Written by: Lewis Rees
I’ve been writing since before I could remember, and I’ve been lucky enough to make some leeway as an author in the past couple of years; I finished my first novel, My Beautiful Rescue, in 2014, after numerous rewrites and losing all my progress three times. By the end of the year I’d not only finished my second, Wander, but won a competition with it, and narrowly missed out on a publication deal with a subsidiary of a major publishing house.
Both novels- as well as a large number of short stories and even screenplays- feature LGBT+ characters; My Beautiful Rescue centers on a gay couple, and features a transwoman and several bisexuals among the roster. The Wander trilogy features an asexual girl and a gay guy as the main leads, and there are characters- including two deuteragonists and a villain- from all across the LGBT+ spectrum.
As a gay man, LGBT+ representation is something I’m both extremely passionate of and one I’m very cognizant of. I’m very aware that there’s a significant lack of LGBT+ role models- fictional or otherwise- when compared to straight and/or cisgendered ones.
The main problem is that, when we do have LGBT characters, they’re too often conceived and created more for brownie points than for any concrete purpose.
Yes, LGBT+ people exist in real life, as do straight ones, and so it follows that there can just so happen to be an LGBT+ character, but a lot of filmmakers/showrunners/authors (delete as applicable) aren’t interested in fleshing these characters out; why bother? If the most sought after audience is straight white males, what’s the point in having an LGBT+ character in the leading ensemble?
That’s not to say that there aren’t shows with LGBT+ leads- there are. Community, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Archer, Doctor Who, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, How to Get Away With Murder and American Horror Story are just a few of the recent shows which feature strong, fleshed out LGBT+ characters from all across the spectrum in leading roles.
However, for every show/movie/video game that gets it right, many more get it very, very wrong.
When I was in my first year of university, everyone was talking about the (Then recent) show Glee. At the insistence of one of my flatmates at the time I decided to check it out. She wouldn’t shut up about how brilliant the writing was; about how likeable Kurt- the gay character, and one of the leads- was.
In the first few minutes of the episode I watched- episode four- the character in question was dancing around in a lycra catsuit to Single Ladies.
The girl in question would later go on to spearhead a hate crime directed at me, which should tell you all you need to know about her feelings on gay people.
Look, that scene totally put me off the show. I watched every episode before that, but I couldn’t carry on after that. I don’t know how he developed, I just know that that scene was less about character and more about caricature. I don’t know if he’s suddenly become an actual person, all I know is that I went on a night out with some people at my old job and it was on in the background while we were pre-drinking, and the B-plot was Kurt deciding that his new classmate was gay because of his hairstyle.
The thing about ensemble shows- especially early on- is that they go to great lengths to introduce us to the character’s. Rachel is the spoiled one, Chandler is the sarcastic one, Phoebe is the kooky one. The placement of this scene, when we’re just getting to know these characters, immediately cements Kurt as the gay one. We know his role and his function in the group, but whereas the other (at this early point in the show, and given our knowledge of the characters, exclusively heterosexual) characters are defined by their street smarts or their athleticism or their coolness, he’s defined by his sexuality.
That’s not to say that there aren’t LGBT+ characters that embody their stereotypes while still being interesting, fleshed-out characters- after all, stereotypes exist for a reason (More on that later)- it’s just that too often an LGBT character is created with no thought put into them apart from the bare minimum of effort needed to make it clear that the character is gay, bi, trans etc.
Just look at Titus, from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Yes, he’s camp, but he’s also the deuteragonist. He’s ambitious, creative and intelligent while being lazy, vain and a shameless gossip. He’s a good friend, but also loves the drama of Kimmy’s trial, to the point of utterly failing to hide his eagerness to watch it unfold.
Even shows which go out of their way to give varied, nuanced portrayals of any number of demographics routinely trip up when it comes to the LGBT+ community. Community, the little show that could, features a main cast from a variety of genders, religions and age brackets, but was criticized for a season three episode entitled “Advanced Gay”, wherein Pierce throws a gay bash (read: party) to celebrate the launch of a new line of moist towelettes marketed towards the LGBT+ community- a party solely attended by the most stereotypical gay characters imaginable.
