Why This is an Issue:
There are quite a few LGBTQ+ people in the world. Imagine watching TV, reading, even just watching YouTube, and then you realize that no characters and no people on the screen and in the pages are like you. You think you’re alone, you think you’re the strange one (Kaiser). The little amount of representation you do see of people you relate to, they’re being bullied, they’re outcasts, they’re there one episode, one chapter, and then they never come back. We need representation, more accurate portrayals, we’re not all the same. We know that, but if the only things that are being put out there about us are hurtful rather than helpful, those stereotypes are what closeted people and cisgendered heterosexual (cis/het) people will end up believing about the LGBTQ+ community and the people in it. Many queer people hide their identities for fear of disgust and disapproval from their family and friends, being thrown out of their homes, bullied by their peers, or even being killed (Pride). I think that improving the representation the LGBTQ+ community gets in the media will be a big step for people being able to be their authentic selves.
Why I’m Interested:
As a person who is part of the LGBTQ+ community, I have experienced this problematic lack of representation first hand. It has severely affected my road to figuring out my own identity. I saw this mostly in books I read when I started to enjoy reading for my own pleasure more in fourth and fifth grades. I had just moved to a new school where I didn’t know anyone and so I leaned into the many fictional worlds to be my companions. Even with all the books I read, I can’t remember a single one of these books that had LGBTQ+ characters in them. I think that if I had seen representation around that time in my life, I wouldn’t have had to go through as much of a tumultuous time of denial and repression of what I felt.
For this project I decided to focus on two main historical events: The Stonewall Riots and The AIDs Epidemic. These are both really big events that changed queer history forever. In the New York Times, the police who raided the gay bar were shown as protecting themselves against people who were “[throwing] bricks, bottles, garbage, pennies and a parking meter at [them]” (4 Policemen). The column focuses more on the injuries of four policemen rather than the wrongfully raided bar; the police arrested the owners and several patrons of the bar on the accounts that they were selling alcohol illegally, however, it was found later that only soft drinks were being served (4 Policemen). There was only one other front page column about the Stonewall Riots in The New York Times, it was published the day after the first raid. Again, this was framed in a way that showed the police as being frightened and cornered by the protesters (Police Again). Marsha P. Johnson and Silvia Rivera- both transgender black women, were two of the major leaders of the Stonewall riots, however throughout their lives, they both had said that it was a “collective uprising” (Brockell). There ended up being six days of protests, which eventually led to the creation of many LGBTQ+ rights foundations such as, the Gay Liberation Front, Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD (formerly Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), and PFLAG (formerly Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays)” (History).
The AIDs epidemic was used as a way to promote monogamy instead of educating men loving men (MLM)- and everyone else, what precautions to take in order to have safe sex (Florêncio). In addition to that, despite the fact that gay and bisexual men were the people most affected by HIV/AIDs the “governments only publicly acknowledged [the disease] years after the first known patients (homosexual men) started dying” (Florêncio). The campaigns shown on TV also avoided directly addressing the MLM community because it was said that that would insinuate and encourage “‘deviant’ homosexual behaviors” – which, at the time, was considered a bad thing (Florêncio). Many of these commercials also used fear mongering to show that having a negative view and being afraid of gay people is normal and okay (Florêncio). For example one ad showed someone loading one bullet after another and playing Russian Roulette until the barrel of the gun was full of bullets implying that the next time the gun was shot the person would die if they were polygamous (Florêncio). Not only were these commercials and approaches bad, but the homophobia increased a significant amount (Ruel). Although homophobia increased, the AIDs epidemic did not cause the negative feelings towards LGBTQ+ people, it simply reinitiated many prejudices towards the community (Ruel).
In 2016 and 2017 there was only one transgender character and only 37 major production studio releases had LGBTQ+ characters in them (GLAAD). Out of the movies that did have LGBTQ+ characters only three had “unproblematic” representation (GLAAD). Movie industries had been ranking their movies on a scale from 1 to 5, and the majority of the films that did have LGBTQ+ representation were consistently ranking one or two. There is another ranking system to make sure that there is more quality LGBTQ+ representation in movies called the Vito Russo test. It ensures that any given film “must have an ‘identifiably’ LGBT[Q+] character who is not ‘solely or predominantly’ defined by being LGBT[Q+], and who must play a significant role in the plot” (GLAAD). Many producers use “queerbaiting,” defined as “when an author/director/etc. gives hints, and clever twists to paint a character as possibly being queer, to satisfy queer audiences, but never outright says they are so they can keep their heterosexual audience” (Baska). One example of this was Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnorok who is supposedly bisexual, however there was only one scene that could confirm her sexuality. That one scene was very vague, and it was never officially confirmed that she is bisexual (GLAAD).
YouTube, a popular video streaming app, has a “Restricted Mode” that has been accused of banning a lot of LGBTQ+ content (Allen). Restricted Mode was created to keep an eye on videos related to “health, politics and sexuality,” and although YouTube has said it would address the issue of LGBTQ+ content being banned, those “triggers” for videos to be marked restricted apply to a lot of queer content. “Three out of the four letters in the LGBT acronym refer to sexual orientations. The LGBT community faces significant health disparities that are pertinent for adults and minors alike. And all LGBT people are politicized simply because we are alive and ask for equal rights” (Allen).
Some major things that need to be improved are problematic representation such as queer people being the brunt of jokes, more representation of people on the transgender spectrum, asexual spectrum, and finally the erasure and invalidation of bisexual, pansexual, and polysexual identities. In 2015 there were so few transgender characters it seemed like they “simply [didn’t] exist – at least not as recurring characters” (McDonald). Since then many big production studios have prided themselves after hiring only a few queer people, women and people of color, but that puts a lot of pressure on those few people to become “ambassadors” for each of their identities (McDonald).
In order to make progress towards solving the issue of lackluster representation, we must actively search for LGBTQ+ content, ideally created by members of the LGBTQ+ community. Currently most major media programs are run by cisgendered and heterosexual (cis/het) people, and it’s doubtful that much queer content will be pushed to the front lines of these larger platforms. Searching past what is directly given to us, there is so much LGBTQ+ content out in the world. Understanding that what we’re looking for is not going to be right at our fingertips is one of the first steps to uplifting suppressed voices. A large scale step in the right direction is to revamp the triggers for marking content as “restricted” or “mature”; under those labels the content is much harder to find and becomes buried under supposedly unproblematic content, which is usually cis/het people. Another step that corporations can take is to create a quota hiring system to ensure that more queer people are integrated into all areas of work. For a micro level solution, as a LGBTQ+ person who is considering going into creative writing, I can write down my queer story ideas to put my own work out in the world. Even if at the moment I personally don’t think that it may be a great story, I don’t know who it may reach or be helpful to.