The Evolution of Gay TV

By Maddie Braun

The representation of LGBT characters on television has come a long way since 1971, when the sitcom “All in the Family” introduced the first openly gay character on broadcast TV. “All in the Family” tackled many controversial topics in its 12-year run, but the subject of homosexuality was an especially timely topic, as the gay rights movement was just beginning at that point. The show started many conversations and brought new, heavier topics into the public eye. For five consecutive years, from 1971 to 1976, the show ranked #1 in the Nielsen ratings, which measure audience size. There was both support and disapproval for the subject matter of the show. President Nixon, for example, expressed in an interview that he did not think the homosexuality represented in the show belonged on TV. Forty four years later, the representation of LGBT characters on television has changed drastically. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) annual report on the diversity of television characters shows how.

During the 2014-2015 season, there were 65 LGBT regular and recurring characters on scripted primetime broadcast series. This made up 3.9% of the regular characters, up 0.6% from the 2013-2014 season. Besides these regular characters, there were also 33 recurring LGBT characters on these series. On cable series during the 2014-2015 season, there were 64 regular LGBT characters, including 41 recurring characters.

The racial diversity of LGBT characters has also broadened over the years. Interestingly, the diversity of LGBT broadcast characters mirrors the diversity shown among broadcast regular characters of all sexualities. Of all of the broadcast characters this season, the make-up was 73% white, 13% black, 8% Latino/a, 4% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 2% multi-racial. Of the LGBT broadcast characters, 74% were white, 11% were black, 11% were Latino/a, 5% were Asian/Pacific Islander, and there were no multi-racial LGBT characters. While the percentages of black and multi-racial characters were lower among the LGBT characters, the percentages of Latino and Asian/Pacific Islander characters were slightly higher. On cable series, the racial diversity of LGBT characters was even greater. The make-up on these series was 66% white, 10% black, 11% Latino/a, 5% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 8% multi-racial.

As these statistics show, diversity amongst LGBT television is growing. This diversity does not pertain just to race and sexuality. These characters represent different age categories, economic standpoints, careers, family situations, and personalities.

Of all of the broadcast networks, Fox had the most LGBT characters, with an impressive 6.5% of their regular characters being lesbian, gay, or bisexual. One of the network’s new shows this season, “Empire,” a drama about a family in the music business, depicted two young gay characters: one regular character and one recurring character. The regular character here is Jamal, the young, black son of the main characters. The recurring character is his boyfriend Michael, a young Mexican man. Jamal faces negative attitudes from his parents regarding his sexuality, especially from his father. This is a main recurring theme on the show in regard to this character. Though Jamal’s mother thinks he will have trouble in the music industry because of his sexuality, she still supports him and believes he can become a star. His father, on the other hand, disapproves completely of his sexuality. Jamal is portrayed as a smart, talented musician, but he refuses to pursue a career in the music industry, due in part to struggles he envisions himself facing because of his sexuality.

Over on CBS, “The Good Wife” presents the character of Kalinda Sharma, a young bisexual Indian investigator who is good friends with the main character of the show. The character of Kalinda is powerful and compelling. Though she is revealed to have an estranged husband, she dates and engages in sexual activities with multiple men and women during the course of the show.

When LGBT characters first began appearing on television, they had a personality and story of their own, but the storylines regarding these characters were one-dimensional and faced the same issues of homophobia and disapproval. Both of the characters discussed here, along with many other LGBT characters on TV now, are strong, unique people that are more than just a label, even as they still face issues common to the LGBT community. They represent real people, with their diverse personalities and backgrounds, but facing the same issues underneath their differences. Even so, LGBT characters still make up a small percentage of all of those on television. There is an even larger, more diverse LGBT community in the real world, whose experiences are not all represented by these few television shows.

Of course, LGBT characters have always drawn both praise and criticism. One of the most recent controversies involved the television show “The Fosters” and the youngest gay kiss in TV history. Recently, two 13-year-old male characters were shown kissing on the show. Some made remarks calling the event a “sin” and “cultural suicide,” but the co creators of the show, Peter Paige and Bradley Bredeweg, spoke out in defense of the scene. Bredeweg explained, “When people question the scene my response has been: ‘Everyone has a first kiss and you remember it. How old were you?’ Ninety percent of people who have an answer come back and say, ‘I was 12, 13, and 14 years old,’ and I say, ‘Exactly. It was time to see this, time to put this up for the world.'”

Bredeweg’s point is fair, and brings to mind the progress that has been made so far on television. Homosexual romances in general were once seen as a huge taboo and were criticized, though graphic heterosexual romances were seen as acceptable. Over time LGBT characters and relationships have become much more accepted in the media. The young kiss will, hopefully, mirror this progress in television. Though it has caused a stir recently, it is over an issue that has been seen many times from young straight characters of the same age. Hopefully this scene will break ground and pave the way for young gay characters’ romances to be just as accepted as those of straight characters.

So the question remains, where are we now? LGBT representation on television has shown a definite improvement over the years, but is it enough? It seems to me that the diversity of television characters could, and should, be broadened even more. Steps are being made in the right direction, but hopefully in years to come, we will be able to look back at today’s lineup and see an even more diverse and accurate portrayal of LGBT characters.

Social Media and the Transgender Community

By Kathryn Reed

As a user of the blogging and social media website Tumblr, I know that there is a large LGBTQA+ community on this site. Many of my followers and the people whose blogs I follow are part of this community, including the transgender community. I’ve noticed how this particular social media site provides a space for transgender individuals to network with each other. Although there is, as yet, no scholarly literature about this particular online community, sociologist Matthew G. O’Neill has discussed how social media sites like YouTube are a space for transgender individuals to express their identity and provide support for other transgender people. In a chapter entitled “Transgender Youth and YouTube Videos: Self-Representation and Five Identifiable Trans Youth Narratives” that appeared in the edited collection Queer Youth and Media Cultures, O’Neill states, “Clearly trans youth have a need for artistic expression, and YouTube offers a valuable performative and discursive space, allowing the individual to become aware of their chosen gender identity.” I think that many of the concepts O’Neill discusses are applicable to the transgender community on Tumblr, on top of the unique dynamics that define Tumblr as a blogging website.

