This is why queer representation matters

I always knew I was bisexual — I just wasn’t sure I could say it out loud. I’d grown up a very independent and vocal young woman, encouraged to support other women and minorities in their fight for equality and their right to be seen. I’ve had friends in the LGBTQ community my entire life; queerness was never an unknown entity to me, and I loved those who knew who they were without question.

Yet, in spite of growing up in a very tolerant, accepting environment for most of my life, I never felt like I could really talk about my own queer feelings and desires. While my parents were in no way repressive, nor were my friends the judgmental kind, my queerness still felt taboo. I worried that if I proclaimed my bisexuality to the world, I’d be told I was going through a phase, or maybe I’d get labeled “greedy” for saying I’m attracted to more than one gender, or (and this might be my worst fear) people would say that I wasn’t legitimately bisexual because I never really talked about liking any gender other than men or becoming romantically involved with any gender other than men.

I held back from coming out partially because I felt I’d have to combat all these misconceptions about my bisexuality. Mostly, it was because I didn’t feel that I saw anyone like me on television (my favorite, preferred artistic medium). It wasn’t until recently, when complex, competent queer women began appearing on the TV screen — think Piper (Taylor Schilling), Alex and Stella in Orange Is the New Black; Callie Torres (Sara Ramirez) in Grey’s Anatomy; Kalinda Sharma (Archie Panjabi) in The Good Wife; the characters played by Sarah Paulson in numerous installments of the American Horror Story anthology; Sophie-Anne Leclerq (Evan Rachel Wood) in True Blood — that I began to feel comfortable with my own sexual identity. Now I had women I could look up to, empathize with and, in a way, idolize.

If art is a mirror held up to the world and it reflects back at us the truth of the times we live in, then you’d hope that even if you’re not cisgender, white, male or straight (the labels that could be applied most frequently to folks you see on TV), there would still be a character in a show that looks and acts like you. Yet this has rarely been the case. Representation and the equal distribution of it haven’t been a high priority for the TV industry until the last decade or so. Now, the shift has gone from imperceptible to very noticeable, with TV rapidly becoming more inclusive and accurately representative of folks in all kinds of minority communities. We’ve seen television creatives put forth characters that are queer, of varying races, of differing socioeconomic statuses, holding a range of political beliefs and more, so that the ever-evolving world we live in is better represented, spoken about and explored in television.

The queer female presence on TV is growing, and so is our ability to present female queerness as a multifaceted experience that looks, sounds and feels as different on TV as it is in real life. Female characters who fall into this category — Ilana Wexler, Petra Solano, Rosa Diaz, Maya Bishop and the other characters I’ve already mentioned — come from a variety of backgrounds, are at varying stages of comfort in owning their sexuality when audiences first hear about it and experience their queerness differently based on the world they live in. Having such a broad lineup of queer women on TV further shows that queer women are not all alike, that queerness presents in a variety of ways. Yet their queerness is never an obstacle to these characters’ happiness, success or productivity.

When a TV show makes it a priority to feature a queer woman and, even better, write her as more than just a token queer person, the conversation moves forward. When a queer woman is presented on TV as a person capable of loving in a way that feels truthful, is loved for who they are and accepted, whose sexuality is not their only interesting quality and they are just as worthy of being noticed and celebrated as straight characters, the conversation moves forward. When a queer woman is there to act as an accurate mouthpiece for the community, to slap down stigmas and steer the conversation in an accurate way about what it’s like to be a queer woman today, the conversation moves forward.

Thanks to Grey’s, OITNBAHS and The Good Wife, along with quietly subversive yet approachable TV shows like Broad CityJane the VirginBrooklyn Nine-Nine and newcomer Station 19, the number of queer women I can relate to has exploded. When I finally saw characters like Broad City‘s Ilana getting to have fulfilling relationships with a man and a woman at different times, I felt happy. When Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Rosa came out to her peers and was immediately given nothing but love and support, I felt seen. When I saw that Callie on Grey’s was able to reveal that, after having relationships with men, she was also attracted to women and was never accused of being dishonest about her sexuality or made to feel weird, I felt relieved. When I saw how OITNB depicted Piper’s attraction to her fiancé, Larry, as well as her unspoken, all-consuming tugs of attraction toward Alex and later, Stella, I understood that queer female desire can take many forms, but one isn’t better than the other; all are acceptable and all are permitted.

TV has done so much work in destigmatizing female queerness that I no longer feel that being a queer woman is seen as a problem or a punchline. I felt relieved that I could have queer characters to point to when I came out and I could say, “Hey, this is what it’s really like, this is what it feels like to be queer and this is how you can treat me now that I’m out.”

To know that TV is no longer interested in treating queer women as a trend or treating queerness in general like it’s some fun piece of clothing to put on and take off is such a relief. It feels like I’m finally understood by the world at large, even though I know my loved ones would have always understood. Most importantly, it feels like I’ve been given tools to help others understand what my own experiences as a queer woman are like, whenever a simple “Hey, I’m bisexual” won’t suffice.

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