My Queer Experience: A Look Into Growing Up Queer And Why Queer Representation In Media Matters

This was my final, personal essay for a creative non-fiction writing class I had in 2016. I have never published it anywhere since it was just an assignment, but since it’s Pride month, I decided that I may as well share it with everyone. I am not the best non-fiction writer, and first-person is hard for me, but this essay is about my experience growing up in the rural south, my experience coming to understand who I am, and how important representation in media is to queer people everywhere.

Everyone is aware that society’s views of queer people has shifted greatly in the past twenty years. When I was a kid, I had no example for gay people, nonetheless any other thing that falls under the purview of queer. I had really no concept of what any of these people were other than the fact that every once in a while, I would hear an adult say they were bad people. The first time there was ever any real discourse that I observed about queer people was around the turn of the century. I remember, with the 2000 election happening, I would occasionally hear things on the news about ‘the gays’, and it was never anything good. My family members never said anything positive or negative, so other than what other people said, I had no context for queer people.

Another election along, I got my first real look at the concept of gay people because around 2004 was when Georgia had the vote for defining marriage as between one man and one woman and, with the upcoming election, that became something of a hot-button issue. When I was in middle school, teachers asked us about it. I remember having class where the teacher asked about the idea of marriage being between one man and one woman. Her name was Mrs. Davis, and she was the gifted class teacher. Since second grade, I was one of those kids who had special advanced classes, and because of that, it was a small class with more connection between each teacher and student. In my English class, which was the course in middle school determined to be for the gifted students that was different for the others, Mrs. Davis would often make us read newspapers and learn about more than just normal English work. We focused a lot on the world around us. Obviously, having the issue of defining marriage be a main political point in the state of Georgia at the time, that came up quite often.

The day Mrs. Davis asked us what we thought about the idea of marriage only being between a man and a woman, of course, being the rural south, everybody thought it was a great idea to make sure that gay people couldn’t get married. What I remember more than her words was the way she said it. She made this ‘gross’ face as if she were about to ask us about cleaning a public restroom or jumping into a dumpster. Her entire demeanor was like that of someone approaching a topic that was so obviously disgusting there was no way someone else could ever disagree. I then remember the other students all jumping on board. There were twelve of us, and all of the rest of them were clearly church-going children, because they all had things to say relating to Sin and the whole ‘Abomination’ thing, and being a kid with no exposure to gay people other than what I heard others think, I only could assume they were correct. Because the vitriolic discourse I was exposed to was the only thing I knew, my little thirteen-year-old self became a complete and utter homophobe.

Little did I know, that in the future I would actually discover I was one of ‘those people’. I began to have shifting views and stopped being a homophobe in high school because my best friend was gay. These days, my high school best friend is a dancer who recently moved to New York City and is living his dream, but as a teenager, life was never easy for him. He was an effeminate person in general ever since elementary school. We became friends at ten and eleven years old, and even then, long before he even knew he was gay, he had ‘girly’ handwriting, and he loved to draw mermaids and princesses, and he enjoyed playing with dolls. Obviously, you can guess how his cop step-father felt about that. At school, it was just as bad, even though there was never a lot of bullying at our school. It’s amazing how, living in a rural area in Georgia, you would expect a lot of bullying due to the conservative, closed-minded people, but in general, people didn’t bully each other. However, they did judge people quite harshly, and being an effeminate boy who did ballet as a teenager and basically only had friends who were girls, life wasn’t easy for him.

He never came out while we were in high school, but I knew. I watched how people talked about him when he wasn’t around. I knew what people thought of him, even if they never bothered him about it. It was hard for me to relate to the fact that in middle school I had actually told a girl I could never be friends with a lesbian when she asked about it, and yet my best friend was very obviously gay. Up to that point, I had never had any other exposure than ‘gay is bad’ and yet, here was my best friend in the whole world, one of the best people I had ever known, and he was gay. It didn’t make sense with what I had only ever known. Because of that, I faced the whole, “How can gays be bad if he is gay?” dilemma. Thankfully, because I didn’t have deeply ingrained homophobia, since nobody I cared about deeply (like parents or other family) had ever actually expressed an opinion either way, I was able to actually think about it for the first time. I stopped and actually thought about why being gay would make someone a bad person. I had to ask myself what was so bad about liking someone of the same gender. I quickly came to the realization that there was no logic behind homophobia at all, and I was able to completely stop thinking that way. It’s good I did, too, since I’m not actually as straight as I had thought.

