When I was younger I used to watch bootlegs of The L Word after school. My teenage self would find links online and binge season upon season of the American show about a group of strong, independent queer women and dream about which character I wanted to be. I’d plug in my headphones so my parents couldn’t hear anything from the living room, my mouse poised above the “minimise” button in case they came in. It was my little gateway into a world I never had the means to understand.
Like so many young gay people I kept my feelings hidden behind a public attitude of “curiosity” and a manufactured penchant for boys. I remember once having a conversation with my friend’s Dad about how you didn’t have to be gay to watch the lesbian coming of age drama Sugar Rush on Channel 4 – “good TV is just good TV.” Even when they knew I watched “gay TV” people should know I was straight.
The reality was I was a young girl unable to understand the feelings I was having for other women – or perhaps, more accurately, the lack of feelings I was having for my boyfriends at the time.
I discovered the website AfterEllen.com (named after Ellen DeGeneres – our Lesbian Queen), which basically shared information on every lesbian or bisexual character in TV or film at the time, and I’d spend hours binging entire seasons of shows I’d never heard of or watching special fan edits on YouTube which only included the scenes between the characters who were gay. I wasted so much time watching utterly awful content, often in languages I don’t speak, just for that feeling of being “seen.”
My family was liberal enough, if a little clueless. When I finally came out at 19 there wasn’t a big shouting match or a huge fuss. I didn’t get thrown out or lectured about my sins. My Mum just said “oh,” and my Dad gave me a hug and told me a lot had changed since his day. I tiptoed out of the closet with a bruised ego, a broken heart and the knowledge that my parents still loved me.
But I still didn’t know how to be gay.
The problem with being part of an unrepresented group is twofold. Firstly, you feel ashamed to even exist. Imagine a young trans child in America right now. If the only thing you hear about transgender people is the discussion about whether or not they should get to use a particular bathroom; if the only trans characters you see on TV are the victims on true crime shows; if your school refuses to teach you about gender identity, how could you possibly have the tools to come to terms with your own?
Secondly, a lack of representation puts you at the mercy of those willing to give it to you – usually straight, white, cisgender men in suits. The pervading stereotypes given to the LGBT+ community are – still – the fabulously fashionable yet vapid gay man, the boring lesbian who dies, the greedy indecisive bisexual, the predatory trans woman and the non-existent trans man.
It’s true you can’t expect every queer character to represent their entire demographic, but when representation is so thin on the ground that’s exactly what happens. It’s not enough anymore to give superficial scraps to a community that deserves three-dimensional characters. More than that, it’s absolutely the responsibility of those in power to educate themselves on what the community needs.
An actor friend of mine (a trans man) recently expressed his exasperation that whenever he went to an audition, he felt he always had to act as a sort of script editor as well as an actor – as if the importance of being true to the experience of a trans person came as an afterthought to the writer’s original thoughts. While it’s great that people are starting to realise that a trans perspective is valuable, it isn’t the job of the people at the end of the process to fix holes that needn’t have been there in the first place.
The way to combat this is simple: have more LGBT+ writers, directors and producers behind the scenes! This is not to say straight people can’t write gay or bisexual characters, or that cis writers shouldn’t invest in trans roles, yet it’s often obvious when stories have been co-opted to make a writer feel more “woke.”
For example, I saw a play once about a self-identified straight man having feelings for someone who didn’t conform to a traditional gender identity. I went because, as a cis woman who has trans friends, I wanted to support work about the community and gain an insight into their stories. Within ten minutes it became clear the writer knew even less about what it meant to be trans than I do, to the extent that he didn’t even know what transgender meant.
After the show, I asked one of the actors if the writer had spoken to any trans people during the process and the answer was, of course, no. The writer was a straight man who “has lots of gay friends” – a bunch of cis, straight people were patting themselves on the back for telling LGBT+ stories without bothering to engage with the community at all. This story is sadly not atypical, so it’s clearly time to get more queer people working behind the scenes. Commission trans writers to write plays, hire gay women to cast TV shows, talk to LGBT+ audiences before you shoot that film about their icon. Use us, hire us, involve us.
Yet things are definitely improving. Matthew Lopez’ gay play The Inheritance cleaned up at the recent Olivier Awards. Fun Home, a musical about butch lesbian Alison Bechdel, won big at the 2015 Tonys. Laverne Cox continuously flies the flag for trans women and new shows like Killing Eve, Gentleman Jack and Years & Years consistently write LGBT+ characters that are full of three-dimensional life.
And with these stories and the characters whose lives they explore, comes a better understanding of the complexities of the LGBT+ experience. Every new, well-built character is worth so much more than a place in their world. They live on in the experiences of future teenagers who sit in their room binging the latest season of Orange is the New Black, or revelling in the story of Elton John’s rise to fabulousness. More than that, they humanise LGBT+ people in the eyes of the would-be homophobes who instead learn to see us as what we are – human.
But this continued forward momentum isn’t guaranteed. Even now there are people trying to limit the reach of non-hetero cis stories by boycotting or even outright banning them. A recent episode of the cartoon Arthur was taken off air in the state of Alabama because it included a gay wedding. In Russia, the Elton John biopic Rocketman was re-edited to make it less gay (read that again…an Elton John biopic made LESS GAY!?). Even when we manage to get decent representation and well-written characters who don’t fall into cliche we’re faced with calls of “the gay agenda” and “political correctness gone mad!”
Closer to home is what happened in Southampton recently, when the cast of the award-winning play Rotterdam were the victims of a homophobic and transphobic attack. It forced them to cancel that night’s performance and it reminded all of the LGBT+ community that we’re still “other.”
So, keep fighting for LGBT+ representation, and keep championing the stories we’re still trying to get told. Keep supporting art that supports us and lend your voice to the discussion on why representation is so vitally important.
Do it because it means better art, do it because it means exciting stories, and do it so that the next generation of teenagers trying to find who they are don’t have to lock themselves away in a metaphorical closet to do so.
For more from Backstage UK, check out the magazine.