Why books, films, and TV shows need more LGBTQ+ characters

Yorkie and Kelly, San Junipero (Black Mirror)

It recently dawned on me that, as a gay person, I couldn’t think of a single book I had read, or a film I had seen, growing up that had an explicitly gay character in it, let alone a gay protagonist. In YA fiction there were some, mainly later on, but mostly the gay characters were side-lined as either the victim, the GBF, or the ‘wing-person’ to the main character that would usually be taken advantage of. They weren’t mainstream. I’d googled books about gay girls, and there were very few with female characters who weren’t doing anything other than “experimenting”: timid, insecure and ashamed of themselves. It made me feel embarrassed to read them, because even the books suggested that my feelings ought to be secretive or pathologised.

I was yearning to create my own fiction, because the only characters I felt I could relate to were boys, because of their opportunities for adventure and relatable feelings for girls, though I was still far from sussing out the latter.

I craved a female character that fully spoke to me. As queer people we seek out characters, references and histories to identify with, but it’s never been entirely accessible or easy to do so. Luckily, in my A-level English class I was introduced to the works of Jeanette Winterson and Sarah Waters, but while they secretly comforted me, they were threatening because they had the power to out me. Maybe if I’d known books like these from a younger age, I would have been a happier and less lonely teen, as I tried to work out where I would fit in with the world, if I could at all.

Moving to university in London, I met more gay people and had the opportunity to learn about queer theory and LBGTQ history, which helped me find my lost identity, and helped with the tying together of loose ends. That’s a privilege many other people in the community didn’t and still don’t have. I was too afraid to come out in school, because I thought it was going to ruin my life. I couldn’t see myself being out as a reality, and the books and films I was consuming had negative representations of gay women, where best friends would out you to your whole school for the sake of saving their reputation, or the gay women would be beaten, raped, forced into heterosexual lifestyles, or murdered – so naturally I kept it hidden and tried to fit in with everybody else, which became toxic for my self-esteem.

There weren’t many female gay role models in the real world either, other than Ellen DeGeneres, who everyone knows. Hardly anyone in my social circles or at school - students or staff - were openly gay to my knowledge, and those who were, or were assumed to be, were subject to homophobic slurs on a daily basis. I remember hearing these in corridors and bristling with fear of what it would be like if people knew. The last thing anyone in school wanted to be called was a lesbian because of how butch gay girls were presented, so naturally the word itself was an insult. Or it was fetishised. Young queer people have to navigate all of this, with few role models, while also struggling to navigate every other aspect of growing up, self-sabotaging and forever wary of the closet door being pried open.

I remember the night Ellen Page came out at the HumanRights Campaign Time to Thrive Conference on Valentines Day 2014, just before my eighteenth birthday. On Twitter I saw all these celebrities tweeting about Ellen being brave and being accepted. At this point I only knew her for her role in Juno. I watched the video of her speech and I cried relentlessly. It had triggered a part of me I knew I had been ignoring, and the longer I pushed it away the more toxic it became.

There were now two role models (!) …both called Ellen!

Ellen Page Comes Out at Time to Thrive Conference

It made the topic very real. Glee had been very popular around the time, and I craved every little snapshot of the Brittana storyline. Santana was the first femme gay character I had seen on TV who was dominant and wasn’t entirely ridiculed or demonised as the lesbian. It wasn’t a lot, but even knowing that her character as a lesbian had a place in the show gave me the hope that I was going to have a place in the world beyond school. Luckily this is evolving, as more multi-faceted female and LGBTQ characters are being written, and diversity and inclusivity are more at the forefront, but there’s still work to do.

Brittany and Santana, Glee

Embedded at the heart of the anti-trans discourse that’s been poisoning the media recently, what I find most striking, aside from the denial that trans women are women, is the inability (or unwillingness) of people to recognise that trans people are and were children too. I fear that seeing what’s happening in the media will make queer young people, or those who have not yet come out, feel as though it is too unsafe to be their authentic selves, and that they will stay closeted or remain struggling in secrecy, feeling that there isn’t a place for them in society.

The LGBTQ+ community understands how toxic that feeling is. When we don’t learn about LGBTQ+ experiences in schools, in sex ed. and personal, social and health education, it’s incredibly alienating and damaging, so we have to learn in other ways, and reach out ourselves, to books, TV, and online. Unsurprisingly, nearly all (96%) of LGBTQ+ young people say the internet has helped them understand more about their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. We’re not equipped as young people to feel safe, make informed decisions or feel accepted in society. Stonewall’s school report from 2017 shows anti-LGBTQ+ bullying and language across Britain’s schools has decreased since 2012, but almost half of all LGBTQ+ pupils still face bullying. More than two in five trans young people have attempted to take their own life, and one in five lesbian, gay and bi students who aren’t trans have done the same.

I cannot express enough how damaging it is for people to not see themselves represented in society, but these figures can help. According to Stonewall’s school report, 1 in 6 LGBT people have been taught about healthy same-sex relationships, and many teachers still aren’t sure whether they are allowed to talk about LGBT issues in the classroom. These don’t just apply to people in schools, either. I’ve often struggled to navigate when it’s appropriate to be open about my sexuality in the work place, without fear of discrimination or being misinterpreted as drawing attention unnecessarily towards my personal life. When your employer assumes that you have a boyfriend, or misgenders you, why does it feel inappropriate to correct them? Stonewall’s recent report stated that one in eight trans employees have been physically attacked by a colleague or customer in the last year, and half of trans people (51%) have hidden their identity at work for fear of discrimination.

Seeing a gay character in a film or TV show or in a book may have no impact on a straight person’s life, but it might save the life of an LGBTQ+ person who’s struggling to understand their identity or find the confidence to live openly about who they are. The antagonist argument tends to be that it’s inappropriate to feature homosexuality in children’s fiction, because is it said to be promoting the gay agenda and influencing children in negative ways, or introducing the topic of sex too early, but mainstream films and books are constantly pressuring children with the heteronormative agenda and the idea of princesses needing to be rescued by a prince, and only portraying families with a mum and dad, no divorced parents and no same-sex parents.

Research everywhere shows that it would have been a huge help for people to see queer characters in movies when they were young — that they might have become more sensitive and accepting towards gay peers, or better able to grapple with their own sexuality or gender. It’s time for same-sex relationships and queer characters to be normalised in all areas of media, especially for children, as this will educate children not to view homosexual relationships or gender non-conforming people as uncommon or abnormal. 

To do so, we need more writers, editors, teachers, investors to make room for LGBTQ narratives, particularly for young people. We need young people to feel like they can express themselves unapologetically. We need to change words and intentions into actions, and we need the people in these positions, in the face of discrimination, to help make this happen, for the sake of equality and a better future for society.

It’s time for us to give young people the happy endings they deserve, because it’s not a fantasy and it’s not unrealistic, and this goes for adults too. When people can be their authentic selves, they live honestly and fully, and nobody deserves to be left out. I would love to know of any books that any queer people reading this read when they were younger that they identified with or helped them in their process of self-acceptance, or ways in which we can help young people today know that they have a place in society.