I didn’t actually realize that it wasn’t normal for straight girls to find other girls attractive until I was in college. I was nineteen or twenty when I finally realized that I didn’t have ‘girl exceptions’, but that I was just bisexual. I don’t remember any specific moment or reason that I suddenly realized I was bisexual. I think it was a process. I remember I used to say I was straight because I genuinely thought I was. Friends of mine would joke about my ‘girl exceptions’ because there were some celebrities that I said I would ‘go gay’ for. It seemed normal for everybody to have ‘celebrity exceptions’ or ‘girl exceptions’, because it was joked about all the time. I remember jokingly referring to myself as “75% Straight” with a friend because we were talking about how beautiful Natalie Portman is to me. One time, I remember saying, “I like people, not what’s in their pants” as my way of viewing my own sexuality, as if it didn’t mean I was necessarily not straight, but more that I wasn’t judgmental. Somewhere along the way, I just began to accept that I was bisexual.

The first time I ever said the words out loud was actually in a discussion in a literature class when I was twenty-one years old. I was taking a special topics course about American Gothic Literature, and one of the books we read was Interview With The Vampire. Dr. O’Leary-Davidson had touched on the sexual themes of the book while discussing it in class, and I can’t expressly remember how we got on the subject, but I remember someone in the class had an ‘ew’ reaction to the idea of the two male vampires in the story being sexually interested in each other, and it really made me angry. I asked the guy to stop saying things like that because it was rude, especially to me, since I’m bisexual. That was the first time I ever said those words. I am bisexual. I remember after class he stayed behind while I was talking to Dr. O’Leary-Davidson and apologized for saying thoughtlessly rude things and hurting me, because I was a nice person and he felt bad about making me upset, and it struck me that it could honestly be that easy.

This guy was probably just like I was. He had never probably even been exposed to the idea of someone that isn’t straight being just a normal person. In this neck of the woods, even in 2012, that was still something most people probably weren’t exposed to. This guy had gone from saying senselessly homophobic things to realizing that one of his classmates was bisexual and not, in fact, a perverted monster. Most likely, the same things that made me not even realize I was bisexual probably had a lot to do with why this person didn’t even realize I could be bisexual when I was this nice girl in his class. The main reason for both my lack of understanding of what I was and both his and my former blind homophobia can be narrowed down to the exact same cause: We were never exposed to queer representation growing up in any form.

These days, it’s fairly common to see gay, lesbian, bisexual, and even transgender and asexual people on television, in movies, in books, and especially on the news. The term most often used it LGBTQA+, but a lot of us younger queer people have gotten tired of the alphabet soup. People can be any number of combinations of letters. There are such things as heterosexual people who are bi-romantic, asexual people who are heteroromantic, genderqueer people who are pansexual and aromantic. There are just too many letters and combinations, so we like the word Queer. When I was younger, that was an insult flung at people, but these days it’s just the word we use for anyone that is not a cisgender heterosexual person, since that is what most people are and we therefore consider it the default. I knew none of these things. I didn’t even have an understanding of what ‘bisexual’ meant, and I am one. If I had seen the things we have in television and film these days as a kid, I would likely have never become homophobic and would have known at a younger age that just because girls aren’t as afraid of seeming gay, that doesn’t mean “Your dress is cute!” was the same thing as my, “You look really good in that dress”.

