Photo: Queer Representation in Media
LGBTQ+ youth in the United States risk losing their right to comprehensive health care and education in the states of Florida and Texas. As of February 2022, the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill has passed Florida’s House of Representatives and now moves on to the State Senate. This legislation bans the discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity in classrooms of kindergarten through third-grade levels, “or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards”.
Texas governor, Greg Abbott, in turn, has written a letter to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, urging them to “conduct a prompt and thorough investigation” of reported cases of minors receiving gender-affirming medical care. Texas Attorney General, Ken Paxton, issued an opinion on the matter stating that allowing minors to receive gender-affirming medical care is constituted as child abuse under state law. These frightening developments put many queer youths at risk of discrimination in the school environment, public harassment, domestic violence or neglect, and increased self-harm and suicide rates.
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What impact does media have on the political understanding of queer existence? How can stories of queer joy uplift the LGBTQ+ community and potentially help sway bigotted mindsets? Is there a way for Hollywood to explain trauma without exploiting it? Find answers to these questions and many more in this article.
The “Don’t Say Gay” Bill
On February 24th of 2022, the Florida House of Representatives passed Parental Rights in Education bill – dubbed by critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Under this legislation, classroom discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity will be prohibited by law at the kindergarten through the third-grade level as well as “in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards”. Parents will now be able to sue school districts and seek damages directly if they believe that an educator has broken the law. An amendment to the bill has been proposed, which would require schools to disclose a student’s gender identity and sexual orientation to the parents of the student within six weeks of learning that the student is not cisgender or heterosexual. It is currently unclear if this amendment will be applied to the bill.
However, the bill does contain a section that guarantees parents access to their child’s education and health records in addition to requiring schools to notify parents “if there is any change in the student’s services or monitoring when it comes to the students mental, emotional, or physical health”. It is important to note that schools are able to legally withhold such information from the parents if they suspect that exposing such information will cause abuse, abandonment, or neglect. However, schools are rarely aware of abusive home situations for students, and therefore cannot definitely know whether or not “outing” a student is safe.
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Texas Governor Writes Transphobic Letter, Attorney General Issues Opinion
Texas Governor, Greg Abbott, wrote to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services encouraging them to conduct an investigation regarding child abuse on reported cases of minors receiving gender-affirming medical care. Additionally, Abbott is calling on “licensed professionals” (such as teachers, nurses, and doctors) as well as “members of the general public” to report the parents of transgender children to state authorities if it appears that the minor is receiving such medical care.
Texas Attorney General, Ken Paxton, stated that allowing minors to receive gender-affirming care is constituted as child abuse under Texas state law in a recent opinion. While an opinion is an interpretation of an existing law that cannot change the law itself, it can in fact affect how the law is enforced. If local attorneys choose not to pursue reports of child abuse as pertaining to the parents of transgender youth, the state attorney general is free to take over the case. As stated by Christian Menefee, the Harris County Attorney, in correspondence with The New York Times, this opinion is “designed to make parents scared…it’s designed to make doctors scared for even facilitating gender-affirming health care”. It is currently unclear whether Paxton and Abbott can force the DFPS and other state agencies to investigate claims of child abuse against parents of transgender children without passing legislation that would require such measures.
Regardless, this is a mortifying development for many Texas families with genderqueer children. It is currently up to the discretion of Texas courts whether or not children may be taken from their homes for being allowed to receive gender-affirming care. The debate over allowing genderqueer children to receive appropriate health care has been raging for years within political sectors, however, the persecution of parents for providing their children with potentially life-saving medical assistance is beyond baffling. There is yet to be a popular film or series that people could refer to in order to understand the transgender experience, which could possibly be contributing to ignorance on the topic seeing as media is one of the primary sources of education in modern lives.
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Relating the Debate Over Queer Rights to Media
There is no denying that the media most of us use to unplug from the injustice of the world has become a tool for political promotion. That is not to say that this is a negative development. However, media has the power to change the way we look at others and at ourselves. Meaning that inaccurate representation can in fact do more harm than good. Think about how many stereotypes about the Black, Latine, Asian, and Indigenous communities were born out of white films, TV, and theater. These stereotypes can often hold power over real lives and force the development of prejudice in young minds who consume this media.
But how do the inaccurate representations of the queer experience and representation of queer trauma in media harm the LGBTQ+ community? The answer will be different based on individual experiences. However, some overarching harmful themes include the promotion of violence against queer people, the selectivity with which Hollywood chooses to portray queer stories, and the induction of fear regarding the queer experience.
Discussing the Portrayal of Queer Stories in Media
One of the most common subliminal methods of encouraging discrimination against queer people in film and TV is queer-coding. Queer-coding and queerbaiting refer to the usage of LGBTQ+ stereotypes in order to hint at a character belonging to the community without explicitly stating it. This method of character building is often used in children’s media, but over time has made its way to young adult and adult media. One of the most prominent examples of negative queer-coding are the famous Disney villains such as Ursula, Maleficent, Cruella, Jafar, and even Scar from the Lion King. By assigning these villainous characters queer traits and stereotypes such as flashy fashion and makeup, gender non-conformity, and the use of jargon, the young target audience for this media is taught to assign these stereotypes and traits to negative influences. This negative representation in media reinforces very real biases such as the deviation from gender norms being considered sinful and wicked.
