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Illustration by Marija Marc

How Big Brother blazed the trail for LGBTQ+ representation on TV

From Nadia Almada to Shabby Katchadourian, Big Brother’s diverse casting brought LGBTQ+ culture to primetime television and awoke a generation of young queers

It was the summer of 2010 and Shabby Katchadourian was walking around the Big Brother bedroom in a black bra, glasses and a bandana. I was 17 and suddenly very aware that all I wanted to do was lick her stomach.

I’m not sure why it was this moment that sparked a big gay realisation. It’s not like there was a shortage of images of women in bras in pop culture. In 2010, however, there was a shortage of lesbian representation on television. Shabby was one of the first times I saw a real-life gay woman on screen, authentic and messy and flawed just like everyone else, trying to navigate the unusual experience of suddenly living with an eclectic group of strangers being filmed 24/7 and, at the same time, navigate the universal lesbian experience of falling for a flirty straight girl. (She’s also hot as fuck but that’s neither here nor there, for the purposes of this article.)

For all its controversies and criticisms, what Big Brother did succeed at was genuinely representing the diversity of the human experience. Unlike reality television today, where everyone is a rich housewife or a Love Island Barbie looking for a Boohoo contract, Big Brother opened its doors to people of all ages, genders, sexualities, class, races and professions. From the very beginning, LGBTQ+ contestants proudly took their place in the house and allowed us to see ourselves on screen: Anna Nolan the lesbian ex-nun, season two winner Brian Dowling, Marco Sabba, Craig Coates (and Anthony Hutton, sort of), Shabby, season five winner and transgender woman Nadia Almada, Derek Laud, Zuleyka Shahin, season 13 winner and transgender man Luke Anderson, and Cameron Cole who actually came out during the show and eventually won the series, to name just a few.

For queer people coming of age, Big Brother was a real watershed moment. “Though I’d been telling my mum I was a girl from about the age of four, it wasn’t until I saw Nadia on Big Brother that I had a word for how I felt,” Charlie Craggs told Dazed in 2021, saying it was the first time she had seen a trans person before. “She was the role model I needed back then; because of her, I started fighting back and standing up for myself, and I started embracing my femininity and being proud of who I was… I see so much of Nadia in the woman I am today.”

Many others had similar revelations while watching the show during their formative years. Seeing Shabby on TV was the confirmation Jade, who was 16 at the time and desperate for queer representation, needed to cement the fact that she was gay. “At that time, I went absolutely feral as soon as I got a whiff of any queer-coded woman,” she recalls. “Something about [Shabby’s] suspenders, little sailor boy trousers, and Victorian-chimney-sweep-child-hat combo really got to me.”

Tatjana, a fellow Shabby obsessive, had a similar experience. “From the moment Shabby entered the Big Brother house I thought she was the coolest person ever,” she says. Not only that but also “insanely hot” and the most attractive person I’d ever seen”. When her mum started joking that it sounded like she had a crush on Shabby, Tatjana realised it was true. “That was when everything clicked into place,” she continues. “Shabby was funny and charming and unapologetically herself and just to be able to see a queer woman on TV who happened to be an actual real-life human and not a character in a TV show meant a lot to me and so many other baby dykes at the time.”

For Tatjana, seeing Shabby sparked a realisation about herself, but it also helped her find her first queer community: on Facebook, she discovered a whole group of people who felt the same way about Shabby. “All these years later I still follow some of them on social media because we formed such a unique bond over having the exact same sexual awakening.” 

“On reality programmes, LGBTQ+ cast members are often favourites, winners – there have been two transgender winners of Big Brother UK – and occasionally villains we love to hate. They are complicated and layered – real – in a way fictional characters can never quite be” – Dr Bethany Klein

The responses we received from people who loved Shabby so outnumbered those about all other contestants that this article could have been solely about her impact on queer teen girls of the 2010s. But Shabby isn’t the only contestant who made an impact. For Marc, it was season five’s Marco Sabba who first helped him give name to the idea of being camp. “I was 14 years old and gay but didn’t fully know it, camp in my nature and only hung out with girls!” he says. When people at school started comparing him to Marco (“they would shout ‘Marcooooo’ at me in ‘the gay voice’”) things fell into place for him. “It then made me understand fully that I was GAY! I was camp.”

