Finding the Language to Feel “Normal”
In my, and countless others in the LGBTQIA+ community’s experience, finding words to express what it is you’re feeling is a massive weight off your shoulders, even if you didn’t realize you needed it. Representation is important to many of us in our community because it provides us with the language necessary to thoughtfully and accurately share our life experiences. It gives us a point of reference to facilitate a connection to a community that reminds us there are others out there like us. It gives us the comfort knowing we are not alien, broken, wrong, or alone.
However, some people believe this is entirely unnecessary or just completely wrong. These people are known to our community as the ones who say things like “I’m ok with you being gay, just don’t hit on me,” or “I get it you’re gay, you don’t have to shove it down my throat.” The latter phrase in particular is one of the main counterarguments people against queer representation use. When characters on television end up “coming out” or a character is depicted in a “flamboyant” manner, straight people who subscribe to heteronormative ideologies perceive this as forcing queerness onto audiences. They do not want to see it anywhere, especially if it appears in movies marketed for children. “Think of the children” they’ll say. Here is the thing though: if your kid comes out after seeing a gay character on TV, in a movie, or even in a book, it is because they always felt that way and found something they relate to and made them comfortable enough to tell you.
Before finding resources, young queers grow up lost and confused. They slowly realize that the way they feel is not how everyone else feels, whether it’s being born in the wrong body, feeling attraction to the same, two, or more genders, or not feeling attraction at all. Dorothy Allison says, “we all imagine our lives as normal. I did not know my life was not everyone’s” . This is a common sentiment among young queers. They stumble through their lives unsure of their identity and often feel alone. They wonder if maybe they are broken because no one else seems to feel the same way they do. If their friends, family, and even characters in media represent themselves or are represented as cisgender and heterosexual, they may struggle to find someone or something that speaks about the struggle they feel, increasing their feelings of isolation.
It is not until a show introduces a character that is different; a character that feels the same way they do which gives young queer people the language needed to describe the way they experience attraction or gender. It also gives them someone to relate to. My experience was a bit different, I saw no representation on screen or in media, so I assumed, as Allison did, that everyone felt like me. It wasn’t until a friend came to me, questioned me, and gave me the word I needed. I spent weeks trying to understand this new label after believing myself to be “normal.” I spent middle school and high school operating under the assumption that I was straight. I didn’t realize until later that I was different or “other” because I wasn’t interested in dating in the same way everyone else was. In hindsight if I had the proper language and education, I would have figured things out sooner. I felt broken and lonely because everyone around me was interested in dating and relationships while I was brushed to the side because of my lack of interest or because I was oblivious to people’s interest in me.
After finding this language to finally describe how I felt, I immediately started looking online for more people like me. I wanted to hear their stories and learn how they found this magical word that changed everything I knew about myself. After my research, I felt reasonably comfortable that this word did reflect my experience. I came out on Facebook and Instagram to my friends and family who followed me. I spent the next few days receiving messages of support from loved ones, whether they understood what it meant or not. Unfortunately, all it took was one (and all I only ever received was one) negative message that made my confidence crumble. This person told me I was sinful and going to hell because I was being myself and discovering a missing piece within. They threw the religion I grew up with in my face and told me the God who created me hates me and made a mistake.
I had never felt so hurt, invalidated, and small in my life. This person was close to me, and their opinion meant a lot; so, to have them be so hateful and mean-spirited to me in this vulnerable time in my life made me question everything all over again. I went back online to seek validation for my pain and to read more stories about others’ bad experiences until I was sure that this was who I am. This online community gave me the strength to say and accept this label because it describes me and if people can’t accept me because of it, that is their loss.
It was around this time that I found a character in a popular comic series who was like me, of which there was a TV adaptation called Riverdale, that is now currently on its third season. I was so excited to see how the writers would work this character's orientation into the story and how it would affect the relationship this character had with others. The actor who portrayed this character was also aware of their orientation in the comics and wanted it to be part of the show as well. I binged the first season on Netflix while the second was still airing on cable TV and, to my disappointment, my representation was not present. Whether it was erasure, or the writers were saving that revelation for another season, the identity was not clear. I was still upset that a character I knew was like me was not portrayed that way.
I later found another show on Netflix called BoJack Horseman that, through late night web searches, I knew had a character that may also be like me. I watched the first season disappointed but hopeful because it wasn’t immediately clear how they felt or identified. It wasn’t until the end of season 3 that hints were dropping of this character being “different.” And then, in the beginning of season 4, they came out, loudly and publicly, that they were like me. The best part, at least to me, was that everyone was cool and didn’t make a big deal about it and didn’t question it like I others had questioned me. I was so excited and happy to finally see myself portrayed in media, especially in this widely popular show. As RoAnna Sylver writes in her article about representation, “You’re included. You’re normal. It’s no big deal. It’s just how the world is or should be. This place is made for you. It’s written with you in mind; as if you actually exist. Like you’re watching this too, and you’re real” . This is exactly how I felt. I was included, I was real, I was seen. I and all those like me online were blown away to see ourselves represented so well and respectfully that we tweeted the voice actor, thanking them for what they have done to validate and spread awareness for us.
This show and others like it are so important to us because for those who don’t have the language, they can be introduced to it for the first time. And for those who do have the language, they can see themselves, relate to these characters better than others, and have the comfort that they aren’t alone, broken, or alien. These representations and online communities have begun to finally normalize us in mainstream media, which makes us more comfortable with who we are. Because of this single show on Netflix, I feel comfortable enough with who I am that I openly express my queerness with all types of rainbow accessories, and people who have a problem can deal with it. I am proud of who I am even when others seek to invalidate me or make me feel small because of how I identify. I have found a community of loving supportive people and no one can take that away from me. My Name is Zach LaFord, I identify as asexual, I am a part of the LGBT+ community and representation in media made me feel less alone, gave me the comfort of knowing I’m not broken, and gave me the language to express who I truly am.
Allison, Dorothy. “A Question of Class by Dorothy Allison.” As Long As Grass Grows or Water Runs, History Is A Weapon, www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/skinall.html.
Sylver, RoAnna. “Everyone's Dressed Like You: How Seeing Yourself On TV Can Change Your Life.” The Asexual, The Asexual, 13 May 2013, theasexual.com/article/2018/5/12/everyones-dressed-like-you-how-seeing-yourself-on-tv-can-change-your-life?rq=everyone.