The processes of regulation set limits to ensure that mainstream drama conforms to normative assumptions about sexual behaviour. If broadcast before the 9.00 p. m. watershed, it must be deemed suitable for family viewing. For drama this has meant an almost exclusive focus on heterosexual relationships as a result of the expressions of disgust and moral condemnation that have greeted the few examples of homosexual relationships to appear. Research in 1992 by the Broadcasting Standards Commission (Millwood Hargrave 1992) showed that for about a third of viewers any depiction of homosexuality was unacceptable, while for two-thirds showing physical contact between gay men would be offensive. These proportions had reduced by 1999, especially among younger viewers, but still under half of the sample agreed that scenes of men kissing are acceptable before 9.00 p. m. There were fewer objections to women kissing (Millwood Hargrave 1999: 62-71).

On those few occasions before the 1980s when gay or lesbian characters were explicitly portrayed they were based on established stereotypes: camp queens and butch lesbians to be laughed at in comedies, sinister objects of fear in thrillers or figures of pity in social problem dramas. They were positioned as marginal characters in hetero­sexual plots. ‘Heterocentric narrative construction will structure the plot to revolve around how straight characters respond to lesbians, gays and queers. We therefore see them through a straight gaze’ (Doty and Gove 1997: 88). It wasn’t until 1975 with the dramatized portrayal of Quentin Crisp’s life in The Naked Civil Servant (Thames 1975) that a sympathetic and complex characterization of a gay protagonist was placed at the centre of a television drama on British television. It won many awards but remained an isolated example.

The main problem with gay and lesbian representation in television drama hasn’t been a plethora of negative stereotypes but their invisibility (Munt 1992; Doty and Gove 1997: 86). This absence explains why ‘queer’ reading strategies have developed to read nominally ‘straight’ characters as gay or lesbian through gesture, dress, double entendres or narrative role (Graham 1995; Doty and Gove 1997; Medhurst 1997). In some cases these characters have been deliberately double-coded to offer subcultural appeal without offending the mainstream audience. There is also a tradition of ‘camp’ appropriation by gay men of female stars whose ‘excessive’ melodramatic or comic performances can be read as gender artifice (Babuscio 1984). In other cases extensive ‘rewriting’ by viewers has extended characters’ textual connotations. The homosocial bonds of ‘buddy’ characters are especially open to being appropriated in this way, as the lesbian following for Cagney and Lacey demonstrated (D’Acci 1994). Elaborate creative responses have been developed in the fan cultures surrounding ‘cult’ television series, such as the ‘slash fiction’ written by women fans of Star Trek (NBC 1966-69), which refigure it as a gay romance between Spock and Captain Kirk (Jenkins 1995; Penley 1997). More recent US serials addressed to teenage audiences, alive to the potential offered to fan cultures by the Internet, have deliberately encouraged these practices by incorporating lesbian themes and connotations in fantasy dramas such as Xena Warrior Princess (MCA/Universal 1995-2001) (Gwenllian Jones 2000; Pullen 2000) and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Fox 1997-2003) (Parks and Levine 2003). The pleasurable playfulness of these forms of appropriation has made some viewers impatient with the more ‘serious’ attempts at politically correct representations addressed to gay and lesbian audiences, which have been criticized for creating a minority ghetto (Richardson 1995).

The representation of homosexuality has emerged in a ‘socially responsible’ form in the mainstream soap operas that dominate prime time viewing in the UK. All of the early evening soaps have now included gay and lesbian characters and the shocked response that greeted homosexual kisses in the 1980s has subsided, although it is still the case that only certain kinds of ‘respectable’ gays and lesbians in stable domesticated relationships can be shown. The pedagogic use of soap operas as a form of social education has long been recognized and exploited because of their focus on the family and sexual relationships that constitute the subject matter and setting of this genre. David Buckingham and Sarah Bragg’s (2004) research on young people’s responses to sexuality on television reveals the extent to which these serials allow children to watch and talk about normally hidden adult sexual behaviour, including adultery and homosexuality. The open-ended serial form allows a diversity of perspec­tives on these ‘transgressions’ to be presented, and openly talked about in the family and among friends. Soap operas, along with teenage magazines, offer a less embarrass­ing way of learning about sexual relationships than is possible in school. Nor are they limited by the ‘biological’ approach that characterizes these more explicitly ‘educational’ settings.

Problems still remain as to how to integrate lesbian and gay characters into long – running soaps. The inclusion of one or two into a predominantly heterosexual milieu has the effect of creating characters isolated from any lesbian or gay community. This makes it difficult to sustain the characters in the long term as the variety of story lines and interactions is severely curtailed. The other problem is the taboo on showing embodied sexual encounters, especially between gay men. ‘Camp’ remains the preferred form for gay male expression on mainstream television (as the success of Graham Norton as a presenter confirms), where sex is displaced into innuendo and gay identity expressed as feminine excess. In soaps this translates as the appropriation of sexually active, peroxide blonde, middle-aged women, such as Bet Lynch in Coronation Street or Peggy Mitchell in Eastenders, as gay icons.