If you've heard it once you've heard it a thousand times: representation matters. I've read blogs, articles, essays, even sociological studies about it, but it hadn't clicked with me on a deeper level.
I've probably spoken ill of anecdotal evidence in the past, so I don't want you to think that I'm using this as a way to definitively and scientifically argue that representation matters. That's already been done before and in ways far above my abilities. This is a personal essay about how I passively understood the concept and was punched in the face by the reality of it my sophomore year of college.
My demographics put me in a mid point when it comes to 'seeing myself' reflected in the world and in my media. First and foremost, I'm white. There is no shortage of white representation out there. Second, for the greater part of my life I've identified as male (I don't really subscribe to the Sandy-Danny binary anymore outside of what language requires. I identify as 'schlumpy mess' ), and there's no shortage of male representation out there either.
I am college educated, as are both my brother and sister, and my parents were also college educated. While I have student loans, I currently have a job with the state which comes with good benefits, I live in an apartment with a roommate, and I am in a financially stable place where I can write this essay in a Starbucks without having to worry about overdrawing my account.
Pretty low on the totem pole of the oppression Olympics is my status as queer.
Queerness is also a little apple-orangey compared to race when it comes to representation because sexuality doesn't really mark you right away. While the seeds of queer were there my whole life, and while token signifiers of queerness may have manifested early enough for my mom to claim she knew I was queer since I was three, my own understanding didn't come until way later.
More or less, for a large part of my life I genuinely identified as a straight, white, male.
So when it comes to representation of things like profession, I never really had a problem. But lowkey in the background of it all, lack of queer representation was cranking away.
I vividly remember the first time I learned about what sex was. My mother and I (and I would assume other family members but IDK) were watching Friends on syndication: Season 8 Episode 3 "The One Where Rachel Tells Ross [that she's pregnant]". Ross learns that, despite wearing a condom, Rachel got pregnant. This leads to some comedy about the effectiveness of condoms, and a moment where Joey whips out a strip of like two dozen condoms from his pocket.
Unknowing, I asked what a condom was, and received a very to-the-point explanation of what a condom was and its use as birth control, which was accompanied by a necessary explanation of vaginal intercourse.
In an act of pure queer innocence that in retrospect was probably one of the most clear indicator of my queerness, I responded with something along the lines of, "but like, how do people know that they're supposed to do that?" To me, the idea of vaginal intercourse was like finding a glitch exploit in a video game. Why on earth would two people just do that completely unprompted?
I guess prepubescent 'ew cooties' could have been part of it, but I also grew up with an almost strictly female social circle, and never really had an 'ew girls' phase to the best of my memory.
I had a similar experience with the idea of kissing and making out during my eleven-month relationship with a girl in a period of time between the end of middle school and the beginning of high school (for more details I have an entire essay about the experience in my book, which you can also get as an eBook on the Kindle Marketplace!).
Before I came out to myself, romantic relationships truly confused me. I wasn't interested in anything romantic or sexual with women, and I couldn't see how dating someone was any different than just being really really good friends with them.
After years of this blind confusion, things finally clicked when I had the privilege of a brief relationship with another boy as an upperclassman in high school. I felt something more than just being friends and hanging out. Kissing brought a feeling that wasn't just confusing facial contact.
But that ended before I graduated and left for college, and that excitement faded away.
Sophomore year of college I found myself binge watching How To Get Away With Murder to avoid reading about the Norman Conquest of 1066. For those who don't know, HTGAWM includes a queer character named Connor Walsh who is played by the young and very handsome Jack Falahee.
Connor engages in a relationship in a romantic subplot with Oliver Hampton played by the slightly older but equally adorable Conrad Ricamora.
After binge watching the greater part of the first season one night, I closed my laptop and nearly had a breakdown. I felt confused, a little scared, very sad, and so very desperately alone.
It was the first time I had seen queer characters around my age in a relationship and I became so suddenly aware of how single I was.
I remember thinking to myself oh my goodness, is this what straight people feel all the time? Is this why everyone is so obsessed with love and sex and relationships?
Like, I cannot explain how truly surreal the experience was and how exhausted watching that show had made me.
The experience was so jarring because, for the most part I have always felt phenotypically aromantic, just sort of floating through life not caring about being in a relationship. I've always made up elaborate (and really convincing) excuses for not getting into relationships with anyone. Oh, well I'm going to be graduating high school in a year and moving, can't get into a relationship now. Oh, well I'm going to be graduating from college in a few years and moving, can't get into a relationship now. Oh, well I could potentially be taking a job anywhere in the country, can't get into a relationship now.
It would be disingenuous to say that lack of relateable representation in media has emotionally or romantically stunted me, but it has definitely set me on a trajectory that feels different than the rest of the straight people I surround myself with.
Being single has always been this fine normal state for me. And that's not to say that being single is bad. Being single is completely valid lifestyle. It's just until that moment, I had never really felt motivated to do anything to change that.
Sure I had a brief relationship in high school, but that was born out of proximity, convenience, and recently coming out. Since then, I just felt like I was roaming the world alone.
I had only had that kind of somatic, visceral response once before, when watching Ugly Betty and seeing the relationship between the characters Justin and Austin.
However, I wasn't out to myself at the time, so it was more of a huh... and moving on kind of moment.
Later in life I would see Mitch and Cam on Modern Family (important side note: I'm a born and raised 'didn't have cable' kid), and things have been slowly getting better in better for queer representation. Like I wrote in my article here about gender expression in queer representation, "I think it's crazy that I name more gay characters [now] than I have fingers," but it wasn't like that for a long time.
For a great number of my formative years, the only model I had for a same sex relationship was a lesbian couple who lived down the street who later divorced. Other than that, I was surrounded solely and strictly by heterosexual love.
To be dramatic, I might say that lack of representation of relateable queer characters in my life and media in my formative year has damaged my ability to seek out and pursue romantic relationships in a manner that might be considered 'normal'. To be realistic, I'd say it has off set me in a way that feels like I've been thrown into a forest without a map.
Dating on it's own is hard! And on a petty note, it's even harder when all the queer people around you are either students your age who are about to leave for other states upon graduation, or people with stable jobs who are 35. I can't just throw a rock and hit a queer like straight people can with finding their romantic interests.
But again, that's all just anecdotal, and I think the number of adorable older queer couples you see media highlights about goes to prove that lack of representation doesn't just strip you naked and shoot you in the head.
So to leave on a positive note, things are getting much better, in the media and in our lives. There are more and more queer characters of varying traits, and there are also more out and proud people visible in real life.
I don't know if I can make a direct connection here, but there's some reporting that young people are coming out even earlier. I'd like to think that that's come about because of a gradual destimgmatization of queerness, and an increase number of queer relationship and queer life role models appearing on the screen and in real life.
I used to not really care about representation, even after I had come out. With something as soft science as characters on a screen affecting the lives of the viewers, I carried a sort of pretensions thought of "it shouldn't matter what people see. Everyone should just know that they be what they want to be and do what they want to do." That's much different now, and the change appropriately came about due to adequate representation in media.
So to the creators of HTGAWM (and to ABC for having the episodes online), thank you.
To all people pushing to have better representation of all marginalized demographics, thank you.
To the marginalized writers and actors breaking their way into writers rooms and sets, thank you.
To the people that hire them, thank you.
To the unabashedly queer people that are visible in public and become passive role models to those that seem them, thank you.
Happy Pride Month everyone.
Post Essay Note: When I was searching for a picture of Austin and Justin for this essay, I foolishly google image searched "Austin and Justin" which returned pictures of Austin Mahone and Justin Bieber.
And that's homophobia if I've ever seen it.