Queer Representation in Children’s Media

When I was a little girl, one of my absolute favourite things in the whole wide world was Harry Potter. (Oh, who am I kidding? That’s still true today.) The books. The movies. Everything. I loved it. I ate it up like a proverbial fat kid eats cake.

Now, I don’t know how familiar you, the reader, are with Harry Potter. Maybe you’ve never seen the movies or read the books, and you just have a basic understanding of it being about wizards or some shit like that. Maybe you’re more like me, and have the entire text of the books tattooed onto your soul. But I’m just going to assume that you’re a little closer to the former, just for safety’s sake, because I want to draw your attention toward a brief, seemingly unimportant scene in the third movie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (which was released when I was nine years old. Trust me; that bit will become important later).

Near the end of this movie, two male characters are revealed to have a close friendship (if I’m spoiling anything for you here, too bad, the movie’s been out nearly fourteen years now). These characters in question are Remus Lupin, a werewolf, and Sirius Black, not a werewolf. At one point, shortly after a reunion scene between the two of them that involved close hugging, the moon comes out from behind a cloud, and Lupin begins to turn into a werewolf. At this point, Sirius grabs hold of Lupin and tries to get through to him, saying things like, “this heart is where you belong, this heart!” indicating Lupin’s own chest.

Now, what about any of this matters, you might be asking? This is just a meaningless, nothing little scene that establishes nothing besides the fact that Lupin is turning into a werewolf, right? Well… yes. Yes it is. But at the age of nine years old, when I first saw this scene, something got confused along the way in my head. I think it might have been something about Sirius screaming about hearts as he held Lupin close. What I’m trying to say is, when I was nine years old, I seriously, genuinely thought that Sirius and Lupin were a couple in the context of the movies. And I’m not talking about “shipping” them (for those of you who aren’t familiar with the lingo, that’s geek-talk for thinking that two characters would make an amazing couple, even if they are not actually romantically or sexually involved in the actual text). I mean that I actually believed that they were “together”.

This wasn’t an isolated incident either. In the Disney movie “Mulan” (which came out when I was three years old; I don’t remember how old I was when I first saw it, but it was probably around then), there is a character simply called “the Matchmaker”, and I was completely convinced that that character was a drag queen. Maybe it was the heavy make-up combined with the fact that she accidentally draws a goatee on herself later on in the movie. Maybe I just didn’t catch onto the fact that it was a goatee made of ink, not hair. I don’t know, for some reason, when I was a kid, I was simply convinced that children’s movies were much more progressive than they actually were.

It wasn’t until I was in my late teens did I discover that Lupin and Sirius are not actually a couple in the context of the story, they’re just good friends, or that the Matchmaker was actually intended to be interpreted as a cis-gendered woman.

Now, the reason why I interpreted these characters this way could be manifold. It could simply because my parents did not try to hide the existence of other sexualities and genders from me as a kid, and so it simply made sense to me that, if these people existed, they would exist in my media as well. Or maybe it all has something to do with the fact that I personally grew up to be bisexual; maybe whatever it is that has hardwired me to be queer automatically made me search for role models in my media as early as three years old. I don’t know what the reason is, all I know is that I can now make people laugh with the funny “I genuinely thought Lupin and Sirius were a couple” story now.

But, personally, I think that the fact that I thought this way as young as I did is important to a discussion that we have been having in our media lately: namely, is it okay for children to be exposed to queer characters in media?

Actual queer characters (not just the ones I’ve made up in my head) have been confirmed in some children’s media lately, possibly the most famous example being LeFou in Disney’s live action remake of Beauty and the Beast. Yet, LeFou sort of ended up being a disappointment to both sides of the argument. Parents who disagreed with queer representation in children’s media refused to take their children to this movie because they didn’t want them exposed to a message that they thought could potentially be harmful. Meanwhile, audience members who wanted to see explicit queer representation got little more than a split-second dance scene between two men, hardly confirming or denying anything (after all, even as a nine-year-old, I would have known that two men can dance together without being in love with each other).

