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My Queer Icon: Russell T. Davies

When it comes to inspirational queer figures, it’s difficult for me to not immediately think of an alumnus of our own Worcester College, Russell T. Davies. Davies has never shied away from bold, loud and proud writing for television, showcasing queer talents and stories throughout his career. Representation has always been at the centre of his writing, providing the LGBTQ+ community with someone they can relate to and who can help them through the highs and lows of self-discovery. For this, Davies’ importance within the community cannot be understated.

In 1999, Davies’ first major show, Queer as Folk, was broadcast, inspiring a US spinoff in 2000 and a reboot in 2022. At the time, there was little representation for the LGBTQ+ community onscreen, with any representation limited to harmful and frequently inaccurate tropes. Real queer lives, including their relationships, their flaws and their humanity, were seldom seen on mainstream television. Davies was one of the first television writers to give queer lives the same attention afforded to straight ones. The show was something of a middle finger to Section 28, which prohibited the so-called ‘promotion’ of homosexuality by local authorities. 

As one of the first television shows to proudly represent the LGBTQ+ community, many closeted and questioning teens remember the show fondly as a source of inspiration, seeing their experience being explored by characters in defiance of the norms of the era. The backdrop of these elements was the HIV/AIDS pandemic, with a generation still recovering from the so-called ‘gay disease’ and the subsequent demonisation of LGBTQ+ people.

I must admit, I personally did not grow up with Queer As Folk, but any time I speak to LGBTQ+ people over my age, it brings a smile to their faces and elicits a shared sense of community. Each generation of LGBTQ+ people has that one show which constituted their first exposure to the world in which they feel a sense of belonging. For my generation (the late 90’s/early 00’s), I would argue that the great man himself was behind this phenomenon yet again, when he resurrected Doctor Who in 2005, bringing with it many LGBTQ+ awakenings.

Doctor Who came back from a 16-year break (excluding the TV Movie) with a proud sprinkling of the rainbow throughout its episodes. Davies was unafraid to show transgender people in far, fictional futures or to include a variety of different genders in addresses like “Ladies, gentlemen, multisex, undecided or robot” (The Long Game) and “Ladies, gentlemen, and variation thereupon” (Midnight), or have characters mention their same-sex partners. In fact, his first series ended with the Doctor’s male companion kissing goodbye to his fellow female companion and then kissing the male Doctor, with Davies writing this scene entirely naturally, no joke about bisexuality in sight. There was no fanfare around these scenes or debate from characters about particular identities, but rather a normalised portrayal of people under the LGBTQ+ umbrella being accepted without question. It is worth remembering, too, that Doctor Who is primarily a children’s show: Davies was fearless in his mission to introduce children to other walks of life, without concern for ‘preaching’ or ‘shoving it down their throats’ as some would accuse him of. The show is still incredibly popular with LGBTQ+ people in particular to this day, as it was one of the first shows to reflect their identities with such acceptance – something which Disney, in 2022, still hasn’t done.

When Doctor Who’s spin-off, Torchwood, was announced, Davies made clear that this was an adult show. After all, by the second episode, there had been swearing, drugs, alcohol and a sex monster. Kids weren’t meant to watch it, but I know many (including myself) grew up with this show too, and I know for a fact that the handling of one character, Ianto Jones, was deeply important to many of these younger viewers. Ianto started the series with a girlfriend, implicitly labelling himself as straight, but then he allowed himself the sexual freedom to explore a relationship with another man: his boss, Jack. Any other television show would likely have made an episode focussing solely on this sexual revelation, but Davies and the producers of Torchwood had different ideas. To make an episode focussing on this would be to single it out and place Ianto’s sexuality under intense scrutiny, whereas Davies normalises it by presenting Ianto’s sexuality fluidly, with no character expressing concern about his labels. Everyone accepted him regardless of who he loved, and the handling of this story arc by the show was a strong message of support for freedom away from society’s labels, which is an important liberty for some queer people.

It is perhaps Davies’ subtlest storylines which have the greatest payoffs for people questioning their identities, as Davies proved again in his speculative 2019 drama, Years and Years. The series had a wide variety of representation within its six episodes, but there was one aspect which particularly struck me as important: Davies’ handling of transgender youth. Lincoln Lyons was by no means a primary character, yet the series does start with Lincoln’s birth in 2019. As the series gradually progresses fifteen years into the future, we see Lincoln express their gender through clothes, makeup, hair etc., and the series ends with them seemingly confident in their gender thanks to the freedom afforded to them as they grow up. In the earlier years of Lincoln’s life they receive occasional comments about wearing a dress or diverging from their family’s expectations of gender, but as the years go on such comments grow fewer and fewer. For anyone struggling with their gender identity, I am sure this small but significant element of the series’ story communicated a positive and hopeful depiction of a future in which they are free to express themselves however they want — without judgement or comment — in only a few more years.

Transgender rights are a topic about which Davies has been vocal, as the need for cis queer people to show their support for the trans community has become increasingly important. Divisions within the LGBTQ+ community are not often talked about, whether with reference to racism, biphobia or transphobia. At the 2021 Attitude Awards, having won the Inspiration Award for It’s A Sin, Davies gave a speech which, in my opinion, should be shown in schools everywhere. In the speech, Davies addressed the LGB Alliance, a group which wants to separate itself from trans people, proclaiming, “To cut out the T is to kill.” Davies always uses his platform to show his allyship for all of the LGBTQ+ community, not just the area under which he falls. He reminds us that we are all under one rainbow.

Russell T. Davies’ most recent achievement, It’s A Sin, aired in 2021; a drama so popular that even people who don’t watch TV tuned in. Davies brought a nation to tears mourning the mistreatment of LGBTQ+ people during the HIV/AIDS pandemic, whilst also accomplishing what I think a queer icon should: teaching queer history. I sometimes worry that queer history is forgotten about and undervalued – how many people can say that they were taught about Harvey Milk, Stonewall and the history of Pride? People like Davies remind us why it is so important to remember the people who gave queer people our rights and paved the way for the freedoms we enjoy today.

In a time where we find ourselves more divided than united, Russell T. Davies has a way of unifying people through the authenticity and diversity of his characters, and instilling hope for the future in the image of queer people being normalised. It is easy to feel as if the fight for LGBTQ+ rights is a losing battle at times, and while Davies makes no suggestion that the battle is won, he maintains that it is important to hold hope. There is no one in the television industry on Davies’ level right now, and I am excited to see more bold and proud writing in his future work.