“It’s just a skating show with a load of celebrities, isn’t it? What does it matter?”
Listen, as someone who got bizarrely sucked into the most recent series of Dancing On Ice, I will be the first to say that it’s not exactly boundary-pushing television. At face value, the show is essentially a throwaway “Strictly Come Dancing – but with ice skates”, that fills a void in your Sunday nights when it’s too cold outside to actually do anything else. In fact, I’d argue that the vast majority of Dancing On Ice’s appeal is in its naff-ness. However, this also means it’s ideal for doing a real, low-key push for LGBTQ representation.
In the lead-up to the next series, which launches in January, it’s been reported that celebrity contestant H Watkins (otherwise known as “H from Steps”), is to be paired with a male professional skater, Matt Evers, in a first for Dancing On Ice.
To many, this might seem like a pretty trivial decision, probably more rooted in generating headlines and – let’s face it – getting one over on Strictly (who have long been criticised for not allowing same-sex pairs to compete), than working towards acceptance for the LGBTQ community. But as we’ve seen on countless occasions in the past, reality TV can actually be a great vehicle for allowing viewers to get to know people from walks of life markedly different to their own. What’s more, it can also allow people from marginalised communities to see people like themselves represented in ways that mainstream TV doesn’t always allow.
I was 10 years old when Brian Dowling entered the Big Brother house, and although I couldn’t put my finger on why at the time, I immediately related to him, and found watching him make friends with people while being unapologetically effeminate and flamboyant – traits that I found in myself had made me feel isolated – strangely comforting.
With no gay role models in my life at that time, Big Brother introduced me to a wide array of characters that proved the community was anything but one-note over the years, whether they were masculine, feminine, fun-loving, intellectual, spiritual, liberal or conservative.
Even in the show’s final year, it was still winning praise for its LGBTQ representation. Drag queen Courtney Act ended up winning Celebrity Big Brother, after winning over the public with the way she patiently explained issues relating to gender and sexuality to her fellow housemates, while the show’s last ever champion, Cameron Cole, also made headlines when he came out as gay during an emotional conversation with his fellow contestants.
However, while the general consensus seems to be that LGBTQ individuals are more accepted than ever before, if the recent discourse around whether Strictly would be featuring pairs made up of two men or two women in the future is anything to go by, there’s still a level of discomfort around seeing same-sex couples on screen.
By having two people of the same sex skating together, in the same contest and being judged by the exact same criteria as their opposite-sex competitors, Dancing On Ice has the opportunity to send out a clear message to viewers. And it’s especially important for young people watching, who might already identify as LGBTQ or are questioning their sexuality to know that being different isn’t anything to be ashamed of, or something you need to hide. In fact, it’s not only valid, but something worth celebrating.
Showing this on a show as mainstream as Dancing On Ice, where the norm has always been that men and women dance together, could also spark important conversations about same-sex relationships in living rooms around the country, particularly among families who don’t have much knowledge or awareness of the LGBTQ community, helping diminish discrimination towards these groups.
Don’t get me wrong, two men skating on the telly together doesn’t draw a line under the ongoing fight for LGBTQ equality. Even just within the context of this particular show, I hope that this decision will open the door for skating couples made up of two women in future series. Dancing On Ice is also yet to cast a transgender celebrity (as is its BBC rival Strictly Come Dancing).
But if Dancing On Ice is able to make any young LGBTQ people (or, indeed, anyone who just wants to dance with someone of the same sex) feel less alone and more seen, then we’re heading in the right direction.
And for anyone concerned that featuring two men on the ice will simply be a distraction from what the show is really about, let me remind you of one thing.
The celebrity contestant in question here is literally H from Steps. He’s already famed for having bags of personality and energy, so the chances are that his skating partner being a man will be the least interesting thing about his performances, meaning we can all get back to focussing on what Dancing On Ice should really be about – the sheer ridiculousness of the whole thing.
Daniel Welsh is an entertainment reporter at HuffPost UK.