Since then, we’ve had character after character in children’s media (including Valkyrie from Thor: Ragnarok and Yellow Ranger Trini from the Power Rangers movie) either hint at potential queerness, or be marketed to the audience as a queer character, while never actually coming right out and saying, “hello, yes, I am actual queer character, pleased to meet you!”

In other words, this media can bring in an audience that desperately wants to see actual, confirmed queer representation in mainstream, children’s media, while simultaneously appeasing the parents who don’t want their children exposed to that gross, gay stuff.

But, end of day, really, what’s wrong with exposing children to the existence of queer individuals?

I know that I’m probably not a convincing example of someone who grew up exposed to this in my media and turned out fine, considering the fact that one of the major fears of including these characters in these movies is that it will somehow turn their kids gay. But at the same time, to that, I say two things: 1) I don’t think that I “became bisexual” the moment that I heard Gary Oldman screaming “this heart is where you belong” to David Thewlis. I sort of think that being bisexual was somewhere in my genetic code long before that. And, 2) at the time, when I was a young, pre-pubescent nerd wearing a lightning bolt scar drawn onto my forehead with eyeliner, I actually didn’t think anything of this quote-unquote ‘relationship’. I didn’t think that it was weird that Sirius and Lupin “were a couple”. I mean, yeah, at the time I decided that they were my favourite couple in the series, but that was mostly because this was movie three and the only other couples that I had to choose from were all parents (which, to a nine year old girl, was gross).

You know those stories that you hear of a little kid asking, “what are gay people?” and the parents explains it calmly, to which the kid goes, “oh. Can I go play now?” Yeah, that was pretty much just my reaction to these movies. I didn’t linger on it. I didn’t hate it or think it was gross, or even really decide that I was going to grow up to be in a same-sex relationship, just like Lupin and Sirius. I just saw it, thought it was kind of romantic, the way that Sirius tried to pull Lupin back from being a monster just like some sort of Beauty and the Beast, and then I moved onto the awesome werewolf fight scene and the flying broomsticks and the supposed devil worship. Truth be told, if this wasn’t an argument that we were having now, and if I hadn’t been wrong in my interpretation of the film, I might never have thought about any of it ever again.

So when people nowadays discuss the potential “dangers” of including queer characters in children’s media, I always go back to that nine year old girl who thought nothing of the possibility that two wizards were also a couple, or that the Matchmaker was openly a drag queen in ancient China. None of this bothered me as a kid, none of it even phased me. Perhaps it would have if I had told the adults in my life how I had interpreted these characters and they had laughed at me or told me that I was wrong, but no one ever did that to me. No one ever told me that queer characters didn’t belong in my media, and so I simply assumed that queer people belonged everywhere. Being informed on these matters, being allowed to think about them and interpret them freely, made me more open-minded and accepting, not only of queer characters, but of queer people in real life, and eventually, of my own queerness as well.

It wasn’t until I grew up did I discover that others disagreed with me. And, to this day, I still don’t think I understand why.

Advertisements

Why You Should Not Have to Rush Coming Out of the Closet

The first time I came out of the closet, I was sixteen years old and very, very not ready.

Before I was sixteen years old, I had crushes on other girls, of course, but it wasn’t until then that I had my first crush that actually stood a chance of going anywhere. She had been in one of my classes, a girl so unlike anyone who I usually hung out with. She didn’t get along with any of my friends, and we didn’t often see each other outside of class. So what this essentially meant for me was that, for a good hour every day, I was distinctly reminded of my own difference, and then outside of that, I had to go back to pretending that I was something I wasn’t.

And, perhaps to make matters worse, my group of friends at the time had, for some reason, gotten into the habit of religious debates during lunch. Looking back, it probably wasn’t the most peaceful way that we could have been spending our break, but what can I say, we enjoyed argument. One lunchtime, these debates centred around the issue of homosexuality, and whether or not it was a sin. Having just finished my class with the girl I liked, I sat there, listening to my friends trying to decide whether I was going to hell or not, and without really meaning to, I broke in and screamed, “how do you think I feel about all this? I’m bisexual!