Crucially, the showrunner, Dan Harmon, took note of this criticism, and promised to be more aware of the issue in the future; the next episode focused on LGBT+ issues, “Queer Studies and Advanced Waxing,” centered on Dean Pelton’s decision whether or not to take a place on the school board to fill a diversity quota.
The sad thing is that we’re in a situation where bad representation is more than many members of the LGBT+ community get; asexuals are few and far between, and tend to be coupled with aromanticism, as if the only way you can not want sex is if you don’t want romance. To this day I’ve never seen a genderqueer or genderfluid person in the mainstream media, despite having several genderfluid friends. To use an example related to (but not a direct part of) the LGBT+ community, polyamorous people are nearly always depicted as either “sluts”, part of a cult, or Mormons.
In short, the experiences of vast swathes of society are ignored because it’s easier to pick and choose the traits we imagine are predominant within their respective subcultures: Lady Gaga is a gay icon, so the producers need to make sure that it’s brought up (In one particularly infuriating case six times in the space of two episodes).
The thing about our culture is that it’s diverse, the media disproportionately represents straight, cisgendered and white characters. In this ratings-obsessed world we live in we flick through the channels and while, say, we can tell that a series has black characters from a glance, or Asian characters, or disabled character’s, other forms of diversity, and that’s enough to grab our attention. Other forms of diversity such as the LGBT+ community or characters on the autistic spectrum need to have it pointed out. As such, the media relies on stereotypes to grab our attention; rather than risk losing viewers to subtlety while courting diversity, they’ll have constant references to a gay man’s sexuality, a transwoman’s gender identity etc.
I like to call it Neapolitan representation.
Imagine you go to the movies with your friends; the majority of them are straight, but there’s one or two of you from the LGBT+ community. You all line up for ice cream, and your friends get to pick whatever flavor they want; Phish Food, Baked Alaska, Caramel Chew Chew. They get to pick whether they want it in a tub or on waffles; what sauce they want, what toppings.
You go up to the counter and you’re not offered all of the flavors; sure, the flavors are there, they’re just not for you. Instead, the dead eyed usher offers you a single tub of Neapolitan and tells you to pick you poison; strawberry, chocolate, or vanilla. You don’t get caramel or whipped cream or hazelnuts, just a single scoop of a single flavor whereas you get to watch everyone else eating ice cream that was seemingly tailor made for them.
Yes, there are LGBT+ people who love strawberry or chocolate- that’s not the issue. The issue is that we deserve more than three arbitrary flavors to choose from. If you love strawberry ice cream, by all means eat your fill, but don’t tell me I should be satisfied with it while watching someone else eat a tub of Peanut Butter Cup.
The problem is, many showrunners are content to create one-note characters defined by their sexuality and call it good enough. Why bother creating a multi-faceted character when all the jokes will be about their sex life or musical choices or fashion sense? Why bother with actual characters when you can rely on the same archetypes over and over again?
The thing is- in terms of homosexuality, at least- gay men and lesbians are often portrayed as either excessively masculine (Straight-acting, Butch) or excessively feminine (Camp, Femme). The chocolate and strawberry flavors, similarly, are the first to go, while the vanilla sits mostly untouched. If we take vanilla to represent anyone who doesn’t fit into these traditional roles then the problem becomes clear; there’s a lot there, but (save for a few exploratory scoops with a teaspoon) it sits untouched; people prefer to overuse the more in-your-face flavors rather than risk their attempts at writing diverse characters going unnoticed by being subtle.
American Horror Story is a show that routinely excels in its portrayal of LGBT+ characters- a fact made even more glaring given that it shares much of its creative team with Glee. “Murder House” features two canonically gay characters and one ambiguously bisexual one; “Asylum” features an openly lesbian lead, “Freak Show” had two separate gay leads whose drama didn’t center around any burgeoning romance, and “Hotel” features two bisexual women, a bisexual man and a transwoman among its main cast. “Coven” even featured an asexual character in Misty Day (Although it should be noted that this fact was revealed by the showrunners, and remains implicit within the canon itself.)
