My first encounter with onscreen lesbian representation was Sophie and Sian’s kiss in Coronation Street. I was only 9 years old at the time but I vividly remember how it made national news – not just after it happened but weeks earlier, as if to prepare the country for something obscene. The lesbian kiss – the first for the soap – received Ofcom complaints for its "sexual material".
It wasn’t until much later in life that I learned lesbian relationships can be just as wholesome, fluffy and domestic as any heterosexual relationship. I wish I had media portraying that truth to me at an earlier age because it would have protected me from a great deal of trauma.
I cried countless times while watching Netflix's Heartstopper (currently rated 100% on Rotten Tomatoes). I cried because its authentic LGBTQ+ storytelling is so lovingly handled. I cried because I never had that visibility as a teen. I also cried tears of joy that today’s kids have TV shows telling them it’s okay to be who they are.
In the show we meet Tara (Corinna Brown) and Darcy (Kizzy Edgell), a lesbian couple at an all-girls school who initially hide their relationship because they aren’t comfortable being loud and proud, Tara in particular. As the episodes progress, they shake off the weight of other people’s opinions and garner the strength to exist as their true selves. They kiss in public, they hold hands and unashamedly label themselves lesbians. So often in TV shows and films, WLW (women-loving-women) use 'gay' or 'queer' as umbrella terms. Seldom is lesbianism given a platform or validated in its own right.
so happy that they actually use the word “lesbian” in heartstopper pic.twitter.com/4xh6wDaEVI— lorien🦇 (@batmansselina) April 23, 2022
When Heartstopper allowed Tara and Darcy to always refer to themselves as lesbians, without a stutter or a moment of hesitation, it made my heart sing for all the young girls who will now grow up associating that word with love, softness and humanity.
It shouldn’t be revolutionary for us, as lesbians, merely to hear our sexuality uttered on screen. But the reality is that we are excited by this because we have been starved for so long, with no one to turn to who looks like us. Coming across fictional characters who are proud of their identities is a big deal.
It’s equally as important that Tara discusses her experience of kissing boys and realising that she doesn’t like it, despite feeling like she ought to. Compulsory heterosexuality can be a real struggle: accepting that you are not, and can’t be, attracted to men is a facet of lesbianism that many of us have a hard time coming to terms with.
School friends picked on me for comments I made about possibly being a lesbian and what followed was years of self-inflicted torture and lying awake until 8am, sobbing out of fear and crushing feelings of self-hate. Knowing that I was a lesbian and that everyone around me viewed lesbianism as a sin made me feel broken. Lesbianism continues to be so fetishised (there’s a reason it’s always the top Pornhub category) when, in reality, it is no more unholy than the clothes we wear or the colour of our hair. It’s what makes people who they are and that, no matter how pervasive the stereotype, can never be wrong. And no, that doesn’t mean lesbians can’t ever be sexual; it simply means allowing it to happen on our own terms.
I still struggle to say the word 'lesbian' aloud. I don’t know why. Years of suppressed trauma from being in the closet certainly contribute but so does wider society’s perception of lesbianism and I love how Heartstopper discusses the hardships of being out as a lesbian.
"I’m not loud and confident about being a lesbian. I could barely say the word 'lesbian' when we started going out," says a tearful Tara as Darcy comforts her.
It isn’t very often that the stigma around being a lesbian is discussed in TV or on film. While we hear of the struggles to come out, lesbians face specific barriers to being themselves in a world that deems them a novelty or a fetish for straight male gratification. We need to talk about this and dismantle misconceptions, which Tara and Darcy do with such vulnerability and honesty.
Their relationship is pure and precious and it’s so important that young people – whether they’re questioning their sexuality or not – are able to see lesbian teenagers who are so adamant about their sexuality. It helps to dismantle the idea that being queer is a phase and it offers an education: that people don’t just come out for attention and that you are never too young to be who you are.
It isn’t just me who is overwhelmed with joy following Heartstopper’s lesbian storyline. Countless others have shared how it got them in their feelings, from high schoolers finding the courage to come out to older adults who grew up under Section 28 and wish they had a show like this to comfort them.
"The scene where Tara tells Darcy she was hardly able to even say the word lesbian at first makes me feel so valid bc I hid under the label bisexual for so long cus I was scared and then I finally came to terms," shared one Twitter user.
"Even in 2022 there can still be a weird stigma or negative connotations to the word lesbian and it’s far too common. Heartstopper makes a really great step forward by letting them proudly say they are lesbians without shying away from explicitly saying it," tweeted another.
We have a long way to go until lesbian representation on screen is more helpful than harmful and I will always have the scars of the storylines I was privy to growing up, which taught me that being a lesbian meant I must be consumed by trauma or would die at a young age. Even in recent years, lesbian characters have always drawn the short straw.
Pretty Little Liars? The 100? American Horror Story? Killing Eve? Characters unduly killed off. Below Her Mouth? Basically a porn movie. Carol? Forbidden romance. Even lesbian films with depth and heart, like The Miseducation of Cameron Post, centre around misery and perpetuate the idea that to be a lesbian means to suffer.
Heartstopper makes me hopeful because it represents lesbianism for what it is – normal – and shows the safety that people can feel if they are given a chance to express who they are without barriers. Tara and Darcy aren’t main characters in the show but they are to me because they are telling my story. In the grand scheme of things, they’re just like anyone else. They blend in. They share jokes, they shed tears, they drink milkshakes together, they play in the school orchestra, they aren’t 'othered'. And that’s exactly how it should be.
I’m so thankful we are progressing to a time when lesbian media is not only authentic but safe for lesbians themselves to consume without having to grieve a character’s loss or feel triggered by their trauma. Thank you, Tara and Darcy, for being the lesbian icons I needed growing up, and for showing that gentle, sweet, soft-spirited, healthy romances are possible. May a story like yours one day be at the centre of its own TV show.