By the time I discovered my own sexuality, I wasn’t afraid of my parents’ reactions because, though my parents had grown up in the Christian South and were raised with the whole ‘abomination’ thing, my road to self-discovery came after Modern Family. While that might sound absolutely nuts to most people, that’s actually all it took for my parents to not be homophobic. Like me, their homophobia wasn’t deeply ingrained, it was just observational. It was the product of growing up in the South where people don’t question how things always have been, and just like me, they had no other idea besides ‘abomination’ and had never had to think about it otherwise. However, in 2009, Modern Family went on air and, though it isn’t a perfect representation of a queer couple, the gay couple on that show being depicted as just a normal couple with a normal family and normal lives within about a year took my parents from, “Gays are abominations!” to “Oh wait, no, they’re just normal people like everybody else.” Forty years of just accepting one belief about an entire group of people was entirely corrected just by a positive representation of queer people in fiction.

My best friend from high school came out in 2010 and was kicked out of his house. His parents threw him out because he was gay and had a boyfriend. He went to live with his boyfriend and we lost touch because they moved to Atlanta, where people are far more accepting. When his family threw him out, my daddy, who knows his family well, was so confused. He couldn’t grasp the idea of kicking your child out of your home because he’s gay. Daddy is not at all a progressive person. My father is one of those people who thinks, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, and that extends to the idea of things staying the same. He isn’t one to progress with the times, so to speak. I never heard him saying homophobic things when I was growing up, but I know that he had believed that ‘Gays are going to hell’ stuff. He was never comfortable with seeing anything related to gay people in public, I do know that. However, after just a few months of watching a TV show with a fictional gay couple that were just normal people living a normal life, when these neighbors of ours kicked their son out for being gay, he was absolutely shocked and disturbed by this. He and my mother, who had strict religious upbringings, both couldn’t understand how my friend, who they both thought was a good kid, having a boyfriend could possibly make his parents kick him out.

Now, six years later, I still count myself lucky to have parents who were able to accept change so readily when it came to queer people, because my best friend’s parents seemed like they had. They accepted him back home after he and his boyfriend broke up, but as soon as he moved to New York, his step-dad started telling people that they were, “Rid of one of those fags,” and that he was, “Gonna get rid of the other one, too,” meaning the younger brother that also has a boyfriend and is bisexual. As of a few months ago, the younger brother is living with his boyfriend down the road because of how bad his step-dad hates him, and my parents both absolutely cannot stomach the step-dad anymore, in spite of once being friends, and they can’t stand the mother either, because she let her husband drive her children away. I’m lucky that my parents are the way they are, and I honestly don’t know how bad I would have thought about myself if I had realized I was bisexual before I knew my parents wouldn’t hate me for it. Instead, a television show made them think logically about homophobia and see there was no logic to it, and they both are entirely accepting now.

These days, I hear the opposite from when I was younger, because people – mainly those who are still homophobes – will not shut up about how, “Why has there got to be gay people in everything now?” In reality, there are not gay people in everything on TV or other entertainment, it’s just that they actually are some now. Gone are the days where the only gay people on TV are stereotypes. We have so much diversity in characters now, and not just in gay men, but in all different sorts of queer representation. It still isn’t enough, but it’s better. Even in the 1990s, advertisers would threaten to pull their support for TV shows that had gay content. The first time there was an on-air same-sex kiss on American TV was in the year 2000 on the show Dawson’s Creek. Now, only sixteen years later, there are so many TV shows with gay characters in many diverse roles beyond the classic stereotypes. Beyond gay male characters, there are so many other types of queer representation. For a few seasons, there was a show on USA called Sirens that had an asexual woman on the show, and her asexuality was addressed and the word actually said by the guy who was dating her. Just in the TV shows that I watch, there are such a variety of queer characters in shows where that isn’t a plot point. Captain Flint, the feared pirate on Black Sails became a pirate after his male lover was killed but that was just one part of his backstory. The rest of the show never makes a big deal out of the fact he is gay. On the TV show Hannibal, there was a lesbian character who ended up marrying and having a baby with a woman who previously on the show only showed interest in men, making her one of the most honest depictions of bisexuality I have seen on American TV. There was no ‘going gay’ for her, she was just always bisexual even when she dated men.

