Hi there! Welcome to another edition of Queer Tested, Teacher Approved! May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and I knew I wanted to write something in honor of this month. However, I struggled to figure out what to write. I considered “queer content focused on mental health” or “queer comfort reads.” But neither felt right. In the end, I decided to share my personal journey and how it intersects with media representation and mental health. Emphasis on the queer.
*Please be aware that this article discusses heavy themes, including mental health issues and national tragedies.*
The Stats in US America
Shocker, I know, but 2SLGBTQ+ communities report having mental health illness at a rate double the national average. Teens deal with it at an even higher rate, and for many people, the pandemic has only made it worse, as they’ve been stuck at home with unsupportive families. A Trevor Project report on the topic includes a graphic of things LGBTQ+ youth said that brought them joy.
Most of those things are about representation and feeling seen! It’s not surprising, as there are plenty of studies indicating that visibility not only improves represented people’s mental health but helps others accept those groups. This is true of any marginalized group.
Of course, visibility/representation in and of itself isn’t enough. It can be actively harmful if not done well. When media trades in stereotypes, is it truly better than having any representation at all? It’s hard to say, especially since so much of the representation I grew up with was on the iffier side.
Baby queer me, a background
Am I a bitter, agèd queer? I mean, possibly? But I must make it absolutely clear that I’m not bitter that Gen Z and Youngers have much better media visibility than we Millennials and olders did. That’s not the point of this article. ❤️ No, this is about my chronicles of mental health and media representation.
I’m not old, but when I reflect upon my teenage years — a mere two decades ago — I feel ancient. You see, I was in middle school when Matthew Shepard was murdered, when Columbine happened. Then, in my freshman year of high school, 9/11 happened. I lost my sense of safety as a queer person, as a student and as the child of Muslim immigrants.
Of course, these are things many, many others will immediately relate to, so I’m not saying I’m special. Just that national death and tragedy were the foundation upon which my psyche was built.
After a one-year stint in Catholic high school, I transferred to a public high school that was pretty superficially good about
queer gay stuff. In my first year there (ca. 2002), they put on The Laramie Project, a docu-play about Mathew Shepard’s Wyoming town after his murder.
There was a boy-boy peck of a kiss in the play, and it had to be run by the principal! She almost said no! Death and trauma, right?
Meanwhile, my parents were really strict about what we watched on TV until I was in seventh or eighth grade. Well, let me rephrase: They believed in co-viewing, so if they weren’t interested in a show they deemed “mature,” we weren’t watching it. For instance, I wasn’t allowed to watch Friends until I was 13, but we watched South Park as a family from the time it debuted in 1997!
Ah yes, “roots.” The year 2000 was a big year in The Gay for me ’cause it was the first time I was allowed to watch The Real World. That season in New Orleans featured a gay cast member, Danny Roberts. His then-partner was in the military, which was a huge part of Danny’s storyline that season. The Real World may have been the first time I’d ever seen two people of the same gender kiss. Sure, one of their faces was blurred, but you know, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was still a thing back then.
Marco Del Rossi (Adamo Ruggiero) on Degrassi was probably the next gay person I saw on TV. His storyline, too, was fraught with gay trauma. Sure, there was some queer joy, but he mostly dealt with homophobia, bullying and unaccepting parents. Let’s just say neither Marco nor Danny made me feel like out of the closet was a place I wanted to be.
Interestingly, my parents did not care what I was reading. In books, I found slightly better visibility. I became obsessed with Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series. Her series had some queer male rep, and while it verged on stereotypical, the queer men in her world found an accepting place within their society. Oddly, there were no queer women.
Where was I?
Soon, I devoured the Sailor Moon manga because, in the written word, Sailor Scouts Neptune and Uranus were allowed to be girlfriends. Unlike on Cartoon Network, where conservative pressure re-edited them into uncomfortably close cousins. (“Gather ’round, all you clowns … “)
While books were great, I was terrified to bring anything too obviously queer home, so my reading choices were relegated to side characters. But seriously, thank G-d for libraries; I distinctly remember reading the very gay anthology Am I Blue?: Coming Out from the Silence in the public library but never checking it out.
As it turns out, all that co-viewing my parents insisted on was beneficial. TV shows with queer secondary characters let me test the gay waters with my parents. Whenever we watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Will & Grace, I’d dart my eyes to my parents to gauge their reaction.
Joke’s on me, really, ’cause apparently, my mom had me pegged from the time I was three. I actually had a hard time convincing her I like men (biphobia is so much fun!). Not that my coming out was all smooth or super fun or anything. But it certainly could have been worse. And I do credit hours of forcing my family to watch Glee as part of that.
But, what if?
So, I got through my queer childhood, adolescence and twenties with the help of my friends, both real and fictional. It’s hard, though, not to think about the what-ifs. Because I graduated college not having a complete understanding of who I am.
Look y’all, I’m ancient by tech standards. My graduating class was the first group of non-Harvard people on Facebook. When I started university, Netflix was still a mail-in DVD service. The first iPhone came out when I was a sophomore.
The concept of bisexual, transgender, let alone nonbinary, were so not in the queer zeitgeist. Actually, the word queer barely was. No wonder I thought I was a lesbian. So what if I sometimes liked guys? All those “weird” feelings about not quite being a girl? Brush those aside.
After all, the shows I looked up to treated bisexuality as a nonentity. Degrassi was just barely dealing with it. And my queero, Willow (Alyson Hannigan) on Buffy, was “gay now,” even after confirming that her feelings for her high school boyfriend were, in fact, real. (Yes, I know IRL this is a thing).
But then, there she was: Callie (Sara Ramirez) on Grey’s Anatomy, an honest-to-goodness bisexual who even said the B-word. A TV character who proudly loved and slept with men and women. It was like a dam broke inside me. I finally stopped denying my feelings for non-women.
And for a while, that was enough. I floated through life, happy enough as a bisexual woman. Then, my life came crashing down around me about four years ago. A big part of the ensuing therapy was dealing with my Gender Feelings™, but I still couldn’t name them. I don’t know if that was not having the words, or fear or what.
But thank art again, for over the last couple years, there has been an uptick in the number of enby characters in fiction. In the fall of 2020, I read Mason Deaver‘s I Wish You All the Best, a book about a nonbinary kid, and I finally got it. The thing that I’d been trying to tell myself in my own writing, though my own characters, but hadn’t been able to see.
When I came out to people (again), they mostly nodded and said, “Yeah, that makes sense.” Would I have arrived here without the help of fictional characters? Maybe? Even so, it likely would have been much harder. If nothing else, all these characters have given me the terminology and communities/fandoms I’ve needed to express myself.
I’m not going to sit here and write platitudes like “it gets better.” For many people, it does, but “it ebbs and flows” is probably a better saying. Just know the dark days will give way to brighter ones. In the meantime, let’s find solace where we can.
I can only hope we keep moving forward. The US (and the world, really) seems determined to move backward, politically, which means it’s more important than ever to keep ourselves on our screens and pages. There never needs to be a “reason” for a character to be queer. So, go forth, enjoy, create and share your gay-ass content to the best of your ability!
See you next time for another Queer Tested, Teacher Approved!
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