And at that point, all I could think was: well. I guess I’m the bisexual girl now.

Suffice it to say, I shouldn’t have come out that way. Not that anyone judged me or anything; I went home and I told my family, and I answered any questions that my friends had, and I tried to work out what all this meant for me, but the problem was, I had done all of this way too early. I found myself concerned that everyone was looking down on me now. Nobody ever called me a ‘dirty slut’ for being bisexual (not to my face anyway), but I figured that everyone was dismissing me as one now (full disclaimer: no woman should be judged or demeaned for the amount of sexual partners they have had, I’m just trying to describe how I felt at the tender age of sixteen). Nobody ever laughed at me or called me names, but I figured that they probably were. I didn’t feel comfortable showing affection toward any of my straight female friends, because I didn’t want them to think that I was flirting with them.

People did tell me that they thought I might be faking it, either for attention or to look edgy or different, and there was a part of me that agreed. Because, truth be told, I didn’t know that I wasn’t yet. I knew that I had had crushes on girls, but what if those were just flukes? What if I had just fooled myself into thinking that they were crushes because I wanted to be different?

The best way that I can think to describe it is to say that it was like I had ripped off a scab before the wound had fully healed.

A few years later, when I was eighteen years old and my dating prospects had long since gone up in smoke, I found myself wondering why I was even bothering to be out of the closet. I distinctly remember thinking that it would be better if I just went back to what I called ‘factory settings’; just call myself straight, pretend it was all a phase, and live without the assumptions that society places on bisexual girls for a while.

It was another year or so before I was comfortable coming back out of the closet, and challenging these assumptions by being my awesome, loving, passionate, open-minded, happy bisexual self.

Now, why am I telling this story, you might now be asking yourself? Well, for one, October 11 is National Coming Out Day, and two, I wanted to illustrate, for straight and queer people alike, that coming out of the closet is not always an easy thing, and not just for typical reasons that we hear about. I mean, sure, there are most certainly plenty of queer people, youths and adults alike, who are stuffed into their closets by judgemental parents or a closed-minded community, sure, but in my personal experience, I didn’t have any of that. For the most part, my family and my community were fairly accepting of me. I am privileged enough to say that I didn’t risk being disowned by my parents or thrown out on the streets, and I know not everyone has that same opportunity, but coming out of the closet was still mental torment for me.

One of the things that we don’t seem to talk about very often is the way that our society forces us to internalize certain ideas. Of course, I knew that I wasn’t flirting with my straight female friends (most of them weren’t even my type anyway), but society has sort of given us this image of the queer woman as predator, the queer woman as a threat to straight women, that I was worried I’d be perceived as that. And there was a part of me that knew I wasn’t making up my bisexuality because I knew that I had experienced it, but at the same time, there was a part of me that wasn’t sure because society had told me, time and time again, that bisexuality doesn’t exist, you’re either straight or you’re gay, end of story.

But sometimes, it really doesn’t matter what you know to be true. If society tells you enough times that something is wrong, then it’s always going to feel wrong.

And that was what I hadn’t come to terms with the first time that I came out of the closet: I knew who I was, but I didn’t understand what that meant.

And I know that there are a lot of queer youth out there who feel guilty over still being in the closet. There are some circles who perpetuate this idea that, if you know you are queer and you have not told your friends or family yet, then you are lying to them. But the thing about coming out of the closet is, that’s sort of something you need to be absolutely ready for. And I’m not just talking about being ready situationally. Because you are going to deal with awkward questions from time to time. And you are going to deal with straight people who seem to have never met a queer person before and have no fucking idea what to do with you, even if they’re alright with you in theory. And, worse than that, you are going to deal with internalized assumption about what being queer makes you. Violence notwithstanding, you can deal with almost anything from other people, but only if you are strong enough in yourself and in your own identity that you know when they are wrong.

