No More Lesbians on “EastEnders”

Eventually — and not too surprisingly — Naomi and Sonia broke up. Afterward, Naomi faded into the background and Sonia ended up back with Martin, seeming to forget entirely about the same-sex attractions she once had (although actress Natalie Cassidy has said that she considers her character bisexual). It was a sad but not unexpected ending to a rare chance for the BBC to acknowledge lesbian sexuality in its programming and for viewers to witness a positive lesbian relationship that didn't ruin anybody's life.

Unfortunately it was an opportunity missed, and although lesbian content has never been plentiful on EastEnders, it has also rarely been this negative.

From 1994 to 1995, the show addressed lesbian sexuality for the first time with Della and Binnie (Michelle Joseph and Sophie Langham), an interracial couple struggling with homophobia in Albert Square. Their first kiss received more complaints than any other television program that year, and much of their time as an EastEnders couple was spent dealing with their homophobic neighbors.

But as their story line evolved, the couple began to impact British societal views regarding lesbians, even garnering support from previously homophobic viewers and EastEnders characters. Their story eventually had a happy ending when the couple left for Spain together, and in their final episode Della even came out to her mother, who was surprisingly supportive of her.

The success of the Della and Binnie story line seemed to bode well for the future of EastEnders lesbians, but it would be nearly a decade before the writers attempted to address the issue again.

Finally, in 2002 young best friends Kelly and Zoe (Brooke Kinsella and Michelle Ryan) shared a much-hyped kiss, but they soon concluded that they weren't gay after all; they had only kissed because they thought they were going to die. A year later Kelly was written out of the show, reportedly to give Zoe more screen time of her own.

EastEnders fans had to wait another three years before lesbian sexuality was addressed on the show again (via Sonia and Naomi's relationship), but now this period of hope for queer fans — however dreary — has again come to an end.

Unfortunately, Natalie Cassidy's exit from EastEnders has even further-reaching implications than one might expect, and is not just the end of reconciliatory hope for Sonia and Naomi, but also for lesbian EastEnders content in general. After Cassidy publicized her intent to leave the soap, actress Petra Letang, who played Naomi, also announced that she is leaving later this year. Without Sonia in Albert Square, there are simply no other queer characters with whom Naomi can interact; thus, Letang's story lines have all but disintegrated.

But if there can be one positive aspect to the failed lesbian story line, it is how Sonia left Albert Square. When Cassidy first announced her plans to leave EastEnders, rumors centered on Martin murdering his ex-wife because he couldn't handle her lesbianism or the idea of her raising their daughter in a lesbian household. Thankfully, those ideas dissipated in favor of leaving the plot open for future cameos by Cassidy, sparing fans from one more tragic lesbian moment. (Letang, meanwhile, is not likely to return to the soap, and it remains to be seen if her character will be killed off.)

Given the way their relationship was handled, it's hard to feel bad about the departures of either Sonia or Naomi. The characters — both separately and together — had the potential to develop a loving depiction of lesbian sexuality but were failed by the show's writers and, arguably, the BBC's institutionalized homophobia. Given their already mixed history with lesbians, there's hope that EastEnders will get it right next time. But for now, the lesbian exodus from Albert Square feels more like a welcome relief than another painful moment in the history of lesbian representation on British soaps.

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