X Factor is hitting the right note – with its LGBT contestants

Written by on October 7, 2018

The reality TV show has made many errors over the years. But this season it has shown refreshing respect, as Felix Shepherd can testify

It has been 14 years since The X Factor first hit British television screens, and in that time the show has made its fair share of errors. In earlier seasons, the way some contestants clearly devoid of talent was put in front of the judges was uncomfortable for those of us who take little pleasure in seeing innocent (and sometimes vulnerable) people mocked and derided. In 2016, Honey G – aka Anna Gilford – was accused of engaging in “modern-day blackface” with her parody of black music. Judges put her through to the live shows. In the same year, Simon Cowell was accused of making a homophobic joke (for which he instantly apologized) live on TV.

That said, it’s still worth taking a moment to praise programme-makers when there’s good reason to. And this year, executives have perfected their treatment of LGBT contestants on the show.

Take, for instance, Felix Shepherd, whose audition was televised during the audition stages of this year’s series. “I’m from Birmingham, I’m currently studying a degree in songwriting and loving every second of it,” the 20-year-old told the judges in the obligatory “what’s your name and where do you come from” that proceeds anyone being allowed actually to sing. “I’m here today to prove to people I’m more than just a transgender guy,” Shepherd continued, unprompted. “We can be overlooked.”

Of course, producers (and I suspect the judges) would have known this already. It would, therefore, have been all too easy to play an emotive pre-recorded clip about Shepherd’s journey and transition. I do not doubt that Shepherd, like most LGBT people, has a personal, and at times painful, story to tell. Instead, he announced he was trans in the way he felt most comfortable with. And then he got on with the task at hand – singing a song.

It means that one day, if and when he wants to, Shepherd can tell that story on his own terms. And that’s an impressive approach from an entertainment show, given I’ve no doubt it would have made compelling TV. There was no unnecessary aside from Dermot O’Leary – the show’s host – justifying why trans contestants had been allowed to enter in the correct categories, either. Again, a small gesture, but when trans people are subject to rampant discrimination, it’s of note.

Then there was Sephy Francisco, who – as far as I recall – was never even formally introduced as a young trans woman. In this week’s episode 19-year-old Bella Penfold’s moving performance of Same Love (Macklemore’s single about LGBT inclusion) didn’t come with an explainer, and it didn’t need one. It wasn’t that their identities were hidden or erased, but accepted and understood.

Of course, there’s always room for improvement. Robbie Williams asked Shepherd for his “dead name” – the name he was given at birth – before his heartfelt and powerful rendition of Kodaline’s All I Want. Some trans people feel that’s an inappropriate question, far too intrusive and personal to ask a stranger you’ve just met.

The level of respect was the same behind the scenes, Shepherd explains to me a couple of weeks after his elimination. “I shared who I am proudly, and it was never once raised to be an issue. I think it’s great that X-Factor is a safe space to do such a thing.” Whether he would enter the boys’ category was never questioned: “From the start, everyone just treated me like any other young lad.” And, he adds, to his knowledge every other LGBT contestant was treated in the exact same way.

Of course, there needs to be more space made in both the arts and the media for LGBT people to tell their stories. Visible queer and trans characters for audiences to learn from is vital – both in helping society at large learn more about our experiences, and to provide points of reference for young people, when so often people they can relate to can’t be found at home. But on talent shows like the X Factor, it’s a testament to the progress we are making that LGBT folks are simply treated as equals, no questions asked.

Programmes like the X Factor may well exploit their contestants. And those musicians who believe the show has “ruined the music industry” are probably right. But with the show continuing to attract millions of viewers week on week, how it approaches LGBT contestants matters. Allowing queer people to dictate how much or how little they share of their personal lives and recognising them for their talents? The right approach. Its refusal to entertain the notion that trans women aren’t women, or trans men aren’t men, is refreshing. The show hasn’t made a song and dance about having queer and trans people take part in their competition; quite the opposite. Their singing and dancing has been allowed to speak for itself.


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