So if you’re still in the closet, then please, don’t feel any guilt over it. You are not lying to your family or your friends by not telling them that you’re queer. You are protecting yourself. You are giving yourself time to build up confidence, to understand who you are and that the way that society might view you isn’t always correct. There will always be time to come out of the closet when you’re ready (and trust me, you really should; it’s great out here), but there’s no need to rush out there and risk damaging your self-esteem in the process.

Because there is nothing wrong with you. You are brilliant, and you are full of love, and you deserve every chance in the world to give that love to someone amazing. And it is completely understandable if you don’t see that in yourself quite yet, but you should. Give yourself some time, reconsider every negative stereotype that society has placed on you because of your queerness, and then show the world how amazing you truly are.

Why I Like The Word ‘Queer’

Recently, I found myself sitting in a room with a whole bunch of people, where one older gentleman was talking. While I was there, he laughed and made the comment, “I don’t know what sort of language the kids are using today, or what words have been reclaimed now. Is it alright to use the word ‘queer’?” to which the majority of the people in the room, most of them straight and cis-gendered, responded by saying, “oh no, no, no, don’t use that word. You use that word and you get in trouble.”

The topic of conversation moved on from there, but through all of this, there I was, this tiny queer voice in the back of the room, thinking, “really?” Because, personally speaking, this response did not at all reflect my experience. To be honest, I actually really like the word ‘queer’.

And, admittedly, perhaps a bit of my liking toward this word comes from a place of privilege, because I never had this word used toward me with a negative connotation, and I know many people have. Historically speaking, this is a word that has been used to harass and belittle many people, to dismiss them as “weird” or beyond understanding, and of course, that is never okay. And if you are a person who does not like being labelled with this word because of an unpleasant history with it, I can totally understand this and will not tell you that you need to feel differently.

But that being said, as a reclaimed word, I find ‘queer’ to be an incredibly liberating identity.

If you are not familiar with the practice of reclaiming words, this is when a specific word has been used in an attempt to hurt people in the past, but in the present, that word is taken by the oppressed group and given a slightly different connotation, with the intention of taking power back. For example, the word ‘bitch’ can be considered a reclaimed word: historically speaking, it was used to describe an unpleasant, despicable woman, usually one who asserted herself in a way that made men uncomfortable. But nowadays, many women will proudly describe themselves as a ‘bitch’, because they are willing to assert themselves, even if it makes men uncomfortable, and they aren’t ashamed of that.

In a similar vein, the word ‘queer’ has been taken from one that means “weird” and, by extension, “wrong”, to one that means… something else.

Because, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure if ‘queer’ has a solid definition yet.

I have sometimes heard the word ‘queer’ used to describe gay, lesbian, and bisexual people – which makes sense. This is the group of people that this word was most frequently used to wound in the past. And, more than that, the word ‘queer’ serves as a great, useful blanket term for anyone who has any interest at all in their same gender.

Because, let’s face it: sometimes, these identities can feel somewhat… limiting.

You may or may not be aware of the Kinsey Scale, developed by Alfred Kinsey as a way of measuring one’s sexual orientation. Now, this method is highly complex and multi-layered, but at its simplest, it is a scale from zero to seven – zero indicating exclusive heterosexuality, six indicating exclusive homosexuality, and seven indicating no sexual interest at all. Now, it was Kinsey’s belief that a person’s sexual orientation is subject to change over the course of their life (which is today considered a controversial belief, for perhaps obvious reasons), and that the majority of people fall somewhere in the middle of the scale, so in that nice one, two, three, four, and five area that indicates at least mild interest in both genders (this is, again, controversial). Now, you may or may not agree with Kinsey’s perspective, but the reason why I feel that it is important and relevant to what I am saying is because sexual orientation is not always as simple and straight-forward as gay, straight, and bisexual.

