and themes to a mainstream audience – and won massive plaudits from viewers and Stonewall.
We first encountered them at school, where John-Paul was saved from a bully by Craig. They became tangled in a long storyline in which they realised their sexuality and began an affair, with plenty of drama along the way. They eventually accepted themselves, and got their fairytale ending. All together now… N’awwww.
Christian Clarke – EastEnders
Heading darn sarf now, we come to the mean streets of Walford, where we find Christian Clarke. Originally introduced so the soap could cash in on the popularity of Corrie’s Sean, he became much more than a token gesture. Hunky, suave, and unwilling to apologise to anyone for who he was, Christian brought a touch of bitchiness and plenty of biceps to Albert Square.
He also took part in some hard-hitting storylines, including an episode in which he was beaten up by a homophobic attacker. An episode which featured a kiss between him and his lover received 145 complaints.
The BBC released a statement telling those unhappy, in no uncertain terms, to get lost. Good stuff. But Christian also became one half of one of the most controversial, talked about stories ever aired on British TV, when he fell in love with:
Syed Masood – EastEnders
Look, the BBC isn’t perfect (Call the bloody Midwife AGAIN?!), but they deserve major credit for the creation of Syed Masood, soapland’s first and so far only gay Muslim character. Religious intolerance is nothing new to the LGBT+ community, but to see it played out in Syed’s affecting tale was truly inspiring.
The dashing, adorable Mark Elliot portrayed the conflicted young British Pakistani who was disowned by his family after he revealed he was in love with Christian in sad but necessary scenes. Unusually for Eastenders, things turned out all right before the final doof-doofs – Syed’s family came to accept him, and he moved to America with Christian. Lucky, lucky Christian.
Colin Russell – EastEnders
We’ve profiled some legendary gay characters on this little list of ours, but all the guys, and all of us, owe an unimaginable debt to clean-cut graphic designer Colin Russell (Michael Cashman), arriving in Albert Square in August 1986. The first gay character in Eastenders, his blink and you’ll miss it kiss with partner Barry was the first gay kiss in any British soap. Ever.
Just let that sink in.
The tabloid press spat blood, but Eastenders, and Michael, now Lord, Cashman didn’t relent: Colin went on to become one half of the first full-on kiss between two men, broadcast in 1989 and watched by 20 million viewers.
He was more than just a history-maker, he was a great character in his own right: a real person at a time when gay TV characters had cardboard cut-outs and the butt of jokes.
Meanwhile, Lord Cashman matched his character’s heroism – he founded LGBT+ charity Stonewall, become an MEP and battled tirelessly for gay rights and equality – Michael, you absolute treasure, we salute you Sir.
So there you have it. Countless other pioneers have trod the boards of soapland who didn’t make our list, but that’s not to downplay their achievements. All of them, and all of our hunky entries here, have contributed to something pretty mind-blowing: broadening minds, opening hearts, and representing people who were once without a voice. Not bad, boys, not bad.
Words Jonathan Shiel