According to O’Neill, there are five basic types of narratives that are produced by transgender youth on YouTube. First, there are the transition videos. These videos consist of pictures from different stages of the transition process, from one’s birth gender through the beginnings of hormone therapy, surgeries, and eventually to one’s preferred gender. Second, there are “DIY Gender” videos, in which the individual gives tips on how to dress and pass as their preferred gender. For example, for a transgender female to male, this could include advice on how to use a chest binder to get a flatter chest in order to present as a cisgender male. Third, there are trans video blog, which are video diaries of daily life experiences. These videos can be on topics like physical changes from hormone therapy, coming out to family and friends, using preferred gender bathrooms, and experiences at school as a transgender individual.

The fourth type of narrative O’Neill discusses is the trans anti-bullying videos. In these videos, individuals talk about their own experiences with bullying and discrimination because of their transgender status and offer tips to other transgender individuals about how to cope with bullying and discrimination. Fifth and finally, there are celebrity trans video blogging videos. These are videos from famous transgender people such as Chaz Bono, who talk about their own personal experiences of being trans. These videos are inspirational for transgender youth who look up to these people as role models not just because of their celebrity status, but also because they understand what young people are going through in terms of the complexities and issues that come with transgender identity.

O’Neill states that these videos “build an empathetic online community which respects the idea that, while every trans experience is different, there is a role for ongoing non-judgmental support for each individual at each stage of their journey.” Each person’s experience as a transgender individual is different, from differences in familial support to specific bodily changes. Through these videos, people can still find similarities in each other’s experiences, which creates a network of support as transgender people realize that they are not alone in their identity and the challenges they face. The videos are a platform for self-expression and community building.

Structurally, Tumblr is different from YouTube because instead of creating videos, transgender users create written blog posts about transgender-related issues. They can choose to post pictures and videos as well, but the primary content is written because Tumblr is a blogging website. However, content of these written narratives is essentially the same as the five types of transgender YouTube narratives that O’Neill describes. These Tumblr posts act as a form of digital literature that explores transgender issues and experiences. With the “archive” feature on Tumblr, one can look back at past posts and see the progression of an individual’s narrative overtime, like a personal digital storybook. The online dimension of these blog narratives also makes them accessible to a global audience, which is not the case with traditional print literature.

Tumblr also allows for an aspect of anonymity that is not as feasible with YouTube videos. In a video one’s identity is very much out in the open unless the creator decides to use a fake name or to alter their appearance. But on Tumblr, it is easier to maintain an anonymous identity because you do not have to include any identifiable information about yourself or show your physical appearance if you do not want to. Moreover, Tumblr has the feature of being able to ask other bloggers questions anonymously. This aspect of anonymity is a good way to stay connected with the transgender online community without “outing” oneself to the world, especially if the asker is not open with friends and family about their identity, or lives their life as “stealth” to the people around them.

Taking part in an online social media community like YouTube or Tumblr does come with some risks. Online bullying because of their gender identity is a risk that transgender people face when being open about their identity in a public space such as the internet. However, the sense of community is strong enough that people still feel like they can access the online transgender community as a safe space to be open about their gender identity without worrying too much about online bullying.

Overall, social media sites such as Tumblr and YouTube are unique mediums for transgender individuals to express their gender identity, discuss their personal experiences, and provide support for other members of the trans community.

A Perspective on Gender Seen Through Flawless Lashes

By Corey Brooke

Before hosting a party in my dorm for the first time, I spent half an hour sitting in front of a mirror trying to attach a pair of the longest fake eyelashes I could find at Target. I had no idea what I was doing, and glue dripped onto my clothes and into my eyes—but for all its power to stain and irritate, the adhesive would not keep the lashes on my eyelids. I never doubted, though, that the trouble would be worthwhile: I was going to make the lashes work, and, eventually, I did.

That night, I was in control of my body. I had fun with how others saw me and even how I saw myself. I felt self-consciously and intentionally beautiful. Nevertheless, I took nothing about the lashes seriously—I wore them sardonically, though not without personal effect, like some sort of joke fluttering up and down on my face, reminding myself and my friends that I do not have to perform beauty norms (or even gender norms) in order to have a good night and feel satisfied with my appearance. Ultimately, I freed myself in an entirely new way, reshuffling dictations about tackiness, about glamour, about gender. But what was it that freed me, and how?

Before answering that question, it is worth saying that I am not a woman, have never considered myself one, and am inclined to believe that I never will. However, when Simone de Beauvoir wrote that “on ne naît pas femme: on le devient” (usually translated “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”), she implied that gender is not something we are but something we do. Nothing deep in my soul or biology demanded that I bat fake lashes—my own desires motivated me to play with gender, to act in a way divergent from the performances of either manhood or womanhood, and my consenting to that motivation led me to feel unburdened. So, when I ask how it is that gluing on women’s cosmetic eyelashes seemed to liberate me, I am asking about the effects of disrupting gender. For an answer, I look first to experiences of gender among drag queens and multicultural queer youth on social media.