You can live your entire life thinking that you’re straight, and then fall head over heels for someone of the same gender. You can live your entire life thinking that you’re gay, but then realize that, while you definitely aren’t straight, your interests aren’t as exclusive as you once thought. Heck, you might even consider yourself straight, and think of Ruby Rose as that one exception. Not everyone will experience this, no; there are some people out there who do have totally exclusive interests, but for those of us who don’t, those of us who don’t necessarily feel like gay, straight, or bisexual entirely describes who we are, ‘queer’ is a nice alternative for us to fall back on.

Because queer isn’t limiting. Queer is whatever you want it to be. Queer is full of possibilities, full of options.

I have also heard ‘queer’ defined as a way to describe people who are not only attracted to their own gender, but to describe people who are transgender and/or gender non-conforming. And, again, this makes sense; again, this word has been used to wound these people in the past, and again, this word is a very liberating word in terms of gender as well.

Because, just like with sexual orientation, gender has historically been very stifling. When it comes to gender, you are typically expected to fall into one of two categories: male and female, determined by what genitalia can be found between your legs. If you are male, then you are expected to behave in a way that corresponds with that – you are to be ‘masculine’. You must be a provider, you must be in control of your emotions, you must be strong and powerful and commanding and in control. If you are female, then you are to be ‘feminine’. You are to be passive and quiet and kind and caring and understanding. It doesn’t matter the scenario, and it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t come naturally to you; it is what is expected of you.

But ‘queer’ doesn’t expect anything. ‘Queer’ accepts you as you are, whether that be feminine, masculine, or somewhere in between. ‘Queer’ doesn’t tell you how to act and what to be, and ‘queer’ most certainly doesn’t care what’s between your legs.

From time to time, I have even heard ‘queer’ used to define straight and cis-gendered people who simply are not in a conventional relationship. ‘Queer’ honestly just refers to any people who fail to live up to our society’s idea of heteronormativity, and this includes straight couples who are in open relationships, or are heavy into BDSM culture, or who are not engaging in sex with the primary intention of procreation.

Because ‘queer’ is not exclusive. When you identify as queer, what that means is that you fail to live up to what society considers the standard, the expected. And while that can be very difficult and isolating when you are the only one doing so, the identity of queer builds a community around you. It means that you are not alone, that there are many out there who do not feel like their experience matches up with the one that society tells them they should have.

That, to me, is what the reclaimed word ‘queer’ means. And that is why I have no shame identifying myself as a queer person.

Bisexual People Are Not Just Going Through A Phase

So, full disclosure here: I’m a bit of a geek, and as such, I’m a bit of a fan of trivia, especially trivia that’s related to movies and books. So it should come as no surprise that today’s rant stemmed from a little bit of trivia. Namely, a bit of obscure Harry Potter trivia.

According to an interview with Entertainment Weekly, actor David Thewlis, who played the character Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter films, was quoted as saying, “Alfonso Cuarón (the director of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), in the rehearsals, without J.K. Rowling’s knowledge, told me that [my character] was, in fact, gay. So I’d been playing a part like a gay man for quite a long time. Until it turned out that I indeed got married to Tonks. I changed my whole performance after that. Just saw it as a phase he went through.” Perhaps as a result of this statement, I have also found some sources claiming that J.K. Rowling herself claimed that Lupin was an ‘ex-gay‘ who, over the course of the series, learns to be straight when he falls in love with Tonks, a female character. However, as the leading source of this latter claim seems to be a user’s comment on IMDB, I wouldn’t put too much stock in the claim that this is something that Rowling actually said.

Now, why am I sharing this piece of trivia, you might be asking? Well, besides it simply being interesting to know from a total geek perspective, I also find it to be very telling as far as how we as a society tends to view sexual orientation.

