By; Jonathan Bell
Happy Pride, reader! Perhaps you stumbled upon this article as a queer person yourself, or maybe you have a loved one who is queer, perhaps you are a therapist who works with many queer clients, or maybe you’re in the place where you are asking yourself the big and rather daunting question of, “Am I queer?”. Regardless of which, if any, of these aforementioned descriptors fits you, I value your time in engaging in this conversation with me as our world celebrates Pride in a (somewhat) post-pandemic time! If you’re anything like me, you may be taking note of the many advertisements and commercials from companies campaigning for the queer community. Recently, corporate Pride campaigns have become so excessive and bizarre, that the queer community has begun to address the sometimes all too over-the-top and performative these messages can be; if you’re on Twitter then you know what I mean as suddenly every person is deciding to jokingly partner with some corporation or the other.
GLAAD conducts its annual study, Where Are We On TV? to help gauge the current state of queer visibility in media in the given year. The 2021-2022 report, found that of the 775 series regular characters (meaning that they routinely appear in the series) scheduled to be pictured in regular broadcasting for 2021-2022, only 92 characters, which equates to 11.9%, are queer-identifying. Compared to the previous year’s report, this was an increase of 2.8%. While there continues to be a steady increase in visibility and statistical representation of queer persons in the media, there remains a significant need for further increase in queer images and the types of queer images that are highlighted. For instance, of the total 637 queer-identifying characters included in the report, only 2 of the character identified as asexual. Additionally, the report included that there were only 42 identified transgender regular characters out of the 775 mentioned above.
As previously stated, the lack of quality and accessible representation of queer folks for queer folks can lead to adverse mental health outcomes along with confusion and disorientation. One study, commissioned by Orbitz in 2021, found that respondents reported that having access to queer images in media not only helps them further come to terms with their queer identity, but it also allows them the opportunity to share such images with their loved ones to help them understand their identity and experiences of navigating the world as a queer person as well. Queer representation equips individuals and communities with the language and tools they need to engage in conversations about equity and inclusion and combat intolerance. This can only be effective if the expansive and diverse identities within the queer experience are represented in a way that honors queer resilience with direction from the community at each and every level of production.
Before I give you the impression that you should go seeking out shows or movies where queer characters are depicted to improve your mental health or to recommend to your queer clients or loved ones to assist them in the coming out process, it should be noted that there are complicated nuances to queer visibility and it’s not an all-around positive resource 100% of the time. Take for example the recently released Netflix show, Heartstopper, depicting the love story of two young queer boys, Nick and Charlie, during their time in primary school in the United Kingdom. While the show is generally heartwarming in nature and has been lauded as a quality depiction of “queer joy” for younger folks, there are many queer individuals who have reported feeling symptoms of grief and depression as they view the tender love story of two queer boys who receive compassion from their families and friends and very little depiction of the difficulties and trauma that are common for many queer individuals. One study, conducted by the Fenway Institute in 2020, assessed how negative, yet realistic and common, depictions of transgender individuals in media can cause and further exacerbate depression and symptoms related to PTSD for transgender viewers.
It’s also important to note that many queer viewers and consumers have altogether turned away from watching content that depicts queer stories for other reasons that aren’t directly related to their own mental health. In the same Orbitz study mentioned previously, queer respondents to the survey reported that they refrained from viewing content with queer images for reasons such as the ways that the images played into harmful stereotypes of the queer community, how there was a significant lack of diverse representation, as well as the common pattern of “burying the gays” when queer characters are killed off sooner than their cis/hetero counterparts in the same story. This goes to show that not all visibility is necessarily positive or helpful representation and can further cause frustration, harm, and negative mental health outcomes for queer individuals.
So what are we to do then? Is queer visibility good or bad? This is where the beauty of the dialectic comes in, where we (and I as a therapist) can confidently say that queer visibility is helpful AND it lives in tension with the fact that queer visibility and stories that depict queerness should be treated with respect and the utmost care. If you yourself are a queer person, I am of the belief that it would be helpful for you to read reviews of any content or ask to watch said content with a trusted loved one before engaging with such media for the sake of any of the concerns mentioned above that may have negative impacts that are unexpected. If you are a therapist caring for the well-being of a queer individual, especially queer youth, I would strongly encourage you to have either viewed the content yourself or have gathered feedback from other queer folks you trust as to if this piece of content is healthy for your client to view.
Moving forward this Pride Month, I want to offer you the invitation to reflect on the queer images that you yourself have taken in over this month or perhaps other times of life. How did they make you feel? How did they shape your interpretation of queer experiences? How did it help or hurt your understanding of yourself as a queer person? Pride and Visibility are tethered together and closely synonymous, so the question remains, how does one affect the other for you and your journey of understanding the multiplicities of queerness in our world today?