That is one of the areas where TV still fails us, which is one of the reasons that I, as a bisexual woman, always find a struggle to face. Bisexuality is still depicted rather poorly in entertainment, and that poor representation is reflected in society. It is common for both straight and gay people to dismiss bisexuality as a real thing. It is the experience of almost all bisexual people that you are either really just ‘attention seeking’ or ‘too afraid to admit you’re fully gay’. There is also this stigma that, if you are bisexual, you can’t be trusted to not be a sex-crazed lunatic who will cheat on your partners. The ‘promiscuous bisexual’ is a very common trope in TV representation. One example I can think of is The White Canary on Legends of Tomorrow. Not only has she only shown interest in women in the entire series, even though she was established as bisexual previously on the show Arrow, and she is the one of the group who constantly seduces women on their adventures. In the first episode of the second season alone, she seduced several women while nobody else on the show seduced anyone. As with Sara suddenly being a lesbian, she also, as I mentioned, never said the word ‘bisexual’ when she obviously was previously.

That is a common problem when dealing with bisexual representation that I have recently heard about from the TV show How To Get Away With Murder. I don’t watch the show, but my bisexual woman friend’s all bemoaned the fact that the woman who previously had a husband and is now dating a woman describes herself as ‘it’s complicated’ rather than actually saying ‘bisexual’. Even when you have a character who says verbally, “I like men and women”, they rarely actually say the word ‘bisexual’. So while queer representation has certainly gotten far more widespread and positive, there are still areas that aren’t addressed well enough. I would argue that there is even better and more human representation of transgender individuals than there is of bisexual characters, and it’s making life harder for bisexual people in society.

When you look at real life bisexuals, the way people react to them is appalling in a world where these people actually think they aren’t being offensive. Because of this, I am not exactly the most out and proud bisexual. There is nothing like people expecting that you have to be with another woman to be bisexual, or that if you are bisexual, you clearly can’t commit to one person. Even celebrities face these issues. I’m sure everyone remembers the time Larry King said to Anna Paquin, “So you’re a non-practicing bisexual”, because she’s married to a man, or saw all of the terrible things said about how Johnny Depp was justified in hitting his wife because Amber Heard is bisexual and, clearly, was cheating on him when she went out places with her female friends.  The same people who should have your back, like other queer people who are gay or lesbian, are the ones who dismiss your sexuality when you are bisexual. It’s hard to be an out and proud bisexual, because then you get hate from both sides. I’m not out to my family in my life, because I don’t know I can trust them to not dismiss my sexuality or think it makes me a ‘slut’ that I like both men and women. Most of my friends know, but that’s because I’m less afraid of how friends react. I can get new friends. I can’t get a new family.

However, while there are still leaps and bounds to be made in the realm of bisexuality, times have still changed and depiction of what people are unfamiliar with in the media has a lot to do with that. Most of society has become far more accepting. My family is far more accepting. The younger generation is extremely more accepting. Things have changed so very fast in recent years, because when I was in high school, nobody was out, and my brother and sister who are ten years younger than me are currently in high school, where quite a lot of kids are out and proud and nobody cares. My siblings and their friends never saw the attitudes I did where gay people were stereotypes on TV and advertisers threatened to pull their support from TV shows with gay content. My parents did suffer the prejudices of our culture for the longest time, and then everything changed because one TV show that they watch showed them that a gay couple were just like everybody else.

Though not every person’s experience will be that easy, or has been that easy, my parents are a prime example of how important it is that queer people be represented in entertainment in fair, honest ways so that people do come to view the people they may not be familiar with in a way that shows that they are just like everybody else. If I had been exposed to queer people the way we are now in media, I would have realized what ‘bisexual’ was and would have known who I am far earlier than I did. There is no negative outcome to representing queer people in media, because people everywhere need to be given a chance to view the diversity in our culture in every part of life, including both news media and entertainment media. Look at the guy in my class who seemed so genuinely ashamed of himself for laughing at homophobic things when he realized that people around him might actually be queer. No, accurate representation will not fix all of queer people’s problems, but just humanizing something unfamiliar does make a huge difference in how society views those of us who are considered different.

Author: J. Chelsea Williford

Movie addict, reader, writer, pop culture lover.

2 thoughts on “My Queer Experience: A Look Into Growing Up Queer And Why Queer Representation In Media Matters”

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