This article first appeared in Attitude issue 298, July 2018.
Young adult culture, and I’ve said this many times, is some of the most subversive art out there. From His Dark Materials to SMTV: Live, you can sneak anything through the back door when the censors’ eyes are focused elsewhere.
While long-running Hollyoaks may not make the same critical splash as Brokeback Mountain or Call Me By Your Name, for more than 22 years, the soap opera has quietly got on with telling numerous long-running — often tumultuous — stories about LGBT+ youth.
Surly eco-warrior Gina Patrick (Dannielle Brent) started the ball rolling in 1997 as the first major gay character, but it was the rape of Luke Morgan (Gary Lucy) – which I stress had no bearing on Luke’s sexuality or that of his rapist – that made people really sit up and pay attention to what might previously have been dismissed as a teen drama.
The gut-wrenching, harrowing scenes were transmitted as part of a late-night episode.
Perhaps keen to move on from the negativity of the Morgan plot-line, Craig Dean and John Paul McQueen were introduced as love’s young dream in 2006.
Initially best pals, Craig (Guy Burnet) was engaged to model Sarah until he and John Paul (James Sutton) started to fool around regularly. There was a tenderness, a rare sweetness, to the burgeoning romance, and it felt as if, for the first time, viewers were supposed to root for the young gay couple.
The romance caught the imagination of viewers and the partnership was so popular it seemed they’d got a happy-ever-after in 2008 when the pair exited.
Of course, when John Paul returned (without Craig) in 2012, there was a whole new generation of queer characters. Notable at this time was the oft-terrifying relationship between young Ste (Kieron Richardson) and psychotic Brendan Brady (Emmett J Scanlan).
Once again pushing boundaries, there was something hauntingly believable about the way Brendan was able to manipulate Ste in one of the first soap depictions of same-sex domestic violence.
Post-Brendan, Ste and John Paul were briefly married, although, in another fi rst, Ste became HIV positive after a one-night-stand in 2015. Working alongside the Terrence Higgins Trust, this felt like a very modern portrayal of the condition — much more focused with how Ste would manage rather than played for shock and horror.
At present, Ste is back with on-off boyfriend Harry (Parry Glasspool). On his departure, John Paul received a text message from long-lost Craig, suggesting there’s an off -screen future for them too.
But Hollyoaks hasn’t just been about gay characters. Young trans man Jason Costello (Victoria Atkin) may well have been played by a cisgender actress, but he felt like a step in the right direction towards the eventual casting of actual transgender actress Annie Wallace as headmistress Sally St Claire.
This was yet another British soap first and – in typical soap opera fashion – Sally was revealed to be John Paul’s estranged biological parent.
So, there may be some eye-rolling at Hollyoaks being featured in a culture column, but the stats speak for themselves. To date, some 38 Hollyoaks regulars have been LGBT+.
On weekday evenings (and occasionally later at night), for almost quarter a century, an agenda has been subtly moved forwards. If that hasn’t had an impact in the way sex and gender have been normalised in schools and colleges, nothing will.
Hollyoaks airs at 6.30pm weekdays on Channel 4.
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