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As part of LGBTQIA+ History Month, Ryan Van Champion writes on the the films and theatre helping to represent the different facets of queer identity — as well as exploring the limits of mainstream media representation.
I didn’t have the most harrowing of experiences coming out as gay in my late teens, and for a time, a small narcissistic part of me wanted a more compelling story to tell. Yes – there were comments from other kids, friends distanced themselves, interactions with teachers seemed more measured, and I received the occasional tears and/or vomiting from concerned relatives. But I was never ostracised, homeless, or forced to hide my identity away – so I thought I should feel blessed that I’d had it better than some.
It took me a long time to learn, that whilst it was not the struggle that some people endure, it was my struggle. It may not have been War & Peace, but it did bring me sadness and pain… and guilt. For me, Coming Out was a dreaded moment, an overriding feeling of fear brought about by the stigma surrounding gay lifestyles, not just in those around me but in myself.
I grew up in the nineties and noughties, when mainstream media was really beginning to include representation of the LGBTQIA+ community with TV shows like Will & Grace and Queer As Folk. Through these I was able to see a more positive image of queer life than had been so flippantly stereotyped in other programmes. I saw a community of love and acceptance — not an isolated journey but a colourful rainbow family. Theatre presented me with productions, including Rent and Angels in America, through which I learnt the power of having a voice for to speak for people like me. These were shows which said that we matter by addressing issues which affected gay people who are otherwise avoided or marginalised.
Films educating and normalising queer stories for wider audiences such as Pride, Milk and Brokeback Mountain have been heavily praised for their representation of gay characters. Carol, staring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, was the first time I had really seen lesbians classically romanticised onscreen, rather than fetishised for straight audiences. Meanwhile, trans visibility is still incredibly side-lined, with trans characters often represented only as victims or villains, and films like Transamerica, Priscilla: Queen of the Desert and Boys Don’t Cry, while undoubtedly problematic in their casting of cisgender actors in trans roles, have encouraged discussion around the topic of trans representation in media, and the openness of trans actors like Jamie Clayton, Elliot Page and Laverne Cox have begun to lead to the inclusion of a greater number of trans roles within mainstream television and theatre — though of course, there is still a long way to go. Together these films have gone a long way to change the way LGBTQIA+ characters are presented in the media, and much like Pride marches they push acceptance within society.
More questionably, perhaps, is that the majority of these triumphs have been delivered by straight and cisgender actors, and here I will admit that I find myself torn. As a firm believer in the craft of acting, I don’t feel that an LGBTQIA+ character should only be played by an LGBTQIA+ actor – after all it is not an actor’s job to portray themselves, but rather to adopt and display someone apart from themselves – often with drastically differing circumstances. And after all, there is huge progress in having the stories told, and so their casting doesn’t necessarily make them dishonest portrayals. But after so long being victimised and excluded from leading roles, why would you not use these projects as an opportunity to ensure that those who own the stories have the right to tell them in the way that they see fit. The door is now open. It has been open for a while. Time to let us in to take the wheel.
Sense8, a show which achieved cult status over its short two season run, is a perfect example of the way that this trend is beginning to change. Created by the trans directors and producers the Wachowski Sisters, the show works together stories of vastly diverse peoples in a way that champions inclusivity, whilst simply also allowing it to be the norm within the show. Similarly, the Netflix comedy Sex Education bolsters a diverse range of characters from all walks of life, all finding their identity together. In the dramatic climax to season two, a boy struggling with his identity stands in front of his entire school and asks another boy, “Will You Hold My Hand?” These five simple words hold the weight of all the fear I have held since Coming Out. From a deeply systemic homophobia comes a fear that any day as a person of the rainbow you could come under attack for simply living your truth, and yet this scene reminds me of the importance of these small acts, inspiring a whole new generation to have the courage to do so.
I have children attending the classes I teach who feel comfortable expressing themselves however they identify. They are younger than anyone I’ve known and in ways that I’ve never seen, displaying the huge strides we have made – even since I was a child. They show great bravery in the face of prejudice. I feel immense pride to be part of an industry constantly engaged in debate as to how we can further reduce persecution of sexual and gender identity, dreaming one day of an equality where people don’t have to Come Out, because they are already accepted.