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Hollywood and the general media are highly selective of the queer stories that they choose to portray. The most common queer narratives involve cisgender white gay men. There is a lack of representation in entertainment for the lesbian, transgender, and queer POC communities. This often results in ignorance relating to these communities. Think about the popular queer representation in media – surely films such as ‘Call Me By Your Name’ and ‘Love, Simon’ come to mind. But where are the stories of queer people of color? Where is the lesbian representation? Surely there must be more than just subplots in one or two popular shows such as ‘Orange is the New Black’. Though that is the thing, there isn’t.
This Hollywood Insider article highlights five LGBTQ+ movies that are worth a watch, but if you are not queer, how many of these have you ever heard of? Of course, there are plenty of short films and underground media that highlight the queer experience and queer joy, but these are not things that are readily accessible on major streaming platforms or in theaters. And that is the problem. In order to sway the opinion of the public about the queer experience entailing pain, rejection, misery, and loss, the media must take initiative in order to familiarize the general public with the concept of queer joy.
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Representation in large-scale media is essential for the support of queer communities, but more often than not Hollywood chooses to use queer trauma stories in order to appear supportive of us. This kind of representation often does more harm than good through the glorification of abusive relationships and drug use, such as in the hit HBO show ‘Euphoria’ with characters such as Jules Vaughn (portrayed by transgender actress Hunter Schafer).
It is heartbreaking to know that when a queer story is told, it is likely to feature some sort of violence (whether that be emotional or physical). Films love to show hate crimes on the big screen (such as the 2019 remake of ‘IT’, in which a young man is brutally assaulted due to his sexuality), and news outlets love the traction they get when they report on actual hate crimes. The intention behind sharing these narratives may be positive, and it is in fact essential to make people understand the type of violence that many queer people have to face every day, however, this creates an atmosphere of fear around the queer experience.
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Parents of queer children may see these violent representations of what happens to the LGBTQ+ community and they may become so frightened by considering this narrative the only queer truth that they revoke their support for their child. Or a closeted LGBTQ+ individual may see these narratives and be frightened into remaining silent about their identity in order to protect themselves. These are horrid realities of what covering queer trauma exclusively does to queer communities.
We want to see stories of queer success. We want to see POC queer joy. We want to see the same narratives that are commonplace for cisgender and heterosexual individuals be applied to us. Have you ever seen a queer action movie? How about a murder mystery? Maybe a good old queer Hollywood slasher? The media must provide us with positive representation if it wants to claim allyship. We want to believe in film, but first film must believe in us.
By Micha Jones
Click here to read The Hollywood Insider’s CEO Pritan Ambroase’s love letter to Cinema, TV and Media. An excerpt from the love letter: The Hollywood Insider’s CEO/editor-in-chief Pritan Ambroase affirms, “We have the space and time for all your stories, no matter who/what/where you are. Media/Cinema/TV have a responsibility to better the world and The Hollywood Insider will continue to do so. Talent, diversity and authenticity matter in Cinema/TV, media and storytelling. In fact, I reckon that we should announce “talent-diversity-authenticity-storytelling-Cinema-Oscars-Academy-Awards” as synonyms of each other. We show respect to talent and stories regardless of their skin color, race, gender, sexuality, religion, nationality, etc., thus allowing authenticity into this system just by something as simple as accepting and showing respect to the human species’ factual diversity. We become greater just by respecting and appreciating talent in all its shapes, sizes, and forms. Award winners, which includes nominees, must be chosen on the greatness of their talent ALONE.
I am sure I am speaking for a multitude of Cinema lovers all over the world when I speak of the following sentiments that this medium of art has blessed me with. Cinema taught me about our world, at times in English and at times through the beautiful one-inch bar of subtitles. I learned from the stories in the global movies that we are all alike across all borders. Remember that one of the best symbols of many great civilizations and their prosperity has been the art they have left behind. This art can be in the form of paintings, sculptures, architecture, writings, inventions, etc. For our modern society, Cinema happens to be one of them. Cinema is more than just a form of entertainment, it is an integral part of society. I love the world uniting, be it for Cinema, TV. media, art, fashion, sport, etc. Please keep this going full speed.”
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Micha Jones is a writer and aspiring television producer who is dedicated to education and equity. Writing review and feature articles for The Hollywood Insider, they focus on the ways in which media can tell marginalized stories. Through reflecting on the portrayal of social and environmental issues in TV and film, Micha aims to make positive changes in the entertainment industry. Micha’s work often carries The Hollywood Insider’s signature “mic-drop” perspectives and makes an effort to tell educational and socially progressive stories. They strongly believe in accurate representation in film and emphasize the power of the community.