I interviewed some of my friends who are LGBTQ+ for this article. You’ll see quotes from their responses throughout, but I have decided to keep them anonymous.
June is Pride Month. A lot of businesses change their social media profile pictures to have pride flags, many streets are lined with pride flags and for the entirety of June, many people celebrate LGBTQ+ pride.
This was the case in Boise… for the most part. Most streets were lined with pride flags and a lot of businesses hung pride flags in their windows or outside their shop. I was overjoyed.
Then I saw this article.
25 pride flags along Harrison Boulevard were stolen, damaged, or destroyed.
A lot of people here are still quite homophobic and don’t approve of the LGBTQ+ community. Boise doesn’t have the level of LGBTQ+ pride year-round that other places such as San Francisco have, even though there is still a good amount of LGBTQ+ people here.
I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to stop the violence and harmful attitudes toward the LGBTQ+ community, but I believe having better representation of the LGBTQ+ community in media can, over time, help reduce it.
The Importance of Representation
For the same reason representing any group is important. Representation normalizes existence, both for the community itself and for anyone who may not understand them.Anonymous
For people questioning their sexuality, representation helps it feel normal because it is a normal thing. Children living in areas without as much LGBTQ+ representation may not be aware of other sexualities and gender identities, so seeing it in whatever media they consume will help them understand.
If a child without much understanding of the LGBTQ+ community is questioning their gender or sexuality and has seen a piece of media with an LGBTQ+ character, they are much more likely to understand nothing is wrong with them and there is nothing wrong with being LGBTQ+.
In addition, if CisHet1 children and adolescents are introduced to LGBTQ+ characters, they will better understand there are sexualities and gender identities other than their own, which will help them be more understanding and accepting of LGBTQ+ people they meet.
We need it to be normalized so that kids won’t be so shocked, confused or prejudiced when they see it for the first time. Many times what stops a kid from being prejudiced against LGBTQ people in the first place is just thinking back to their favorite TV show as a kid and being like oh my favorite character was gay or trans so it can’t be that bad of a thing. Having an example to look back on of good representation can keep their mind open and it kills me when I see a full-grown adult who is prejudiced solely because they’ve just never encountered someone that’s LGBTQ+.Anonymous
Unfortunately, many areas are trying to prevent children from knowing about and understanding other sexualities. In March, Florida passed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which prevents schools from teaching or discussing sexualities or gender identities through the third grade (and potentially longer). It also requires them to inform the parents of children if they learn their child isn’t CisHet, even if that means sending the child to parents that will abuse them.
The Florida state legislature is playing a dangerous political game with the health and safety of LGBTQ+ kids. The existence of LGBTQ+ people across Florida is not up for debate. We are proud parents, students, and teachers, and LGBTQ+ people deserve to exist boldly, just like everyone else.Cathryn M. Oakley, Senior Council at the national LGBTQ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign
This bill is a huge setback for the LGBTQ+ community. Children will have severely restricted access to understanding and even knowing about the LGBTQ+ community, leading them to be shocked and potentially prejudiced when they meet someone who is LGBTQ+. According to a study by Gallup, around 21% of Gen Z identifies as LGBTQ+, meaning it’s only a matter of time until these children meet someone who is openly LGBTQ+, and when they do, I hope they’re accepting of them.
Good vs. Bad Representation
I think it’s important that if a creator decides to have an LGBTQ+ character in whatever form of media they’re making, they do it thoughtfully.
One of the biggest issues I see in media representation is having one or two LGBTQ+ characters, but then placing harmful stereotypes on them. In the book It’s Kind of a Funny Story, the protagonist meets a transgender woman, but her only trait is being overly-sexual and hitting on everyone in a predatory way. Almost every non-queer person that I’ve talked to about that book doesn’t see an issue with it, but it certainly reflects in the way they see and speak about trans women.Anonymous
The first thing that comes to mind when it comes to bad representation is The Office. Oscar’s character is gay, and that’s about the entirety of his character. Every joke centered around him is that he’s gay. He doesn’t have many other character traits (granted most side characters in The Office are like that; Creed is creepy, Angela likes cats, Stanley is grumpy, and so on). But it is much more important to represent part of someone’s identity than common personality traits, so shows and movies shouldn’t confuse someone’s sexuality for their personality.
