Lesbian media representation changed my life
Every day, straight women see themselves depicted in the TV shows and movies they watch and books they read. Cosmopolitan’s “Sex & Relationships” section, for example, is crammed with articles like “17 Tweets You’ll Get If Shopping for Your Boyfriend Is Impossible” and “My Boyfriend Said His Ex’s Name in His Sleep.” It’s essentially a reference guide for heterosexuality.
Gay women don’t have these resources. As soon as I realized I was gay, I typed “lesbian” into the search bar of my Internet browser. The results were meager and disappointing. I wanted to find a secret guide of how to live my life, or some kind of depiction of what lesbians’ lives look like. What I got instead was the realization of just how underrepresented lesbians are in popular culture.
I did, however, find one life-changing book in which I saw myself represented for the first time — in which the main character, not a supporting character, was openly lesbian. This book is a graphic memoir called Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, which nonlinearly depicts Bechdel’s life, including her parents’ relationship and her own childhood. The plot of the book is perhaps best summed up by this quote from the Broadway Musical based on the novel: “My dad and I both grew up in the same small Pennsylvania town. And he was gay. And I was gay. And he killed himself. And I became a lesbian cartoonist.”
I loved seeing queer people living normal lives without being tokenized. The painstakingly drawn pictures depict scenes like when child-aged Alison wants to wear suits while the other girls wear dresses. And when college-aged Alison, who has just come out, dives into her college library’s “lesbian” book section — which felt exactly like what I was doing with Fun Home. A particularly pivotal moment for me, one of intense recognition, depicts Alison, then a child, watch a butch woman walk into a restaurant and realize that she, too, can live her life that way.
Soon after reading Fun Home, I checked out everything else Alison Bechdel had ever authored from my college’s library. I was hooked. Witnessing a queer, successful, intelligent women telling her story empowered me to embrace my own. This representation showed me that not only is the way I live my life valid, but it is also a shared experience. Representation is key to helping queer people accept their identities, especially for those who don’t live in areas where queer culture is represented in their daily lives, or who grew up in families unaccepting of their identities.
After I finished Bechdel’s work, I found solace in Nancy, an excellent podcast hosted by two queer individuals of color, Kathy Tu and Tobin Lowe. I pressed play on the first episode of “Nancy” during a work shift. Two voices lept from my headphones, offering the natural banter of two young, gay best friends, while I mopped the floors of my college’s dining hall. During the first episode, “Hello Hello,” Kathy records a heavy coming out conversation with her conservative mother. My mop swirled my tears of joy into the soapy water as I listened; I felt as though we were already best friends. Every episode, the hosts talk about different queer subjects, ranging from serious issues like how to be out at work or the current state of AIDS, to jokes and natural banter.
There’s a reason why so many articles are written about love, why sections like Cosmo’s “Sex & Relationships” exist. There’s a reason why so many friendships in high school stem from talking about someone you’re crushing on in your math class. Sharing these intimate feelings and experiences with others is an important way for us to feel connected to each other.
But when your definition of love does not fit the world’s dominant understanding of it, these experiences meant to bond can be lonely and isolating. This is perhaps just one reason why people in the LGBTQ community are almost three times more likely to suffer from mental illnesses than their straight counterparts. This feeling of isolation is likely heightened for female-identifying gay people, since gay men seem to be more present in popular culture and media. Gay men are portrayed as a best friend, whereas gay women are often seen as a promiscuous stereotype, depicted through the male gaze.
Finding more accurate representations of my identity in Nancy and Fun Home was so important not just because I saw myself in them, but because I felt connected to a wider community; I felt connected to others because of my identity, not in spite of it, for the first time.
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