* * *

Last October, Facebook began deactivating the accounts of those not using their legal names on the social media site, including drag queens who used their drag names in addition to Pagans and some trans people. The policy, still in place, was and continues to be controversial. What surprised me the most initially, and what I find most compelling, is that many drag queens prefer to use personal accounts, rather than public pages, to disseminate information about drag-related events, issues, and discussion. I should note that many drag personalities do act problematically, especially often for the appropriation and caricaturing of black female culture. Still, I believe that others perform an important role in disrupting our ideas of what gender means to our identities. With this in mind, why did Facebook’s deactivation of drag accounts inflame the drag community and their supporters when the use of public pages (still an option) should seem to suffice?

From the insistence of drag queens that their drag personas deserve Facebook profiles, I read a clear assertion that personhood acted out in queer, gender nonconforming ways is just as legitimate as more normative conceptualizations of identity. To rebel against the tides of “man” and “woman,” either consistently or impulsively, shifts, refocuses, and creates identity, changing the experience of being, which is, after all, an action rather than a noun.

So, when I glued lashes on my face for the first time, I changed my experience of gender and others’ experiences of my gender, indeed re-envisioning (through perhaps more glamorous eyes) my identity. Stepping outside of my habits of gender allowed me to examine other aspects of my selfhood.

* * *

I find further insight in the recent explosion of the use of “flawless” as a conceptualization of beauty. Young racial or ethnic minorities and queer peoples especially use the term on social media to describe themselves or celebrities with similar experiences of race, sexuality, and gender (for example, Laverne Cox, Rihanna, and Michelle Obama)—perhaps as an affirmation of a countercultural beauty that norms have taught them not to see in themselves or others.

An article Javier Jaén wrote for the New York Times, entitled “How ‘Flawless’ Became a Feminist Declaration,” explores the background and implications of  “flawlessness,” contending that “‘flawless’ feels vigorous. It’s a word for integrity and excellence of execution….[the word] recasts beauty as something that can be done, pulled off — not just possessed.” Flawlessness reclaims and upturns beauty by one’s own terms.

Further, beyond locating marginalized peoples within the fold of beauty, the epithet “flawless” explicitly critiques beauty altogether. More than fifty years before Beyoncé’s “***Flawless”, Jaén notes that drag queen Flawless Sabrina used the term to characterize herself as “a paragon of perfection” even despite her self-attestation that she “was anything but perfect.” Certainly, it seems that “flawless” has stayed sardonic, necessarily poking fun at dominant conceptions of beauty through assertive claims of beauty from those outside of beauty norms.

So, when I decided determinedly but not seriously to spend a night in cosmetic lashes, I unwittingly partook in a queer tradition of al at once playing with, critiquing, and locating oneself within the narrow umbrella of beauty. I had made myself flawless through my own luxe-lidded eyes and, by my own terms, I had claimed an experience of beauty for myself apart from the tantalizing and destructive cultural myth of what is beautiful.

* * *

So, what can queer voices teach us about gender identity and beauty? They suggest that, gender being an act of performance that defines aspects of our experience of identity, we might as well live gender on our own terms and find our beauty through pride in that craft. For me, strings of plastic curling out from over my eyes provided a great first taste of the liberation that can come from self-consciously steering one’s gender trajectory. I do not doubt that other people might redefine their relationship with gender quite differently from how I have. Nevertheless, I believe that drag queens and marginalized youth on social media can teach us all something about the value of performing and shaping our identities through gender.

Dark Sleep in Waking Light

By Cody Erickson

Every morning Zhang wakes up, but he is never really awake. Put to an eternal sleep by the confines of his “Great Wall” of a society, Zhang will never know what its truly like to be awake. Being awake is never something that Zhang found appealing in the first place, so he is fine with never awakening. Awakening would mean facing the chains that bind him to his humble abode of hiding and secretiveness, whose bounds stretch far beyond the borders of his mind and body: a body that has only ever known the gentle touch of another like himself biologically. Like a jail cell, his own home gives Zhang no consolation to help him deal with his dire situation.

“For what purpose, my humble abode?” Zhang demands, “do you not assist me in awaking to see the light of day?”. The house responds with a joyous plea, but Zhang hears only the criticisms of those who wish to pull the chains that bind him until he suffocates tighter. Awakening was never an option. Realizing his dire situation, Zhang finally manages to break out from the confines of his home, still asleep. Wrought of a consciousness that would now rather thrust him into imperforated darkness, Zhang moves towards the garish light: light never fails…does it…?

Light. The light seems to be a promising way to go, but was there ever really a “way” to go? Free will lives in the deepest depths of Zhang’s mind, depths that not even the devil himself would dare travel, not even for a split second. Lee yearns for the light that he knows he will never be able to grasp: a light that smolders all remorse and misery with the heat of a thousand suns, all mocking him-making him a laughing stock of shame and suffering. Even so, none of this matters; Zhang has only ever known shame. It’s his last name in a world whose only aim is to mock every second of his very subsistence. Zhang is still sleeping. He is coming to the somber conclusion that light in all of its greatness only exists to demoralize and terrorize the very being: his being. As light etiolates to darkness, Zhang begins clambering down the only other path available to him…

Darkness. Once a foe, never a friend. Zhang can’t see anything but that doesn’t matter; he has always been blind to those around him, the world, himself. But what of being blind to such monstrosities? Blindness for Zhang means those abominations around him can’t see him for what he really is…But what is he? Zhang now turns to the darkness that now envelops his soul looking for justification of himself. Him. He. The darkness’ answer is a soft, consolidating whimper of comfort and contentment. Zhang is still asleep. More dangerous than the light around him the darkness now threatens to pull Zhang, tearing his consciousness every which way through poison thorns drenched in mockery and bigotry. Seeing no way out, Zhang has made an unbreakable vow to retreat to the place from which he once came; a place of light sleep in a dark world. Slowly drifting back to the confines from which he came: Zhang finally starts to feel a tenacious sense of consciousness-Slowly, slowly maneuvering the confines of his mind, he finally reaches a place of peace and tranquility. He, for the first time in his dark existence, is awake.