To focus more on “Asylum,” Sarah Paulson’s character Lana Winters is a lesbian reporter forcibly incarcerated in the titular Briarcliff Manor and forced to undergo sexual conversion therapy- a barbaric practice which, tragically, still exists in the modern day.
While in any other show we’d expect her to be a recurring character, at best, she soon develops into the lead. She’s the one who investigates the mysterious serial killer, Bloody Face, discovers his identity, and eventually leads the charge to close down the asylum. She’s resourceful, sardonic, ambitious, courageous, cunning- the fact that she’s a lesbian is almost incidental, despite it being a vital part of her character; it’s merely one of a number of words we can use to describe her.
So why are LGBT+ characters so often portrayed in so few manners? Why must a gay man either be camp or straight-acting? Why must a lesbian be either femme or butch?
People will tell you it’s because of how some people within their respective sexuality or gender identity act, but there’s more to it than that.
In the early days of cinema, the Hays Code was created- a list of guidelines which form the basis for modern day censorship. One of the rules stated that so-called “perverse” topics were strictly out of bounds- topics which included homosexuality. As such, a gay man or lesbian in a film couldn’t be explicitly referred to as such- instead, they signaled their sexuality to the audience in the form of coding; a gay man would act feminine, enjoy feminine hobbies, listen to feminine icons, whereas a lesbian would be portrayed as masculine.
It’s a fact that we tend to take on characteristics of characters we empathize with- I consider myself the bastard lovechild of Clementine Krukzynski, Abed Nadir and Luna Lovegood- so what about people struggling with their sexualities? Is it so far-fetched to assume that the stereotype evolved in response to censorship itself? If a young gay man was to watch a film and see someone gay for the first time, it’s not unnatural to assume that he’d feel a certain kinship.
The problem, then, is that so many LGBT+ characters are defined by their sexuality, and subtlety is thrown out the window. It’s, quite simply, easier to write a character in a way that defines them by their sexuality or gender identity in the name of diversity before moving on, but that’s just phoning it in. It’s the bare minimum effort you can make to create an LGBT+ character, as if someone’s sexuality is enough of a character trait that things which define those outside the spectrum (such as education, goals, relationships, even things like musical tastes and personal style) are unimportant.
I’m gay, but I’m also educated. I’m creative. I’m geeky. I like to think I’m smart, funny, goofy, and a good friend. So why is it that, if I was living in a Chuck Lorre sitcom, so many adjectives would be thrown out the window? My sexuality is an intrinsic part of who I am, and it’s important to me, but I don’t like seeing it reduced to a personality trait. Despite what the media and, disturbingly, some within the LGBT+ community itself seem to think, there’s no one right way to be gay/lesbian/trans/bisexual/asexual/etc. We don’t need to pass a test to be who we are, so why does it so often seem that we need to pass one to be accepted by the community when all I have in common with, say, Chris Coifer is that we’d both rather sleep with Donald Glover than Emma Watson?
We need to see more LGBT+ character’s- not just as side characters, but among the main cast, but we also need to see more variety. A straight person is rarely defined by their sexuality, whereas a cisgendered person’s gender identity is a piece of trivia, you can expect a litany of jokes or comments about a transperson’s genitals, as if they were anyone else’s business.
I want to see gay guys who go to rock clubs and make their own artisanal soaps, and lesbians who love rap music and Luis Bunuel movies. I want to see socially awkward, introverted pansexuals sharing an apartment with flirty, outgoing asexuals. I want to see feminine transwomen who don’t face endless comments about how well they pass, and feminine transmen who don’t face endless comments that amount to “If you’re not going to be masculine, why not just be a girl?” I want to see the camp gay quarterback of the football team with a crush on the straight-acting theater geek. I want to see lesbian cheerleaders who love horror movies almost as much as they love America’s Next Top Model with trans girlfriends who dream of working as special effects make-up artists.
Our community is as rich, vibrant and varied as the heterosexual/cisgendered one, and I’m sick to death of Neapolitan representation.
This is Part 1 (of 3) of an essay sent to us by Lewis Rees. Check back next week for Part 2! Let Lewis know what you think on Twitter @LewisBrite!