Look at the language that was used in the above trivia. Regardless of what the sexual orientation of Lupin’s character is actually supposed to be, Thewlis decided that, if Lupin was interested in men at one point and interested in women at another, then that must mean that he was just “going through a phase”. And regardless of whether J.K. Rowling was the one who identified Lupin as an “ex-gay” or not, that is a term that some fans have come to use toward him. So then, what is Lupin’s sexual orientation? He likes men at some point, women at others… it’s almost as though he likes both… as though he might be some sort of strange, previously unknown sexual orientation that lands somewhere between straight and gay, like some sort of… bisexual or something…

Seriously though, why wasn’t this the first place that everyone’s mind went to when Lupin’s sexual orientation supposedly changed between movies? (I’m foregrounding the movies here because that seems to be where this issue is most apparent to the actors and the audience.) Why was there even this mention of “going through a phase”, of being an “ex-gay”, when we all know that bisexual people exist?

Or do we?

The issue of bi visibility has been an ongoing one for the bisexual community for pretty much… forever. In fact, there’s even a whole day in the year dedicated to spreading awareness about the existence of bisexual people, because apparently, the majority of people haven’t caught on yet. Bisexual people are frequently assumed to be going through a phase that they’ll eventually grow out of or overcome. Bisexual men are interpreted as being gay men who are simply afraid to come “all the way” out of the closet (as though coming out as bisexual isn’t coming all the way out). Bisexual women are interpreted as straight women who are looking to impress men with promises of threesomes and getting to watch them make out with other women (because it always comes back to being about men in the end somehow). Or, sometimes, bisexual people of both sexes are merely interpreted as experimenting, being curious, being rebellious, but not actually being what they claim to be.

And when it comes to real people with actual sexual orientations, we still tend to use a perspective that mirrors the one we saw with poor Lupin. When we see actual queer couples, we automatically assume that they are a gay or lesbian couple. A wedding between two men is always referred to as a gay wedding, even if it’s totally plausible that neither man is actually gay. And do you know how many times I have seen someone come from dating someone of the opposite gender to dating someone of the same gender, and the common response is, “oh, so you’re gay now?” or “I didn’t know you were gay!”

And if you do this or have done this, I’m not trying to make you feel bad about it. As human beings, we tend to want to separate everything into two categories, sometimes referred to as a ‘binary’. We want everything and everyone to be male or female, light or dark, straight or gay. And when something doesn’t fit easily into that binary, we tend to ignore it; I mean, what have we done to gender non-conforming or intersex people?

But the truth is, the world doesn’t exactly work this way.

The truth is, of all adults living in the U.S. and identifying as gay, lesbian, or bisexual, bisexuals comprise of a very slight majority (1.8% compared to the 1.7% that identify as gay or lesbian). And of these people, not all of them can be confused, questioning, or going through a phase.

The truth is, I identify as bisexual, and I have since I was ten years old. I tried to change myself. I tried to force myself to belong on either end of the binary, because that was what I thought people expected of me, but I just can’t change who I am. I just can’t not be bisexual, because the way that I identify is very real and very unavoidable.

The truth is, we have been ignored for far too long. We have been dismissed as not even an option for far too long. We have been invisible for far too long.

And it’s time for that to stop.

It’s time for us to talk about bi visibility.

Is Representation Important?

Representation is a popular issue right now – something that people have begun talking about more and more frequently. And it is a multi-faceted issue, one that can be discussed from several different angles: what kind of representation is good representation? How much representation is enough? When it comes to fiction, can we represent minorities through villains, secondary characters, or stereotypes?

But there’s another question that I see come up again and again when it comes to representation: quite simply, is it important? I mean, I don’t think that there are very many people out there who would argue that people don’t deserve to feel empowered, or to look up to someone. But when I see this question discussed, I often see the same response come up: that things like gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. shouldn’t matter. That a young Chinese lesbian should have the ability to look at a straight white man and still see herself in him, because at the end of the day, we are all people and we all share a basic human experience.

Now, I won’t deny that there is some truth to this statement. Some. To use my personal experience as an example, I am blessed enough to say that my career goals are such that I have been able to see my gender represented in it – not perfectly, mind you. When I was a little girl, I still grew up with the story of J.K. Rowling being forced to abbreviate her name by her publisher because they were concerned that boys wouldn’t read a book written by a woman, but nonetheless, there were plenty of women writers that I could look up to. I saw myself represented in that industry, and so I never had a doubt that I could exist in this industry. And therefore, I had no problem looking up to female and male writers alike. Because end of day, a good writer is a good writer, and there are plenty of male writers who explore themes and issues that I understand and relate to.

