Here’s an understatement for you: Representation matters. We talk a lot about how important representation is, but it bears repeating: Seeing yourself represented – whether it’s on the big or small screen, the stage or the page — is a really powerful thing.
At the very least, it’s exciting to find a fictional character that you relate to. More than that, however, representation can serve as positive affirmation for someone’s very existence – giving them the kind of encouragement that they may not get elsewhere. This representation can also help people come to terms with who they are.
With that in mind, we asked our writers to talk about a piece of pop culture that helped them come to terms with their sexuality.
‘Queer as Folk’
2006 was a different time for both me and the LGBT community. I was a closeted 17-year-old who knew very little about the community, and acceptance wasn’t anything like what it is today. Moreover, I was growing up in suburbia and the internet was a different place. I didn’t know how to meet or interact with other gay people.
Enter Showtime’s drama Queer as Folk, which ran from 2000 to 2005. One of the few people I was out to had recommended it to me.
Queer as Folk was my introduction to what life was like as a gay person. The clubs, the relationships, the sex, the drag, the culture, the dangers, the coming out experience — it was a way for me to get a glimpse of a life that I knew next to nothing about. It was the very first show I binged. I’d sit in my room late into the night, loading up the Quicktime versions of the show that I had bit-torrented. I couldn’t get enough of it.
I still remember one specific night of my binge, sitting in complete darkness in my bedroom, watching on my computer with headphones on. I was so enthralled by whatever was going on that episode that I didn’t notice my mom knock on the door. When she poked her head in due to her concern for my lack of an answer, I quickly minimized it, briefly transporting me back to the straight, closeted world. As soon as she left, I breathed a sigh of relief and dived back in.
The friend who introduced me to the show very wisely warned me that it was NOT the best representation of the LGBT community. As I look back on the show now, I know he was completely right. Still, it was a hell of a lot better than nothing. I’m so grateful to this show for opening my eyes to a world that I knew I was a part of but couldn’t experience. It helped prepare me for what I would enter into a couple years later.
I remember, as clearly as though it were yesterday, the day Fox aired the Glee pilot. I was nearing the end of my sophomore year of high school and still deeply in the closet with no plans to ever, ever come out.
Fox aired the Glee pilot in May 2009, but didn’t air the actual series until the following September. In the four months between the pilot premiere and the rest of the show, I must have watched the pilot a dozen times. I listened to the show’s cover of “Don’t Stop Believin'” more times than I care to admit.
There was something about Glee that spoke to the gay kid lying dormant inside of me, waiting for the right time to feel safe enough to come out. Yes, the show had more than a few prominent gay characters, but their stories — about coming out, bullying, and dating — weren’t exactly what I needed at that time. I was still just trying to accept myself — and when you’re 16, accepting yourself is code for being accepted by everyone else.
I’d always felt like a misfit — not unlikable, per say – simply out of place. Being gay was the secret I kept because I felt it would alienate me even more, but Glee empowered me to embrace feeling like a misfit. Week after week I watched this group of misfits come together and make something magical.
Glee helped convince me, however slowly, that I could do the same thing. I found such solace in Rachel Berry’s line: “Being part of something special makes you special, right?”
As I continued through high school and college, Glee‘s quality steeply diminished, but watching it, even when it was bad, felt like coming home. It was a place I was familiar with, where being gay and different made you stronger, made you special.
‘The L Word’
Looking back, I never realized how tough my high school years really were for me. At the time I would have said that it was the time of my life, but in all actuality, it wasn’t. I was “out” to a few people but still tried to keep my sexuality mostly hidden. I was outed by a close friend to most of my senior class and at the time I didn’t think much of it, but I realized recently that it was actually something that still haunts me to this day, and that it was not okay.
I frequented the gay clubs in high school with my best friend — fake ID in hand before I turned 18, of course — and we mainly hung out with the local college girls. They are the ones that introduced me to Showtime’s The L Word. It was about 2005 and only the first season had been out. We had watch parties at their dorms and I quickly fell in love with the familiarity of the lesbians I was watching on screen. I had only ever seen very few lesbian films before then.
The L Word lesbians were much older than my 17-year-old self, being in their late 20s to early 30s, but their lives were still so much more similar than any other I’d seen. Alice came up with “the chart” — a graph concept which jokingly proved how every lesbian was connected to each other based on who every has slept with. I connected with the character Carmen because she was the token latina, I wanted to be just like her because she was beautiful and so open with herself.
Eventually the show came to an end in 2009 and there was a huge watch party at our local lesbian bar that I’ll never forget. I am so thankful that I finally had a show that depicted a lifestyle that was closer to mine unlike any I’d ever seen. Ultimately, The L Word was a show about friendship, life and love.
‘Pretty Little Liars’
I was about 13 when Pretty Little Liars first aired on ABC Family, which then became the first fandom I was ever involved in. Growing up in a small town of around 600, I was closeted and, at this point, unsure of what the feelings were that I was struggling to identify.
Other shows, like the 90210 reboot on The CW, helped me as I dealt with the fact that I was gay and stuck in in a small, unaccepting town, but, honestly, I owe Emily Fields’ coming out story so much.
Emily expressed multiple times in season 1 how she felt like something was wrong with her, and as a 13-year-old with a burgeoning grasp on their sexuality, I felt that. Emily’s coming out was raw, real, and didn’t shy away from the more negative aspects of the situation, and that was something I needed at the time. I didn’t need to be told that everything would be great; I needed an honest, accurate portrayal, and that’s what the writers delivered.
What hit me the most was the way Emily’s friends reacted. I hadn’t even considering discussing everything with my friends before watching this because I was, for lack of a better word, confused, but seeing Hanna, Aria, and Spencer all stand by Emily and treat her exactly the same gave me the courage to open up with a few friends.
Unlike Emily, I didn’t receive the happily ever after with everyone’s acceptance, even her parents’, but, nonetheless, the depiction of Emily’s struggle and coming out honestly saved me as I delved deeper into self-identity and homophobia over those next few years of my life. Without this show and the message the writers delivered, I don’t know what would have happened, and I’ll forever be grateful.