Meet the LGBTQ+ consultants changing the face of TV
Increasingly, LGBTQ+ stories on screen are being told by members of the community. But a new role in TV – the LGBTQ+ consultant – is ensuring authentic and accurate representation.
In the closing episode of Heartstopper – Netflix’s new LGBTQ+ coming-of-age rom-com series which follows the blossoming relationship between openly gay student Charlie Spring (Joe Locke) and his friend Nick Nelson (Kit Connor) – there’s a vital scene where Nick comes out as bisexual to his mum (Olivia Coleman). He still likes girls, he says, but he likes boys too: specifically, his boyfriend Charlie.
"I remember when I saw that scene come to life it was really powerful," says Jeffrey Ingold, Heartstopper’s LGBTQ+ consultant and former head of media at Stonewall. "You don’t get to see representations of bisexuality very often in mainstream media, particularly ones without the gendered stereotypes, and for men, it’s usually that they come out as bisexual as a gateway into saying they’re gay. We all thought it was really important that we didn’t avoid that conversation and affirm that Nick understands that his identity is real and people around him also get that."
Nick’s bisexual awakening is just one of the nuanced storylines in Heartstopper that Ingold helped shape as part of his role, which involved doing a sensitivity check on the scripts and making sure the language used was accurate, felt authentic and avoided the negative stereotypes that have plagued LGBTQ+ characters on TV for decades.
Of course, screen portrayals of LGBTQ+ people have undoubtedly advanced in recent years, largely thanks to a rise in the number of LGBTQ+ people in both the TV and film industries, including writers, directors, producers and actors, which has the effect of avoiding heavily criticised projects like 2013’s Blue is the Warmest Colour, which came from a straight male writer and director and came under fire for its male perspective on lesbian dynamics.
Russell T Davies’ channel 4 hit It’s A Sin about the 1980s AIDS epidemic was told by a majority queer cast and crew last year. And 19th-century lesbian drama Gentleman Jack writer Sally Wainwright was helped through the production process by script editor Stella Merz, producer Phil Collinson and historical consultant Anne Choma, all of whom are gay. Both were huge hits with LGBTQ+ and straight audiences alike.
But sometimes, notes Ugla Stefanía Kristjönudóttir Jónsdóttir, an advisor for All About Trans, production companies wanting to tell transgender stories don’t have anyone from the community on board. That’s when they come to All About Trans, a project delivered by the charity On Road Media, which has been consulting on the storylines of trans characters in TV soaps and dramas, including Hollyoaks, Emmerdale, ITV drama Butterfly and BBC Two sitcom Boy Meets Girl, since it was founded in 2011.
This happens through "interactions" – meet-ups between trans people and professionals which serve as the starting point to develop ideas, to explore potential storylines, offer script edits or to provide ongoing consultation on set.
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"What we try to do is steer them in the right direction and show them what are the more positive ways to portrays trans people in these storylines. It’s not a complicated process at all, it’s just a matter of knowing what to avoid and how to portray trans people in the right way and in a realistic way that trans people can also relate to."
Netflix’s Heartstopper did involve many cast and crew members who were part of the LGBTQ+ community, including the writer and the director. So why did it need an LGBTQ+ consultant?
Whilst Ingold believes the LGBTQ+ staff behind the camera are integral to positive representation and the reason a show like Heartstopper has seen such success, he says his job required a different set of skills to those an LGBTQ+ writer/ director/ actor may be able to offer – and that his background in activism provided a vital level of knowledge about the community. "I saw my role as being through a much wider lens and a way of thinking about what was happening in the show and what was happening in the real world," he says.
Ingold’s job also involved being active on set: delivering training to the cast and crew about how to make the set and workplace welcoming and inclusive, as well as coaching them on what life is like for LGBTQ+ students today.
Heartstopper is fundamentally a show about joy, and so Ingold spent a lot of time shaping storylines to include the real-life challenges LGBTQ+ teens often face – anti LGBTQ+ language and bullying – without it becoming harmful for audiences watching.
One solution was using the characters’ language and reactions to get audiences to understand why certain words and phrases are inherently problematic. Ingold cites the cinema scene in Heartstopper where Nick’s friend Harry calls Charlie a slur. "One of the changes we talked about was Nick explicitly saying 'that’s homophobic' rather than 'that’s wrong' or 'that’s not okay'. Instead, he’s explicitly calling it out for what it is, which I thought was really important."
The same applied to language concerning queer people and sport. Heartstopper’s Nick, a star rugby player, insists on not-so-sporty Charlie joining the team, and anti-gay jokes inevitably ensue. It was important to show why these jokes were inherently problematic, says Ingold, by "including a sentence along the lines of 'being gay doesn’t mean you’re bad at sports'. So, it was thinking about subtle ways that we could counter-stereotype but in a way where we weren’t being preachy."
LGBTQ+ consultant roles in TV are on the rise. Recent Netflix hit Sex Education brought in writer Temi Wilkey’s friend Jodie Mitchell – who is non-binary – as a consultant to ensure an accurate and authentic portrayal of the show’s first non-binary character, Cal (played by non-binary artist Dua Saleh), while HBO drama Euphoria hired Scott Turner Schofield, an actor, producer and transgender activist, as a consultant on the show.
Schofield, who has also worked as an inclusion consultant on Zoe Lister Jones’ reboot of The Craft and the upcoming Disney Plus series Zombies 3, did a sensitivity read on Euphoria's scripts, trained the crew on how to be respectful of the LGBTQ+ actors on set, and was also a resource to the director and LGBTQ+ actors, including trans actor Hunter Schafer (who plays trans teen Jules Vaughn) as they shot some of the scenes.
Like Ingold, Schofield is clear that his job required a very different set of skills to those a trans actor/ writer/ director may bring to the table, and that it "ran the gamut from artistry to HR".
"The thing is and I say this in all of my workshops: you can’t just lean on the person that’s trans for all of your education, right?" he says. "As a trans artist myself and as an activist for two decades now, I have kind of a wide and deep perspective of what things looks like culturally. So as Sam [Levinson] is writing especially for the role of Jules but also along other lines that come up around LGBTQ+ topics, I weigh in and my role is to give Sam the artist, a more nuanced understanding of how things might land in the community."
He mentions being particularly proud of Jules’ special standalone episode between season 1 and 2, titled 'F**k Anyone Who’s Not A Sea Blob', which Schafer co-wrote with Levinson. The episode examines Jules' relationship to gender performance, trauma and co-dependence.
"The ways it changed through from inception through to what you saw represented so many conversations," says Schofield. "What came out of that I think is a masterpiece in terms of trans representation. Other networks are doing trans 101 transition narratives or coming out stories and we were able to say something so deep."
Ingold thinks that production companies are starting to realise the importance of hiring LGBTQ+ consultants thanks to a big call from audiences for authentic representation: "I think we’re at a moment in time where it’s really obvious to audiences if characters are being written in a way that feels tokenistic, and for people who aren’t necessarily from that community it becomes easy to spot."
Should every LGBTQ+ show hire a consultant? Ingold believes that to produce successful and popular shows like Heartstopper and Euphoria that really felt true to LGBTQ+ people’s experiences, production companies need to invest in roles like his. "I think the time for representation for representation’s sake is ending and it’s actually about having stories and meaningful characters who audiences are able to connect to," he says. "Because that’s really what’s going to change things."