* * *

Homosexuality in Asian countries has been an interest of mine ever since I came to college and have met so many international students. I always wondered how homosexuals are seen in Asian culture, as I was under the impression that many Asian cultures shun homosexuals from society. My suspicions were finally realized when I watched an online video entitled “Love and Sex in China”. This documentary gave its audience a look into the love and sex lives of Chinese people. Although there were many heterosexual couples interviewed, there was one homosexual actor who talked about his life as a homosexual man in Chinese society. Not surprisingly, the actor (whose name I will not make public) told the interviewer of a love life lived entirely in shadows, away from society in fear of being ostracized. The actor recounted the fact that his public image is very important, and that coming out as a homosexual man would ultimately shatter his reputation. Having to keep his love life hidden from the world consumes him on the inside, leaving him feeling powerless and somewhat ashamed in a strictly heterosexual society.

The Chinese term “TongZhi” might also come to mind while reading this post. For centuries, China has shunned homosexuals from society. The term “TongZhi” is essentially slang for a gay Chinese man. The irony of this term is that, in more colloquial terms it means “same will” or “comrade”, and was used in imperial China to refer to someone who has the same ideals or ethics as oneself. Many of the TongZhi in modern Chinese society find ways to hide their sexuality in fear of being shunned by family and society as a whole. Some even go to the extent of finding a homosexual couple of the opposite sex and legally marrying a partner from that other partnership just to fool their friends and family into thinking that they are heterosexual. These types of marriages are called “sham marriages”, and outlets to find these types of relationship can now be found all over the internet via gay Chinese dating sites and even “meet and greet” conventions. In this way, there are more outlets for gay peoples to meet one another, but the social stigmas that being gay carries remain unchanged.

In the past, the Chinese government has gone so far as to implement laws outlawing gay practice. One of these was called the “Hooligan Law”, which was part of the Official Penal Code in 1957. Although abolished in 2001, the aftermath of negative thoughts and feelings towards homosexuals in modern China persists. Although in the story Zhang never quite gets to the point of finding a homosexual partner, the struggles he deals with going out into the real world are testimony to the hardships gay people in China face.

Seeing this Chinese man reflect on his life’s struggles with regards to sexuality and society gave me the inspiration to write the story you see above. After doing a little bit of research on the history of gay culture in China, it made more sense why the man in the video feels the way he does about coming out. Still, I found it very sad that he has to live in a shadow of fear just because of his sexuality. This being said, I wanted to try and bring out elements that would invoke feelings of frustration, sadness and pity all at the same time. Another goal of mine in writing this piece was to make the reader feel just as lost as the character himself, searching for an answer that wasn’t there yet was always right at hand. Hopefully the story makes you think a little bit and was as fun to read as it was for me to write.

Isn’t It Bromantic?

By Cosimo Pori

What is a bro and how does it relate to my queerness?

How do I even begin to comprehend the bro culture?

It started out with language. A few years back, I found myself in the throes of the popularization of the phrase “no homo.” Straight men would use this tagline following anything from compliments to opinions to jokes. Most vividly, I remember overhearing someone at a concert telling his friends: “We should go in deeper [to the crowd]…no homo!” By gendering and sexualizing an act so innocuous, the context obviously became extremely sexual and tawdry. Basically, it went from “no homo” to “very homo.” The phenomenon of straight men gendering and sexualizing everything while simultaneously acknowledging their own potential queerness was unwelcome to my closeted self.

Once I arrived at college, the linguistic became more physical. I was swallowed into the abyssal and perplexing sea of bro culture and politics. The close friendships I established with men were often referred to as adorable “bromances.” This exposure to bro culture and bromances opened me up to concept of the homosocial desire.

Literary theorist Eve Sedgwick, who coined the term homosociality in her 1985 study Between Men, describes this phenomenon as “a kind of an oxymoron.” Sedgwick explains that homosocial desire shares a close bond with other forms of connection including mentorship, friendship, and even rivalry. Homosociality, on its own, implies neither heterosexuality nor homosexuality.

I began to wonder what bromances and homosocial desire meant in relation to queer and gay identities. For a while, I had admired men who acknowledged their “queer tendencies,” as it were. I even felt grateful that there was a form of queer representation in straight society and media. I believed that the widespread use of the term “bromance” was a boon to the queer community, because it acted as another sign of acceptance from our straight allies.

But then I started thinking more deeply: how does this usage reflect on my relationships and connections to other people? Is the idea that my male friendships contain at least a hint of romance detrimental to my identity as a queer person? Since the coining of the term “bromance,” how far has the queer community really come? Through asking these questions, I started to realize that homosocial desire and the idea of the bromance are actually unique forms of oppression.

A bromance, in essence, is an appropriation of a gay relationship. Straight men with any form of friendly connection have the ability to take on a semi-romantic mantle without any of the discrimination and stigma queer couples often face. By appropriating a gay or queer relationship in literature, media, and film, the bromance entails several equally intriguing and toxic viewpoints about queer identity. The bromance is also a two-way street, as a strange type of institution that acknowledges a person’s queer potential or suppressed sexuality even as it implies that there is absolutely no way they could be anything other than straight.

The bromance’s acceptance into mainstream culture has come with its evolution into a form of sick joke or punchline on the queer community. The long existence of the “buddy film” shows that this joke has been in the media for a long while, though in the last decade it has become more toxic. The bromance’s depiction in film has become accessorized and branded as comedic, because obviously there is no way in hell that a man could ever have deep feelings towards another man. This punchline isolates the queer community while basically saying that the entire existence of queer romance is laughable, foreign, and unacceptable in straight society.