Don’t get me wrong, I would prefer an LGBTQ+ character done poorly over no LGBTQ+ character at all, but doing it well means so much more for the people it is meant to be representing.
A trope that you’ll see in pretty much every piece of modern media is queerbaiting. Queerbaiting is introducing characters that are obviously meant to be read as LGBTQ+, but then either never addressing it or waiting until the last possible second to say “Gotcha!”, and reveal that they were CisHet the whole time. This one in particular is a major problem in modern Marvel movies, as well as a shocking amount of kids’ TV series.
However, I think that by far, the most prevalent type of bad representation is “bury your gays”. “Bury your gays” refers to a trope in which media will introduce queer characters, then deliberately kill them off at disproportionate rates to CisHet characters. This is everywhere: Charlie and Cas dying in Supernatural, the gay couple in IT: Chapter Two, Brokeback Mountain, the list goes on. These characters were introduced so the producers could say that they had representation when in reality all they had was unnecessary violence.Anonymous
A show that represents their LGBTQ+ character particularly well is Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Captain Holt is gay and Rosa is bisexual, but that influences their characters as much as their race. It doesn’t define their personality and is only part of their identity. The jokes about Holt’s personality aren’t about him being gay, they’re about him being stone-faced, a leader, competitive, and rigid yet willing to show some flexibility and warmth at times.
Like Holt, Rosa has an entire personality that doesn’t center around her sexuality. She’s scary, intimidating, hard to read, the “badass” in the precinct, and incredibly secretive. She doesn’t come out as bisexual until late into the show2, which I believe was an incredible decision. They were able to dedicate almost an entire episode to showcasing the struggles and difficulties of someone coming out (which Stephanie Beatrix, the actress who plays Rosa, was able to help craft as she herself is bisexual). It shows the rift it creates with her parents (as they originally don’t approve of her dating a woman), how people perceive her differently because of her sexuality, and the importance of having friends who are supportive during the process of coming out.
The show tackles many more important topics, like injustices against black characters like Captain Holt and Terry3, how the perception of the police has changed recently4, and even a few comments on gun control. Overall, I think Brooklyn Nine-Nine does an incredible job in discussing important topics and an even better job in representing its LGBTQ+ characters.
How to create a good LGBTQ+ character
Being LGBTQ+ influences someone’s life, but it isn’t the entirety of their personality and definitely isn’t a substitute for one. Characteristics like race or gender influence someone’s personality as much as their sexual orientation, so writing someone who fits one of the LGBTQ+ stereotypes is as wrong and offensive as writing someone who is the personification of the stereotypes of a particular race.
When creating LGBTQ+ representation, the best course of action is to treat them like actual people. Being part of the queer community influences your character’s life, yes, but it’s also not the entirety of who they are. The best representation states what is crearly, without animosity, as a natural part of that character’s life.Anonymous
Sitcoms especially like to have LGBTQ+ characters because it gives them options to make jokes about their sexuality. Jokes about people’s sexuality are alright in moderation since those kinds of jokes happen in real life all the time, but the character shouldn’t be included only because they provide opportunities to make jokes about their sexuality.
When writing LGBTQ+ characters, don’t try to cater to a straight audience because this makes a spectacle out of LGBTQ+ characters instead of trying to relate to the LGBTQ+ audience. It’s always good when something can address LGBTQ+ characters and then move on as if it’s a normal and regular thing to be. It’s good when the gay characters are fully developed with flaws and interests and not just a cliche trope of “gay”.Anonymous
Everyone, regardless of their sexuality, has a unique personality, so when creating an LGBTQ+ character, create them like any other but consider how and when their sexuality will play a role in their story.
