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Obama Moments

The importance of queer representation in media

By Becina J. Ganther, Crimson Opinion Writer

A wave of relief flooded over me as I watched Obama's inauguration in my fifth grade science class. I was one of three black students in my grade and the only black student in the classroom, a fact no one ever dared to say out loud, but that silence nonetheless was off-putting. As a kid, even though I couldn’t process why, I knew I never wanted to draw any attention to my race. But, as Obama came onto the screen and started his speech, I realized that the only other person in the room who looked like me was the President of the United States. I felt comforted knowing I was no longer the only one. Suddenly, the idea of standing out because of my skin color didn't seem negative. I didn't need to look like everyone else or worry about fitting in. I could achieve anything and become anyone, just like Obama.

Five years later, I had another “Obama moment” when I realized that I was queer. Coming to terms with my sexuality has been a complicated and sometimes painful process, but one day, while watching Ellen, it dawned on me that she was gay. Of course, I’d known that for years, just like I already knew that Obama was black. But before, Ellen’s sexuality was little more than a trivia fact; in the context of what I was going through, it became a novel and crucial revelation. Ellen wasn’t straight. Neither was I. We shared that identity. The second thing I realized was that she seemed happy. She hosted a successful talk show, married a wonderful woman (and took adorable wedding photos with her), and was well-liked by the public. If Ellen could be happy, what’s stopping me?

Another trailblazer for LGBTQ representation is Laverne Cox, the first trans person to grace the cover of Time magazine, be nominated for a Primetime Emmy, and have a wax figure in Madame Tussauds. Her visibility has made her a role-model for thousands of trans people, especially those who may know only cis people. Additionally, as a black person, she pushes back on the whitewashing of queerness.

The existence and success of people like Ellen Degeneres and Laverne Cox are a good start, but what about within our media? A seemingly obvious place to look for queer role-models is in movies, but that’s been pretty fruitless. In 2015, only 17.5 percent of 126 major movies released that year contained queer characters. Now, 17.5 percent may seem high compared to the 3.8% of Americans who identify as LGBTQ, but that’s assuming that each movie only has one or two characters. If you consider that most movies have dozens of characters, that leaves the percent of LGBTQ characters out of total characters at much less than 3.8 percent. These might seem like just numbers, but to me, it’s about my identity. When I can’t see myself reflected anywhere in a billion dollar industry that’s churned out millions of characters, I don’t feel heard or included. No one should feel like like they have to overcome all odds just to be who they are.

While it’s an important goal to include more LGBTQ characters in movies, it’s equally important to improve how they’re portrayed. Some people think that including the “token” queer person (often the problematic “gay best friend” trope) is the epitome of representation. But we need to demand more. Where are the characters with complex personalities that serve a role in the plot besides comic relief? The characters who are any of the other letters in LGBTQ besides “L” and “G”? The characters who are also racial minorities, religious minorities, non-affluent, or plus-sized? The characters who look or think or exist in the world in any way outside of the ones we usually see, characters who don’t fit the Hollywood formula of creating nearly identical white, thin, cis, middle-class roles with a dash of gayness sprinkled in for “diversity”? Where are the characters whom I can point to and say, “That’s me.”?

I distinctly remember a conversation in high school when one of my friends asked me why I wasn’t more out. The explanation I gave was that I didn’t want people to stereotype me and thus diminish the other parts of my identity. But an equally pressing reason, which I didn’t know how to articulate at the time, was that I didn’t understand how my queerness fit into my other identities. Because I couldn’t find any role-models who could relate to me on multiple levels, I struggled to figure out how to be queer. I hid in the closet for way longer than I wanted to because no one showed me the way out.

It would be helpful to also see more noticeably queer supporting roles and extras. Maybe it’s the two women in the background of a scene, holding hands as they subtly saunter down the sidewalk. Or the co-worker who uses they/them/their pronouns. Or the main character’s friend recounting his weekend trip with his boyfriend. At first glance, these characters might seem useless or even trivializing of queer people. But, if you look more closely, you’ll realize it’s the exact opposite. Even if their relevance to the plot is negligible, the fact that these characters are on-screen, that they exist, that they’re portrayed as a normal part of our society, is groundbreaking. It’s a small change that can make a world of difference to the LGBTQ community.

Becina J. Ganther ’20 is a Crimson Editorial writer living in Wigglesworth Hall. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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