The expression of homosocial desire ties in with the ability to shrug on and shrug off a queer identity. Herein lies the systematic oppression of queer people, because for most straight people, the very idea of acting homosocially is so unlikely that it is laughable.

This ridiculous trend of appropriating queerness has spread to all realms of contemporary American life. Celebrities have begun to make wildly ridiculous claims about identifying as “queer,” while being hailed as “friggen cool” at the same time. For instance, Oscar winner Jared Leto claims that some of his “straight friends have begun to define themselves as queer without it being a sexual term, but a cultural one,” and saying he identifies with “people who are different.”

So what does all of this mean for the queer community?

In essence, this phenomenon showcases the beginning of a loss of queer identity. Rather than being forced to assimilate, cisgendered heterosexual people have begun to identify as “culturally queer” without any of the real burden that comes with being queer. At the same time, queer folks still face constant discrimination for being too much of their own sexuality (too femme, too butch, and so on).

Because of the apparent innocence of bromance relationships and the structure of homosocial desire, appropriation is seen as commonplace and innocuous when in actuality it is a greater hindrance than people are realizing.

In conclusion, straight people: there is absolutely nothing wrong or abnormal about your relationships with cis-het people of the same gender. It’s all right for you to have close ties with people of your own gender, but don’t call it a “bromance” and don’t rob the queer community of its validity because you’re insecure about your own emotions.

Normal: A Review

By Rachel Jackman

normal [nawr­-muhl]

  1. conforming to the standard or the common type; usual
  2. serving to establish a standard
  3. Psychology:
 free from any mental disorder
  4. Biology/Medicine: free from any infection or other forms of disease or malfunction, or from experimental therapy, or manipulation
  5. of natural occurrence

The word “normal” has existed for centuries–originating first from Latin and then being incorporated into a myriad of cultures and languages. While a dictionary can contain a valid definition of the word, can anyone truly know what it means? After all, what is normal? A standard and natural occurrence can vary cross culturally, but also individually. Normalcy is never static and is incredibly personal. However, often the established standardization of normalcy overrides the individual complexity of it. It seems that in recent years, within the United States especially, gender binaries and heteronormativity have become increasingly relevant issues: in particular, our definitions of “normal” gender and sexual identities. While the vast majority of the population is cisgender, meaning that an individual’s experience of their own gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth, a minority of transgender individuals struggle to express themselves completely in our society that views gender in binary and immutable term. We have created a standard that gender expression is expected to match sex; anything other than that is abnormal and wrong. However, this expectation is unrealistic, due to the fact that normalcy is dynamic and greatly influenced by individual perspective and experience. The 2003 HBO film Normal pursues the question of what normalcy actually looks like not from a societal perspective necessarily, but rather an individual and familial level.

The film begins at a local church with the celebration of the twenty-fifth wedding anniversary of Roy and Irma Applewood. At this celebration, the pastor emphasizes the love this couple has for each other and that no one could have such love. Yet, suddenly during this speech, Roy passes out; in the next scene, the audience sees Roy coming out to his wife and pastor, announcing that he is transgender and stating his desire to become a woman named Ruth. Initially reluctant to accept Roy’s identity, Irma files for divorce in an attempt to separate herself completely from her husband. However, while attending a celebration for Roy’s father’s birthday, the father tells a story of Roy as a child getting caught wearing his sister’s clothing and being forced to strip down and sleep in the barn. Brought to tears, the adult Roy takes refuge in the barn and contemplates suicide when Irma finds him and realizes the agony he must be suffering. Eventually, Irma comes to a deeper understanding of her husband and helps Ruth through her transition. Their tomboyish daughter, Patty Ann, is fascinated by her father’s transition and even pleads with Irma to “let [Patty Ann] off the hook for being the woman in the family.” However, Ruth’s son does not accept her transition initially and reacts with hostility. Ultimately, despite finding general acceptance from her family, Ruth is ostracized by many of the men at her workplace as well as her entire church community.

As the title of the film suggests, established normalcy is likely not what normal actually looks like. The film begins in a church setting, suggesting that the standardization of heteronormativity began with religious influences and persists because of the Christian faith, in particular. This is still true today: most often, trans rights are opposed by religious organizations. For example, in a recent article in the Miami Herald, opponents of a ban on discrimination against trans people likened the South, if it accepts such a ban, to Sodom and Gomorrah. Unfortunately, in our society, religion is so closely linked to morality that, in many situations, it limits freedom of expression for minority groups. Normal precisely captures the isolation and damnation that Christianity places on the very people it is supposed to incorporate and love.

The opposition between religion and gender expression continues throughout the film, beginning when the pastor tries to fix the marriage between Roy and Irma based on Ephesians 5:28: “for no man hath hated his own flesh.” This passage suggests that men need to look to women to satisfy themselves, and thus need women for completion. According to the pastor’s perspective, Roy is being selfish in his attempt to fill the role of the wife as well as the husband. Yet, no one in his church community can truly understand. This disconnect is ever-present in the film, as in another scene where Ruth and Patty Ann are asked to leave a service and the congregation even refuses to accept the offertory from Ruth–as if the money she offers to the church is tainted because of her “abnormal” gender expression. As Ruth continues her transition, the pastor and the rest of the congregation begin to treat Irma as if she is a widow: is there anything she needs help with around the house? Maybe they should bring her meals? As far as the church is concerned, Roy is dead. Normalcy is established through shared practice, such as religion, but if it becomes tradition, it can also lead to oppression of those individuals for whom established normalcy is abnormal.

