Channel 4’s latest social experiment is as controversial as it is educational – we speak to its stars
Channel 4’s latest reality TV format, Genderquake, is a glorious return to form. The two-part social experiment is as educational as it is salacious, like the early days of Big Brother – but instead of a cash prize, the ultimate goal is that we all reach a deeper understanding of the gender and sexuality spectrum. It has all the hallmarks of a good reality show – strong personalities, alcohol, romance – and follows 11 young Brits living in a beautiful house in the countryside, navigating conversations about identity in the modern world.
The conversations around gender and sexuality are, in general, increasing. In 2009, about two children a week were referred to the Gender Identity Development Service each week; this figure now stands at around 50. Last year, data from the Office of National Statistics found over a million people identify as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, with 16 to 24-year-olds being the most likely age group. This dramatic increase has led to increased visibility, but not necessarily understanding. What makes Genderquake unique is that it puts disparities within the LGBTQ community centre stage, and shows that even though bound together by an acronym, each letter represents a completely different set of experiences, challenges, and attitudes.
In the first episode, the housemates (who variously identify as cisgender, non-binary, genderqueer, intersex, and trans) each have their different motivations for coming into the house. They want to dispel negative myths about their identity and connect with others in the LGBTQ community, but they also have a lot to learn themselves. For example, Markus, 32, from Milton Keynes lists the letters “L-G-B-T-Q-I” in a staccato fashion in the show’s intro, while counting on his fingers. Someone off-camera interrupts to tell him that there’s another Q. “Stop!” he says. It’s a humorous moment but it illustrates a deeper point – the acronym is expanding faster than public understanding, and even inter-community solidarity. Particularly in Markus’s case.
The crescendo of last night’s show (don’t read ahead if you don’t want to spoil it) left many feeling quite disturbed after it aired on May 7th. Romario, a 30-year-old Jamaica-brummie with conservative views on gender, confused his housemates on a seaside day out in Brighton after they saw he had top surgery scars. While most of his housemates opted to let him come out in his own time, if at all, Markus announced to the group that he felt “betrayed”.
During a screening at Channel 4’s headquarters in April, it was obvious that Romario still finds the scene incredibly hard to watch, as he sat with his head in his hands. Both Romario and Markus spoke to Dazed afterwards about the experience of watching it all back. “It brings up a lot of emotions and feelings, especially because you are also seeing the parts you didn't see (at the time),” Romario tells me. He wasn’t present when the housemates discussed his scars, the size of his bulge on the beach, or when Markus took it upon himself to inform Romario’s cis (and relatively conservative) love interest Filomena.
“Romario was my biggest piece of the puzzle for my journey to learn,” Markus explains – which frames the experience in relation to his own feelings rather than Romario’s. “We went in the house for a journey, we went in there to be educated, to learn, to embrace, to feel empowered. I don't regret anything, I don't feel bad about anything, because it’s now made me a better person by being more understanding towards others’ emotions and feelings.” He does acknowledge that in future he should wait until someone is ready to come out before revealing their identity or past. But what he doesn’t acknowledge is his privilege as a UK-born cisgender male.
“How can we expect people to accept us if we’re having this inner fight between each other? We have to be tolerant as a unit” – Campbell
Most of the stars of the show have their own coming out experiences. Brooke, is a beauty blogger who identifies as a transwoman, but has double X chromosomes meaning that she developed breasts during puberty. She finds it difficult knowing when is the right time to explain she is a “woman with a little bit extra” to potential partners. Markus revealed to his family he was gay after he became a father at 16 years old – they said they knew before he did. However, Romario grew up in Jamaica where trans rights are non-existent and homosexual relationships are still illegal. Each story and context is completely different, reflecting the real multiplicity of the LGBTQ community.
“When it comes to coming out, I came out of a uterus. I have been living my life ever since,” Romario laughs. He prefers to keep his transition under wraps. “(On the show), I introduced myself to everyone as I normally would and got on with it. For me, this experience enforces a new narrative of living beyond the label, no matter what the label is. If anything it has enforced my way of thinking (of not feeling pressure to come out).”
As the show has demonstrated, just being around other LGBTQ people doesn’t necessarily mean you feel comfortable or automatically accepted just because you fit into the acronym. For example, some LGBTQ women feel unwelcome at Pride, and some QTPOC feel excluded from queer nightlife and face prejudice on dating apps like Grindr. It sounds obvious but: minorities don’t always have an innate understanding of the challenges each other face. For example, black and Asian people don’t inherently understand each other’s struggles.
Romario believes expecting allyship from any LGBTQ person you meet erases the fact that there are a lot of intolerant people in every section of society. In his eyes, everyone needs to be open to learning. He readily admits that he “didn’t understand gender fluidity” before going into the house, because masculinity and femininity are so polarised in his culture. “There's a pressure and a forced expectation that that community should understand each other, and I think that's very unfair and very unjust,” he explains. “You're just using a gender or one aspect of their life as an indicator to class these people together. We all have things we can learn. I thought I’d learn about how it feels to be non-binary, but I ended up examining how my own views of masculinity can be toxic and exclude other types of masculinity.”
However, fellow housemate Campbell, who identifies as a woman, was stunned by the lack of understanding demonstrated in the house. “Outing is never okay. Like, whether you are in the community or not, it doesn’t give you the right to out someone,” she tells Dazed. “I think there’s a lot of internalised hatred in the LGBT community sometimes. How can we expect people to accept us if we’re having this inner fight between each other? We have to be tolerant as a unit.”
The producers of the show wanted to amplify the conversation around gender. This comes with some downsides: a quick look at the hashtag from last night’s broadcast shows that for every person with a smart observation, there’s a bigot waiting in the wings. It feels questionable that Romario’s story was sensationalised for the sake of this debate – and that trans people are being invited by Channel 4 to “debate” their identities at all, in panels designed to promote the show. But Genderquake is, on the whole, an interesting chance to observe real interactions within a community that is often shouted down or spoken over in the mainstream media.
“The documentary is about liberation, feeling like it is okay to be who you are, and be open to learning. People will be liberated by watching the eleven of us suffer and cry,” Romario laughs. “They'll see Markus, they'll see me, they'll see themselves.”