But in this specific instance, I saw myself represented. I knew that women could be writers. There are plenty of industries wherein this isn’t the case. Although women in the United States hold approximately half of all jobs, they represent less than 25% of jobs in the fields of science, technology, engineering, or math. In 2015-2016, women made up only 16.3% of CEO positions and 28.5% of key management personnel positions. In the United States, there has literally never been a female president (and only one non-white president). So when we’re talking about young girls aspiring to enter into these roles, representation suddenly becomes much more important – not just so that you can know that it’s possible for you to enter into that field, but so you can know that you will be accepted and taken seriously in it as well.

Representation matters more and more in areas where people aren’t generally represented. And how do I know this? Well, because, while I’m a writer, I also happen to fall under another label, one that I very rarely see represented in the media, or represented well for that matter: I am a bisexual woman.

And growing up, I rarely saw myself in the media. I saw gay and lesbian people, sure, but their experiences didn’t always match up with my own. I saw straight people all the time, but their experiences didn’t align with mine either. And because I didn’t see anyone who looked like me, I began to wonder what was wrong with me. Was I the weird one? Did I even truly exist, or was the way I felt some sort of elaborate lie I was telling myself so that I could feel unique and different?

And when I wasn’t feeling this way, I was feeling like I was something gross, something unlovable. Because when I did see myself represented, I saw myself in hugely unfavourable ways. Bisexuals in the media were manipulative, or they were serial-cheaters, or they were just used as one-night-stands and nothing more. One of my first exposures to the existence of bisexual people was through a talk show that I saw when I was really young – maybe four or five, where a man was trying to decide if he should leave his wife because he found out that, before they were married, she had dated a girl, and he didn’t think he could handle that. At the time, I thought this was stupid, because who she had dated before shouldn’t have any bearing on what their relationship was like now, but I was still young, still forming my identity, and I won’t deny that it sort of made me internalize this idea that I could never have a fulfilling and healthy relationship because of how I was born.

And none of this is to say that I couldn’t relate to straight or gay characters in the media. I could. There are plenty of characters on either side of the spectrum that I respected, looked up to, wanted to emulate, but in this specific issue, none of them were helpful. They couldn’t help me feel better about myself because they weren’t like me.

It took me a long time to undo the damage that a lack of representation had done to my self-esteem, and the way that I managed to start doing this was actually by seeking out what little good representation there was to be found out there. I found blogs and websites dedicated to real bisexual people discussing their experiences, which helped me to understand that I existed, that my feelings were valid. And, as stupid as it might sound, I found encouragement from looking up celebrities that identified proudly as bisexual – celebrities like David Bowie and Alan Cumming and Angelina Jolie, because they proved to me that I could be bisexual and successful and accepted and loved. The ideas were not mutually exclusive.

Especially when you’re young, when you don’t see yourself represented very often, you tend not to question the media that you’re seeing, but yourself. When you’re an overweight girl and all the beautiful women are represented as thin, you began to wonder if you’re ugly. When you are not white, but the majority of people in positions of power are, you began to feel very powerless. When you get a little bit older, you develop the ability to question these ideas, but by then the damage is often done already. By then, you’ve already internalized that you’re ugly, that you’re powerless, that you’re unlovable, that you don’t exist.

So, yes, a black boy can see a white character in a movie and relate to his internal, human struggle, but he cannot relate to his racial experience, and his existence is not validated by him. That is the difference between relating to a character based on their narrative or a figure based on their achievements, and relating to a character or a figure because they share a common experience with you.

That is why representation is important: because when you don’t see people like you doing what you want to do, you began to wonder if you even can do it, whether that be something as difficult as pursuing a certain career, or something as simple as being who you truly are. And regardless of who you are or how you were born, you deserve to be told that you are powerful, you are capable, and you are loveable.