Even though Roy desires to embrace his true female identity and finally match his sex to his gender, thus feeling complete and normal, at the start of the film he admits that his gender identity is not in conjunction with the majority of people. He proclaims that he “prayed for years for [these feelings] to go away,” and even refers to himself as having a condition called gender dysphoria. The need to describe what he is feeling through the terminology of a disorder illustrates the societal imposition of gender and sexuality norms. If anyone strays from standard gender binary, the only explanation is that they must be diseased. This belief in established normalcy is so powerful that even those individuals whose personal definitions of normal differ from it believe themselves to be wrong or diseased even when that has never been, nor will ever be, the case.

Normal is incredibly successful in capturing the difficulty trans individuals face in our society here in the United States. Because religion has fettered heterosexuality and cisgenderism to established norms, anyone who exists outside of those norms is fated to oppression or condemnation from society even if they are able to find love, understanding, and happiness within their family as Roy was finally able to do with Irma. However, as the film illustrates, normalcy is dynamic and personal to every individual and his or her closest relationships.

Are Lesbians Real?

By M. Huemoeller

An evident answer: yes, definitely. Catch them at your local grocery store buying snack foods; see them walking their dogs at the park. Maybe they’re taking the local bus, attending concerts, or visiting friends. Beginning rather recently, one can now sometimes encounter lesbians and their relationships on mainstream television shows during primetime, with hundreds of thousands of viewers – a huge amount of queer exposure. That’s pretty good, considering the first mention of homosexuality on TV only focused on males, and the first female-female relationship depicted was in a show with a one-season run that portrayed celibate lesbians in 1988.

But here’s another question: is the representation of lesbian sexuality on mainstream television accurate?

Art reflects society — issues and people that cause tension in our world are reflected in the alternate realities that are offered to us through media, from references to events (such as 9/11), important individuals (like the current President of the United States), and social movements (the Civil Rights Movement). Plenty of television focuses on polarizing situations and people like these; it is of no surprise to viewers when they appear, and it’s no big shock to production companies when they sell. So it’s easy to see why the number of queer folks in television has skyrocketed in 2014 alone — the Gay Rights Movement has been a hugely covered event with people from all over the globe tuning in as the campaign rises in popularity and media attention. There are many, many lesbians on TV to reflect this movement — but do they reflect the people?

With a few exceptions (such as the interracial lesbian relationship found on the ABC show The Fosters), the heavy majority of television lesbians are feminine, thin and white, which obviously does not coincide with the wide spectrum of any minority group. Still, that’s not exactly what we’re looking at. Representation doesn’t just mean appearance, it also refers to the way characters are portrayed, as the way that they’re written mirrors societal bias. Some overwhelming lesbian representation stereotypes on TV are: a curiously chaste relationship, girlfriend just died, and one-time temptress.

The first of these stereotypes can perhaps be better explained with pure numbers — screentime devoted to lesbian intimacy is simply miniscule in comparison to on-screen heterosexual activities. This might be explained away with a wave of the hand by “there aren’t as many lesbians — therefore they don’t have as much screentime.” Not quite. We’re talking lesbians hand-holding and an Eskimo kiss or some less-intimate nonsense — maybe just implied homosexuality, such as the ending to Legend of Korra — in direct contrast to a full-on sex scene for a heterosexual couple, perhaps even in the same episode. Alternatively, as in the Canadian TV series Lost Girl, the main love triangle is between a bisexual woman, a man, and another woman, but on-screen affection is heavily weighted towards the heterosexual relationship. Why does this censorship happen? A good thought hypothesis might be the fact that the Gay Rights Movement has been pushing for a more “relatable” gay — a homosexual is just like a heterosexual, except the sex part — and by reducing obvious sexual activity between people in gay relationships, it subtracts the obvious difference between gay and straight. Clearly this does not represent actual lesbian relationships — many lesbians are, in fact, sexually active. It is, however, damaging to depict lesbians as universally chaste. It devalues the highlighted differences between sexuality and is, quite frankly, just wrong.

Another queer representation stereotype is so common that TV tropes has a page for it. Occasionally called Dead Lesbian Syndrome, especially in older media, representation for lesbians sometimes just ends with a dead partner. Anyone remember Willow and Tara, one of the first impactful primetime lesbian couples on the popular show Buffy the Vampire Slayer that captured the hearts of many young lezes, until Tara died and everyone cried? I could list so many more. Why should this awful trope embody lesbian relationships on television? The reasons are ridiculous. Certainly losing a girlfriend to death is not the most common way to end a relationship, so it’s kind of weird to see it so frequently on TV. It feels like a cop-out, a lazy pattern of writing that could be attributed to some sort of quiet homophobia by the writers that refuse to allow their lesbians a “happy ending.”

One final trope that borders on offensive in media is the one-off lesbian fling for previously straight characters in a blatant attempt to boost ratings. Bisexuality is a valid sexuality, but throwing characters into a lip-lock that really isn’t integrated into a more overarching plotline or even mentioned again – that’s a bit insulting. The existence of sexual minorities is not a joke — leave us out of your punchlines.

So what can we do to end these trashy forms of representation? Perhaps the inclusion of openly queer writers in the storylines that intend to feature lesbians would be an obvious first step — we don’t throw white writers at shows that feature minorities, because they don’t know what it’s like. Certainly lesbians can attest to the accuracy of lesbian experiences portrayed in media — (look at the success of Orange Is The New Black!), so let’s get some of them in the drafting room. Also, let’s quit burying gays characters in weird plot twists to hide homophobia — it’s not subtle, guys. Finally, it certainly wouldn’t hurt to simply include more diverse sexualities in general on mainstream TV — it would give critical reviewers more to discuss, and offer a better base of comparison for new representations, as well as hopefully branch out from tired tropes.

