It’s really difficult to find a realistic LGBTQ+ character in a soap opera that isn’t continually soaked in grief and strife.
Coming out stories and depictions of the problems many people have in coming to terms with their own identity are a big element of regular theatre, especially for younger audiences.
Syed Masood, who struggled to fit into the accepted norms of both generic and frequently homophobic society and his religion, is a good example of how EastEnders has handled it in the past.
This story was handled with amazing emotion over a long period of time but still allowed for the heightened drama that one would expect from a soap.
So, before I go into this viewpoint, which is shared by others in the community, I’d like to reiterate my belief that soap operas should continue to highlight the difficulties of coming out, as well as the abuse and violence that gay, bisexual, transgender and other marginalized identities face in their daily lives.
However, there is an uncomfortably lopsided balance in favor of depicting the gloom of sexuality difficulties — and it is always vital to portray the opposite.
That LGBTQ+ people can be happy, funny, comfortable in their identity and confidence.
The attack on Callum Highway (Tony Clay) by homophobic abusers, and Ben Mitchell’s (Max Bowden) justifiable reaction to it, has been at the centre of the show since the beginning of the year. And it’s critical to demonstrate this because LGBTQ+ individuals are always vulnerable in the face of prejudiced attacks.
Take a step forwards. Lewis (Aidan O’Callaghan), an instantly charming and agreeable guy whose first appearances involved him involving Callum in an LGBTQ+ positive and awareness campaign.
Since then, he’s become friends with Ben, even lending him an alibi, and viewers were glad to see a character who had overcome adversity and defied the stereotype that all homosexual characters are crucial to drama based simply on their sexuality.
He represents optimism and the idea that one is not defined by their sexuality but may be a fun-loving character without any chains to those who relate to the more difficult aspects of the trip.
And he is refreshing and reassuring to homosexual men who are at ease and content with their life.
He appeared to be the most genuine gay character in years, not beset by unhappiness. The reception was immediately positive because he was well-liked.
Then he announced that he was going to rape Ben, crushing the community’s hopes of a positive response once more.
I get it, I truly do — sex offenders are frequently cunning, charming, and monsters disguised as humans.
This has remained consistent throughout and is widely recognized as true — a notable example being Ben’s own mother Kathy (Gillian Taylforth) being raped at the Dagmar bar by her boss James Willmott-Brown, whom she had previously liked and worked well with.
Which was chillingly on the same site which is now occupied by the gay bar Prince Albert – where Lewis works.
While this may be acknowledged, I sincerely hope this isn’t viewed as trivia, but that’s a different matter altogether.
I have no doubt that Ben’s rape tale will be strong, and I know for a fact that the whole crew behind the play, from writing and production to the cast, has done extensive research.
The male postpartum depression narrative involving Stuart Highway (Ricky Champ) has just been announced on EastEnders, which is known for taking on difficult subjects. Last year, one of their most compelling themes was Mick Carter’s (Danny Dyer) history abuse by gaslighting Katy Lewis (Simone Lahbib).
It’s not the story that troubles me; I believe it will be compelling and well-executed. While Max and Tony are excellent actors, as is Aidan, and while Ben is perhaps a little too obsessed with sorrow porn, the film should have a comparable impact to David Platt’s rape story in Coronation Street, which resulted in a 1000 percent increase in calls to charities following its broadcast.
That’s not the problem.
However, there must be a balance besides stories like this. In EastEnders, there must be daily folks that happen to be gay, bi, or trans.
Those who are comfortable with their sexuality and are not obsessed by abuse, violence, or aggressiveness are needed.
It’s painful to watch the one figure who seemed poised to defy the norm revealed to be a rapist.
Surely there had to be another way.
Characters like Mila and Iqra have recently left the show, and depictions of the expected variety of an East End community have been a little more missing, despite their storyline-related absences.
Before the rape of a gay man by another made headlines, it was hoped that newcomers would be brought in to help balance things out.
After teasing us about having a refreshing character, Lewis now has a shelf life and has been effectively written out.
Following the storyline, which I reserve judgment on but believe has the potential to be seriously strong if handled appropriately, I hope the focus moves to new character groups with varied personalities and purposes, bridging the gap slightly.
We anticipate significant drama, sorrow, and more for every single character, regardless of sexuality. This is soap, after all. I don’t agree that LGBTQ+ characters should not be integral to this — if anything, excluding them from the soap format is more destructive than beneficial.
But, no matter what the character goes through in the soap, there might be pure and relatable hearts and personalities at the center of the character.
We don’t currently have enough of that.
So for the community who loves EastEnders, the glimmer of optimism that Lewis would break the mold to be immediately extinguished for as dark as dark can be is downright disheartening.