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Love Island non-binary
Illustration Marija Marc

Love Island and the boring, right-wing obsession with LGBTQ inclusion

As the reality show makes moves to become more inclusive, Tom Rasmussen and Travis Alabanza weigh in on the strange relationship between TV representation and trans liberation

TextTom RasmussenIllustrationMarija Marc

There are rumours from Love Island Towers that this season the much-obsessed-over show will be accepting non-binary applicants in an attempt to make the reality dating extravaganza “as woke as possible”. Truly sigh. 

Now, a disclaimer: I’ve never watched a single episode of Love Island. Perhaps that’s because I’m the kind of irritating person who refuses to watch/do/read anything if everyone else says it’s amazing. I literally only watched Breaking Bad last year. Or perhaps it’s because the show, over time, has been so mired in varied types of darkness that it seems almost unethical to watch. Just this week, last season’s much-adored runner-up revealed her Thatcherite ideologies. Although how nobody saw that coming after she signed a major partnership deal with a company that was found to be severely underpaying garment workers, I’ll never know.

So when I read the joyous news about how the villa will now welcome enbies like me, I breathed a sigh of deep disappointment. Not, of course, for the potential trans person who ends up in the villa this year – I’m sure this person will need as much support as they can get, since witch-hunts and online tirades are seemingly a large part of the culture surrounding the Love Islanders and how people respond to them online. While it’s likely inclusion of people like us into the show will bring about some positive change, add to the mix that the UK is hardly the most welcoming place for trans people at this present time and all I can foresee are endless think pieces and Piers penguin-style opinions about how he should be able to identify as a cheese grater, if I can identify as non-binary. Good for you girl, I love my cheese grater.

But no, the sigh of disappointment I let out was one of yet again further misunderstanding about what people in positions of power think it is that trans, non-binary and gender-nonconforming people need. Exposure and visibility are useful to a very slight degree; one which might help some kids have productive conversations with parents, or perhaps even one day become fake-tanned reality stars themselves. I’m being cynical, of course, and there are countless positives to more mainstream visibility. But when wins like this occur, are we actually supposed to care? To be grateful?

“Why should we want inclusion into something that is already so poorly designed to hold space for us?”

In fact, if we are thinking in terms of trans liberation – should we even want this at all? Why should we want inclusion into something that is already so poorly designed to hold space for us? I want healthcare and legislative reform (although that’s a whole other topic). I want street safety, and to spend less time advising my cis friends as to whether they need to put their pronoun in their email signature. (FYI: No ❤️ we all know you’re cis baby).

I text my friend Travis Alabanza. For anyone who has ever seen, heard, or read their work, you’ll know that Travis is an expert in imagining other ways, in asking for more. 

“Maybe I’ll apply!” they say, joking obviously. I say that I’d definitely watch if they did.

“As we see non-binary being turned into a third understandable gender in the UK, something that’s legible to a liberal project, what that means is that we are getting these false ideas of inclusion without actually thinking structurally how we can liberate gender non-conforming people,” Travis explains. “And so what we keep on seeing is these kind of gestures that are maybe made in goodwill towards the idea of inclusion, without really thinking about what it means to have a future where non-binary people are liberated. Because ultimately what it would mean is the upheaval of the gender binary, and the removal of the gender binary, the removal of the importance of the gender binary in society. But those tasks feel too hard, and unreachable, and unfathomable, and require us to actually imagine and work. So instead we shove a pronoun badge on an oil rig and call it a day.”

“(Inclusion) often implies a bleak, patronising power dynamic between the includer and the included”

Inclusion is boring. It’s completely dull. And it often implies a bleak, patronising power dynamic between the includer and the included. The gatekeeper, and those of us behind the gate. But isn't it time we imagined something other than what’s beyond that one gate? One of the fundamental issues with where we are today with regards to inclusion into toxic, if not wildly entertaining, shows like Love Island is that it leaves so little space for anyone, not just trans and gender-nonconforming people, to imagine anything beyond 20 judgemental people in a villa. Or to imagine a space beyond inclusion. And of course, inclusion – after so much exclusion – can feel fantastic, hard-won. But as Travis says, so much about our transness is about tearing down violent structures, not being co-opted into narratives of inclusion which ultimately serve to bolster and perhaps even celebrate an ultimately right-wing project that is Love Island, or the gender binary wider. 

Trans and non-binary people need to get paid. And if the show exists, it’s better we’re in it. But tying our cart to the star of inclusion will not liberate us in any meaningful way. And while we celebrate those who are strong enough to step into a villa or into the public domain in any way, it’s most important we constantly direct focus to the trans and non-conforming people who are trying to live, and to survive, in everyday life: where employment rates for us are lower, housing is in crisis, and access to healthcare is gatekept, much like Love Island, by cis people who have no intention of understanding us. 

I hate to be a Debbie Downer, because it’s not fun or glamorous, and that was my New Year’s Resolution. But each time capitalism claims to welcome us in, it is our job to remain critical and vigilant. It is our job to imagine more.