Responsible Resistance

By Claire Amsden
 

As an aspiring social activist, a problem that has concerned me for some time is how to measure the efficacy of various forms of resistance against dominant power structures and hegemonic norms. Reading Foucault’s History of Sexuality complicated my understanding of power and resistance by demonstrating that the two do not exist as a clear-cut dichotomy, but instead influence and produce each other in various ways. In light of this knowledge, responsible resistance must be aware of the ways it challenges the power it is resisting, but also the ways that it reinforces that power as well. Personally, I hope to inform and develop my own actions and behaviors by examining different forms of resistance in order to most effectively bring about change. On a larger scale, I think critical analysis of the interplay between power and resistance is integral to any advocacy work by marginalized/non-normative communities and their allies.

Recently, the work of Xandra Ibarra – a lesbian Mexican-American neo-burlesque performer, community organizer, and activist for immigrant and anti-rape communities – has caught my attention because her performances embody both the successes and failures of expressions of resistance. Ibarra transforms into the persona La Chica Boom in artistic pieces that critique her subject position in relation to “coloniality, compulsory whiteness, and Mexicanidad.” She performs “hyper-raciality/sexuality/gender” in order to exaggerate her experience and deconstruct hegemonic normative narratives of her identity. Some examples include her performance “Nude Laughing/Jouissance of White Womanhood,” in which Ibarra, encased in sheer nylon with various symbols of white womanhood pressed against her body, laughs and writhes on the ground until the nylon eventually rips and she crawls out, leaving a trail of ballet shoes, a blonde wig and a string of pearls behind. In addition, her piece “Tortillera,” which references both tortillas and a slang word for lesbian, invokes what Ibarra calls Mexi-minstrelsy as she dresses up as a Mexican housewife and makes underwear tacos with a Tapatio strap-on.

These performances reveal Ibarra’s critical opinion of her relationship with the normative whiteness and gender expectations of American culture. At the same time, she also has a critical understanding of the multivalent nature of her performance – she can’t control the various meanings her audiences attribute to her expression. In an interview with Art Practical, a magazine on contemporary art and visual culture, Ibarra admits that the form of burlesque lends itself to the attribution of contradictory meanings to her performances. While burlesque gives her a lot of freedom in her expression of race and sexuality, the association of burlesque with objectification, and the fact that burlesque culture and audiences are mainly white, distort her intended meaning and even reinforce the colonial ideologies she wants to deconstruct. She states that the critiques she embodies through her performances often go over the heads of her white audiences that merely see her as a “sexy, hot Latina.”

However, like the emphasis in queer theory on malfunction as a form of resistance, Ibarra uses the inherent risk and failure present in her work as resistance in and of itself. Alpesh Patel analyzes the dynamic of failure in Ibarra’s performance “Fuck My Life” in his article “La Chica Boom’s Failed Decolonial Spicticles.” This performance evokes the failure of decolonial work to restructure colonial power dynamics, with speakers placed in the audience voicing racist responses that Xandra Ibarra has received from her past performances. However, the performance itself fails in its attempt to recontextualize this failure as present audience members join the speakers to engage in similar remarks. This is the risk of subversive resistance – because resistance works within the structure of power in order to deconstruct that power, it often ends up reinforcing that power. However, when discussing “Fuck My Life” Ibarra states that the piece “calls upon the practice of endurance amidst the consequences of failure,” acknowledging the limitations of her artistic performance and yet underlying her need to keep trying anyway.

It is not Ibarra’s obligation to account for the ignorance of those in power by tailoring her performative expression to those perspectives in order to more effectively “teach” others about her position within society. In the words of Audre Lorde, that would make it “the responsibility of the oppressed to teach the oppressors their mistakes.” This is an additional burden to bear that displaces the responsibility of social change from those who benefit from the status quo onto those who are marginalized by it. I do not in any way wish to discourage activism on the part of oppressed groups, but rather am trying to demonstrate how power shapes even the structure of social change to maintain current power dynamics.

However, this tension does not faze Xandra Ibarra. Despite her analysis of the way La Chica Boom is perceived, she also states that the performances are first and foremost for herself. While she never aims to purposefully reinforce social hierarchies and stereotypes, her “responsibility” is to express her views in a way that is fulfilling in the context of her experience. Her activism achieves even more than this, and her performances have been supplemented by extensive academic articles on the same topics of colonialism, whiteness, and Mexican identity in particular. However, it is ultimately the responsibility of her audience to educate themselves about her perspective if it is unfamiliar to them, because they are implicated in her struggle to redefine her subject positions by representing the very norms she contrasts herself against.

 

What Do Queer Commercials Look Like Now?

By Arielle Axelrod

I attribute my fascination with queer commercials to Amnesty International. I was watching a sitcom on Hulu when suddenly my screen went dark. There’s no sound with the exception of haunting, faintly Russian music. The scene shows a man robbing a store, with two barely visible men looking at candy. The police come and ignore the robbery and instead arrest the two candy shoppers. The scene ends and a yellow banner appears, bearing the words: “In many countries, being homosexual is worse than being a common criminal. Help Amnesty International change this state of affairs.”

This commercial threw me off guard. Unlike other queer commercials, this one wasn’t playing on my emotions. It wasn’t funny, it wasn’t trying to sell me anything and it wasn’t casually throwing in the occasional gay couple. No, this was using logic to show just how insane some laws are and that hit home.

Queer commercials have many distinguishing characteristics. As stated by Ad Week, the first queer commercial to air in the United States was in 1994, by Ikea. It ran in only three major cities and played after 10pm in order to not be shown during “family hour.” The commercial features two men, simultaneously talking about their relationship and their admiration for the Ikea furniture. In one scene, the men quickly move from discussing how they met each other at a wedding to how sturdy the Ikea chairs are. Perhaps the commercial was purposely composed of these abrupt changes of conversation to distract the audience from what they were seeing, or perhaps it was simply a marketing ploy to attract more queer consumers. Although there was plenty of tension and backlash both during shooting and once it aired, Ikea never faltered and stood behind the commercial.

