Visibility Spectrum: Why it Matters

Pride /prīd/ n. 1. a feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction deprived from one’s own achievements, or from qualities or possessions that are widely admired. 2. The consciousness of one’s own dignity. 3. A celebration of all things queer.

For me, June is a month of strawberries and rhubarb; it’s the month of my dad’s birthday, a month of travel, summer blockbusters, and sunshine. For the past two years I’ve spent the month of June at Holden Village: enjoying the scenery, the community; spending my days hiking, working, and eating way too much toast (it’s the fresh-baked bread, y’all). It’s a good month, June.

For the LGBT community, June is Pride Month: a time for outrageous parades and wild celebrations; a time to remember the Stonewall Riots and the sacrifices made by all those who fought to be recognized for all that they are.

I grew up in the late ’90s/early 2000s, when gay & lesbian visibility in the media was only just becoming a thing (let alone visibility for people who are bisexual or transgender, which we’re still working on today). I lived in small towns in the American West, where homosexuality was something that was Simply Not Talked About, especially in “polite company,” especially when there were children present. In other words, if I didn’t see it on Nickelodeon or read about it in books, it didn’t exist.

Imagine how confusing it was when junior high rolled around and I realized I wasn’t interested in the girls in my grade. At all. Now imagine how discombobulating it felt when I realized my heart was going “pitter-patter” every time I saw Mr. B—,  my eighth Grade History teacher.

For the first decade of my life (give or take a few years), I didn’t even know that gay was an option. Once puberty hit, the idea of two people of the same sex/gender having a relationship was so alien to my world, I basically responded by saying, ‘nope. Uh-uh. Not me. I’m just not gonna feel anything towards anybody—ever.”

Flash forward to college and my moving to the Seattle area. By that point my denial had shifted from “Whoo! Celibacy forever!” to “It’s okay for some people to be gay, but not me.” It wasn’t until my junior year when an unfortunate crush on a straight guy in my dorm forced me to accept that these feelings I had weren’t going to go away.

(At that point, being the nerd that I am, I read everything I possibly could about homosexuality, queer culture, LGBT rights in America and the world, famous historical figures who were probably queer, and the history of the LGBT equality movement before I came out to anyone. But that’s a story for another day.)

Going back to my childhood, I did eventually learn that gay was a thing, even though I refused to consider myself “that way.” At the same time, I did manage to find examples of same-sex couples and queer characters in the media. During those years of fierce denial, I paradoxically stumbled onto, even sought out stories that had gay and lesbian (and occasionally bisexual) characters in them. I remember watching episodes of Degrassi and Will & Grace as though they were contraband: my finger on the remote ready to change the channel at a moment’s notice.

Thing is, those weren’t the characters or the shows that stuck with me. I had about as much in common with Marco Del Rossi and Jack McFarland as I did Cordelia on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which is to say I had nothing in common with them at all). Even Straight Gay Will Truman was too uptight, too neurotic for me to relate to.

I get the sense that, for most people (especially straight white people), finding fictional characters they can relate to is just sort of a given. There’s enough variety in the way that (white, heterosexual) men and women are portrayed in books, movies, and TV, even if you can’t relate to every character in every series, odds are good that you’ll find someone in something whom you can say “Oh! S/he’s like me!”

For folks in minority groups, it can be a lot harder.

This may be less of an issue in 2013 when there are Top 10 lists for queer characters on TV, in science-fiction/fantasy/comic books, et cetra, but back in the day, there wasn’t a lot of variety between “butch lesbian” and “camp gay”. For a shy, nerdy queer guy growing up in the boonies with exactly zero queer role models IRL, it’s a wonder I found any queer characters I could relate to at all.

Exhibit A: Michiru and Haruka, a.k.a. Sailors Neptune and Uranus from Sailor Moon
Exhibit A: Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus

This post started out as a list of the characters/same-sex couples who had the most impact on me growing up. It’s a short list, honestly: Tôya and Yukito from Cardcaptor Sakura: Sumeragi Subaru, the protagonist of Tokyo Babylon; Haruka and Michiru from Sailor Moon S (pictured above); Willow Rosenberg and Tara McLay from Buffy. Three of those four sets are from Japan; half of them are lesbians. Conclusion: until Jack Harkness came along, portrayals of dudes who like dudes in Western media sucked.*

The common thread among all the characters I listed in that last paragraph is that they are characters first and foremost, with wants and interests outside of their sexual orientation. Tôya is the main character’s overprotective, occasionally obnoxious older brother; Yukito is Tôya’s best friend/”most important person”: a nice guy with the world’s fastest metabolism. Subaru is a kind-hearted onmyoji (spirit medium) who ends up falling for a sociopath and (eventually) gets caught up in the prophesied end of the world.** Haruka and Michiru are soldiers; they spend more time discussing their duty than their relationship. Willow is a nerd, a computer genius, a powerful witch, not to mention Buffy’s best friend; Tara may be introduced as Willow’s love interest, but she’s shy, awkward, compassionate, and a darn good character in her own right. Contrast this with characters whose sole defining trait is “attracted to persons of the same sex.”

A few months ago I wrote a post about how one of the Suikoden series’s greatest strengths is the great diversity of its characters, particularly the women.*** This post is somewhat related to that.

Why does diversity matter in fiction? Why write series with more than one female character or include LGBT characters at all? Why do people get so upset about token black/Asian/”ethnic” characters—isn’t one character better than nothing?

Short answer: no. Tokenism is not enough.

We learn through stories. We engage with them, react to them, even change who we are because of them. We see aspects of ourselves in our favorite characters, and we want them to be happy because we want to be happy. As Matt LeMaire writes in his defense of gay comic book characters, “If it was all fantasy and had no resonance to our own cultural experiences, we wouldn’t read it, or care about it.” We remember the stories that resonate with our lives. More importantly, fiction can teach us how to empathize with those who are different than us—help us to see the things we all have in common.

Minority characters in fiction matter because they acknowledge that not every person is the same. Including multiple “minority” characters—a gay man from the rural South who is also a nerd, for instance, or a transgender black woman who is a concert pianist AND a superhero—acknowledges that not every person within a minority group is the same, either.

Growing up in the boondocks, I barely knew that gay people existed, let alone that there was a whole community of queer folk celebrating those feelings I kept hidden inside. Would I have come out sooner if I’d had more role models on TV and in books? Not necessarily. Who’s to say what might’ve been? Still, it would’ve been nice to have had a few more queer characters I could relate to.

Visibility matters. Diversity matters.

It’s a celebration of what makes me me and what makes you you.

–R

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*Disclaimer: I’ve never watched Queer as Folk.

**The relationship between Subaru and Seishirô: guaranteed to make you feel better about you and your ex.

***I do intend to finish that series on Suikoden V. Eventually.

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