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A few years ago, LGBTQ+ representation in the mainstream media was practically nonexistent, so much so that as a young boy growing up in Austria’s countryside, the only role model I remember is Celine Dion, who is not even LGBTQ+.
I had my gay awakening the first time I heard “My Heart Will Go On”; I couldn’t believe someone could sing that loud, with so much passion, and this fueled my creativity. I wanted to belt the roof off like her, and my parents sent me to the attic to sing my heart out. In a serendipitous turn, I have since discovered Celine Dion won Eurovision the year I was born; it’s like my Eurovision win in 2014 was always meant to be.
For years, scripted led the way with iconic queer characters for apparently “niche” audiences. My personal favorite growing up was the gender-bending anime character Sailor Moon, and it is only in recent times that more and more LGBTQ+ stories and people are seen in mainstream media, especially in reality and nonscripted series. In many ways, we have the streamers to thank for giving space to these stories and voices, but linear television, thankfully, is now fighting back. This ensures all generations are educated and entertained by our culture.
The growth in LGBTQ+ programming is essential to the mental health of our queer community; we deserve equality and to lead our own narrative, in our own way. Moreover, seeing LGBTQ+ people on-screen sharing their stories and culture will often be the first introduction many people have to someone who is lesbian, gay, bi, trans or nonbinary. In real life, many may not have met someone who is trans but have become acquainted with trans people via the media.
As the excellent Netflix documentary Disclosure points out, all too often this community is shown in a negative light. As an industry, we have a responsibility to change this portrayal, to make it fair and accurate, like the depiction in A Change of Sex, the groundbreaking documentary following trans woman Julia Grant from 1979 to 1999, which BBC iPlayer is currently airing 22 years after it was first broadcast.
Reality and nonscripted television have a major role to play here. We can show how the lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer communities live, love, date, get married, buy houses, have children, get divorced, go on holiday, cook, sew, perform, dance — just as heterosexual people do.
In many countries, our rights are being stripped away, and the more our stories are explored, the more mainstream audiences will realize just how “normal” gay people are. This year saw German trans woman Alex Mariah Peter, from Cologne, become the first trans person in the 16-year history of the Next Top Model franchise to win the competition, and we are seeing boundaries broken across the reality genre with a wave of new formats coming through. Banijay’s Big Brother has included trans people for years, and the recent Finnish cycle featured a romance between a cis male and a trans woman, which continued when they were out of the famous house. It was just a regular Big Brother romance.
We have a spectacular, magical culture to share with the world. LGBTQ+ stories are out there – and we need to tell them, with new formats that reflect the lives of the audience and stories that defy stereotypes, promote change, and bring new, fascinating personalities to our screens.
I’ve been lucky enough to work closely with Brainpool, a Banijay company, on numerous shows in Germany, including entertainment format Fame Maker as well as two cycles of The Free European Song Contest show, which I presented in drag, unapologetically myself. Seeing Conchita in drag resonates with audiences; I don’t give them an option to not understand what I’m doing — I’m just being myself, and somehow, this translates.
This month, I hosted an event for Banijay Pride — the company’s LGBTQ+ resource group — and was blown away by the number of new formats in their catalog telling our queer stories. From dating shows created in Spain and the U.S. and a new wave of drag formats from the Nordics, to an adorable series aimed at kids called Ronnie, Reggie and Friends about two gay penguins from the London Zoo, the teams at Banijay are ready to pitch these amazing series, and there really is something for everyone.
Of course, close to my heart is anything to do with drag. Ru Paul’s Drag Race has taken the world by storm. I am the biggest fan and am still waiting for the call to host the German edition! We know the audience is craving new drag formats, and Banijay has new formats in this genre, including Fabulous Dad from Metronome Denmark, an emotional factual entertainment series where fathers of drag queens try to really understand the lives of their sons — by performing as drag queens themselves. It’s sweet, heart-warming, and the transformations are fantastic.
With shows like these, the TV landscape will continue to broaden, tantalizing viewers with stories and characters they haven’t seen before. But with every opportunity to break new ground, it is worth remembering that being LGBTQ+ is still criminalized in 71 countries. It’s important to never ease up on that fight for equality and to be vocal in our support of the community. We must keep fighting and being our beautiful, authentic selves because … that’s just what makes great television.
Tom Neuwirth is an Austrian artist who won the world’s biggest singing competition, the Eurovision Song Contest, in 2014 with his drag stage persona Conchita Wurst, the bearded lady, singing the song, “Rise Like a Phoenix.”
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