But what do queer commercials look like today? A lot of the queer commercials I found were hosted on a YouTube channel maintained by an LGBT marketing firm, but the issue of queer representation in media has been a major topic of discussion and allowed me to easily find a variety of commercials to analyze. I narrowed down the commercials by looking at well-known American brands and comparing them to European commercials that had generated some sort of statement in the media. I found that commercials for an American audience took two approaches: the first being explicit and the second being implicit. Those commercials that I deemed explicit were very obvious in their rendition of a queer couple with no distracting elements that took away from the performance; these commercials tended to be humorous. While not necessarily mocking queer people, the commercial relies on funny stereotypes in order to be effective. On the other hand, the commercials I considered implicit were very subtle in their approach. Often times a queer couple was shown only for a few seconds and was simply added into a sequence of shots that included heterosexual couples.

An example of an explicit commercial was one by Doritos. It features a man cutting his hedge, wearing a backwards hat and by all appearances quite masculine, who is longingly looking at a bowl of Salsa Verde Doritos while a sexy Spanish song is playing in the background. The camera is focused on the bowl of Doritos, blocking the audience from seeing who is eating them. The drooling man’s girlfriend walks on the screen and gives him a very confused look. The camera then zooms out and we see two men eating the Doritos in short swim shorts by a pool. They say hello and the drooling man snaps out of his daydream and looks very confused. The two men by the pool then look at each other and say, “told you so.” Humor helps soften the blow by not bombarding people with foreign or non-dominant images of a couple. By adding a sense of humor, Doritos takes a dominant stand on explicitly showing a queer couple without pushing people too far.

An alternative approach that queer commercials take is the subtle addition of queer families, couples, and individuals to their already existing customer base, which I define as an implicit approach. For example, Honey Maid’s Wholesome Family commercial features a variety of families, including homosexual parents and is geared for a wide range of consumers. The commercial first shows a gay couple with a newborn baby, then a family with tattoos, and then a racially mixed family with the slogan “Wholesome Snacks for Wholesome Families”. By flawlessly interweaving social deviation with social norms, the commercials makes you wonder why we even consider the queer relationship different.

On the other hand, a Marlboro’s commercial spoofs the movie Brokeback Mountain and stars two men on horseback riding to their campsite. One man lights the cigarette and the other man immediately spits it out exclaiming, “Dude, this is menthol! Do you think I’m gay?” with the caption below saying, “smoke like a man”. The commercial ends with the other man looking at his cigarette and sighing, “I wish I could quit you.” By assuming that only gay men would smoke menthol, the commercial is enforcing sexual stereotypes. The tone of voice used by the actor to display disgust with the assumption that he is gay further criticizes gay behavior and connects the behavior with being not masculine. This sort of representation counteracts queer acceptance by showing disgust, and automatically assumes that queer behavior cannot co-exist with masculine

While American commercials are stuck in limbo, European commercials are taking a stand. A prime example of a European commercial is Renault’s Twingo. The scene begins with a father and a daughter in a Twingo (a small European car) dressed in wedding apparel. The father and daughter arrive at a church and walk down the aisle towards a younger male. The daughter then congratulates her dad and walks away. The commercial ends with “Times Have Changed. The Twingo Too.” This commercial is explicit in its message of not only accepting queer relationships (as well as cross-generational relationships), but pointing out that it’s time for everyone else to accept them as well. This commercial is a perfect example of a company not only being explicit, but not being superficial and thus making a stance.

An even more extreme example of explicit queer representation by European commercials is Ikea’s Austria ad. The ad features a man and a woman passionately kissing on a table until the man’s boyfriend walks in, revealing that the star is in fact bisexual. In contrast, an American commercial for the Kindle reader features a heterosexual couple and a homosexual couple lounging side by side on the beach with the joke being that both have husbands who are fetching drinks. The idea of using humor begs the question of why a company would choose to make a more distinct, yet anti-humorous stance. I believe that a company bold enough to create a commercial without humor as a backup can create a more lasting impression on their audience. Doritos does not make the audience connect with the characters; their primary concern is marketing Doritos. In contrast, the emotional feelings the audience experiences when watching the Twingo commercial are a direct reaction to a social issue. Twingo humanizes the characters and makes an obvious stand on the issue of queer representation and acceptance.

So the question becomes why do these companies (especially American ones) choose to become superficial in their expression? Why aren’t these companies more explicit in their queer representation? If including queer couples is a part of a larger marketing scheme in attracting and retaining customers, it would seem logical to have more explicit representation, as in the Kindle and Doritos spots. Yet both of these used humor as a way of marketing towards heterosexual couples. We see, however, that the more implicit approach creates intimacy for consumers, yet still only momentarily shows queer couples. The exception to this rule is Hallmark’s #PutYourHeartToPaper commercial. This model American commercial is explicit in presenting a queer couple, but also completely lacks humor and instead focuses on emotion. This balance shows that companies can both take a stand and engage their consumers without alienating them. So why are so many companies avoiding this approach? Perhaps companies are instead trying not to alienate their more conservative consumer base. But then why include the commercials that are explicit, yet humorous? It appears that companies are stuck between the marketing pull for more queer representation and the fear of taking a moral stand. That’s what I want. I want companies that make bold claims even if they lose profits. I want these companies to make queer representation the norm, without using humor as backup. I want companies to back up their moral stand with the logic behind marketing to a broader, not narrower audience. If they do this, their profits may well increase and maybe, just maybe, our world will be a happier, more accepting place to live.