For Callie, Pete Burns gave her a first glimpse at someone who completely disregarded gender norms and lived by their own rules. “I really liked how he was passionate about not wanting to label himself and would just say that he was ‘Pete’, not forcing himself into any boxes in regard to his sexuality or gender identity,” she says, adding that Pete’s attitude really helped when she was discovering her identity as a lesbian outside of stereotypes and labels. “I found it really inspiring that I could just exist as me, and that was completely OK.”

Dr Bethany Klein is professor of media and communication at the University of Leeds. She explains that reality television has always been hugely important for LGBTQ+ representation. “Big Brother was at its best when there was a diverse set of housemates, and that includes in terms of gender and sexuality,” she says. “We watched housemates relate to people they might not encounter in ‘real life’ – a dynamic that we, as viewers, were able to experience as well. Anybody who thought they didn’t know somebody who identified as LGBTQ+ could at least feel like they know people through nightly viewing.”

Essentially, for most people their perspectives shift when they know someone who is gay, and knowing someone gay on television is like knowing someone who is gay. On Big Brother, the nation watched these people day in and day out for months, getting to know them and accept them in a way that is unique to reality television and long-running soap operas. Think about Hayley Cropper on Coronation Street, an openly transgender character since the 90s who is both accepted and beloved. (If you want to cry, watch Roy’s wedding vows to Hayley in 2010: “It is 11 years since we last registered to be married, and we were informed that we could not. We have remained still, and the world has turned, to meet us.” This, on Coronation Street.)

Unlike teen-centric television like Skins or more niche programs like The L Word, shows like Big Brother and Coronation Street that are watched by wider audiences have the capacity to have a social impact that goes far beyond the community they represent. That’s not to say Skins or The L Word aren’t vital in their own right, but the ability to reach people outside of the community has a gravity and magnitude that has been, and will continue to be, very important as we fight for queer and trans rights. “The show created a space where queer folk were on a mainstream platform, visible and interacting with cishet folk. At the time we just didn’t see that in the same way anywhere else,” Matt, another queer Big Brother fan, adds. For Matt, who was 14 when Nadia won, seeing her being embraced by viewers and fellow contestants felt like secondhand validation.

Big Brother didn’t just offer representation for representation’s sake, either. Unlike other shows where queer characters are clumsily shoehorned in, Big Brother allowed real, human LGBTQ+ people to just be themselves in front of a massive audience. “Reality television like Big Brother moved away from the conventional, fictional television scripts that saw LGBTQ+ characters sidelined or, worse, destined for a tragic ending,” Dr Klein says. “On reality programmes, LGBTQ+ cast members are often favourites, winners – there have been two transgender winners of Big Brother UK – and occasionally villains we love to hate. They are complicated and layered – real – in a way fictional characters can never quite be.”

This chimes with Tatjana. “Us queer folk were able to see ourselves in the mainstream media, and not just because a cisgender male scriptwriter had written a new plotline in a [show] that involved a queer character wreaking havoc that enforced stereotypes,” she says. Jade adds that she thinks Big Brother helped “humanise” queer people. “[Cis, straight people] could really get past their caricatures of queer people and start to form opinions that weren’t moulded by press headlines. I think in particular Nadia’s win really proved that.”

These days, it can be easy to feel disillusioned and believe that things appear to be going backwards. In the next year, almost a third of queer television characters will disappear thanks to the cancellation of over 50 LGBTQ-inclusive series. Meanwhile, shows like Love Island exclusively feature straight, thin, and predominantly white contestants (one of the show’s creators famously once said that including LGBTQ+ contestants would be a “logistical difficulty”).

But there are signs the tide is turning: a large part of the charm of the BBC’s Traitors was undoubtedly down to its refreshingly diverse cast, while Jenna and Zoe from Married At First Sight, the show’s first ever lesbian couple, were firm fan favourites (plus they’re the only pair still together). And with Big Brother coming back, there’s hope that we’ll be seeing contestants as iconic as Shabby and Nadia on our screens once again. “So much of the power of reality television is down to casting,” Dr Klein says. “Here’s hoping that the new production of Big Brother is a return to form, with a house that values diversity of all kinds.”

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