Some good examples of representation
I recently played a super cute little game called “one night, hot springs”. You play as a transgender woman in Japan as she goes on a trip to a hot spring with her friends. It gives a wonderful insight into the experiences and challenges of someone who is trans, especially of one in Japan (which is still a bit behind). It gave me a great insight into understanding those experiences and how I can be more accommodating to trans people. I highly recommend playing it yourself. The game was choice-based with a handful of different endings (each one taking maybe 15 minutes to complete) and I really enjoyed playing through it multiple times to get all of the endings.
I also think The Last of Us Part 2 did a great job exploring the LGBTQ+ community. Instead of making a spectacle of characters like Ellie and Dina, their sexualities are only part of who they are. Each one has a complicated personality and is given the same amount of attention as every other character. I also enjoyed seeing a few scenes where their sexuality played a role in how others perceived them. During a scene at a dance in which Ellie and Dina kiss, a homophobic man comes up and tries to force them to leave. I enjoyed seeing Naughty Dog take a realistic look at how their sexuality plays a role in how they’re perceived. Instead of just ending the scene with the kiss, Naughty Dog decided to stay and showcase something that LGBTQ+ couples do unfortunately experience.
When reading the comments on a YouTube video of the scene, I saw this comment. If this doesn’t prove the importance of LGBTQ+ representation, I don’t know what will.
I fucking happy cried during that dance, dialogue and kiss and smiled the whole time. When I was growing up I never saw anything even remotely close to this and I didn’t even know 2 women can be in relationship together, so I was always planning on dying alone. Now seeing this kind of relationship being portrayed in such a realistic and romantic way makes me melt on the spot. This scene makes me feel so reassured, calm and happy.Lia Lia
Naughty Dog made another character, Lev, transgender. Lev partners up with another character, Abby, and in their discussions, Lev reveals he was forced out of his community (the Seraphites) because of his gender identity. I think this was an excellent way to represent the struggle of LGBTQ+ people from homes that don’t accept them leaving to find people who will.
In my opinion, one of the best examples of representation is Our Flag Means Death. It has such good LGBTQ+ representation that most of the cast, as well as the audience, expected to be queerbaited. Everyone thought it was too good to be true. OFMD does an incredible job of giving queer representation on every level, without any harmful tropes.Anonymous
Representation isn’t just limited to media, however. We currently have 11 openly LGBTQ+ members in the US Congress and recently, we’ve seen many more public figures open up about their sexuality.
While there have been some great advancements in representation, there’s still a long way to go.
We need to break away from sexuality-based stereotypes and normalize being part of the LGBTQ+ community.
While it’s fantastic that representation is becoming more common, much of the LGBTQ+ community still doesn’t get represented often. The LGBTQ+ community doesn’t only have one spectrum, but it appears that only the sexual orientation spectrum gets representation often. The LGBTQ+ community also includes spectrums for gender identity, gender expression, and biological sex, but these don’t get nearly as much representation.
I believe media should also strive to include more characters at every point along these spectrums. Very rarely do you see a character who is gender non-conforming, intersex, asexual, or nonbinary, even though many people are.
Hopefully, these stereotypes will naturally die down and we’ll make more progress as time passes. But, we need the help of big media to get the message across, which will only happen with time or pressure from the masses. 1/5 of Gen Z identifies as LGBTQ+, so I urge everyone to be more supportive of having diverse characters that aren’t only thrown in for inclusivity points.
As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this too! Feel free to drop a comment!
Thanks for reading this,
- CisHet is a term referring to people who are cisgender (identifying with the gender they were assigned at birth) and heterosexual.
- The episode I’m referring to is the 100th episode of the series, “Game Night”.
- A good example of this is the episode “Moo Moo”.
- This was a common theme in the last season.