When C.B. Lee asked me to take part in her panel on The Power of Queer Joy at ClexaCon 2019, I agreed with enthusiasm even though I wasn’t sure how in the world I would fit on a panel like this, let alone speak on the subject. I am a middle-aged, gender-averse, blue-haired queer potato of a human who has developed a tendency to do conventions in drag and prefers to knit their way through public speaking engagements. I don’t write young adult books, or fantasy or science fiction. I don’t work on cool CW shows – I don’t even watch cool CW shows these days.
The people I see on convention panels are earnest and enthusiastic and they speak well on their topics. I have to take a beta blocker before I sit down in front of a microphone and it’s still even odds as to whether I will at some point cry, or stutter, or make a deeply inappropriate joke, or all of the above.
But I like C.B. very much, and I thought that despite my being a sentient dumpling who writes mildly angsty contemporary adult romance with a fixation on pastry and tea, I might have some ideas about why queer joy in books, film, and television might be important. I grew up in the Reagan era, after all – hardly a rollicking good time for us queer folks.
So, I joined in on the panel. I did cry a little, and I did stutter a lot, and I tried very hard to not make any dirty jokes, which maybe was a successful effort. And it turned out that wow, I actually had a lot to say about the deep importance of seeing happy queer people in books, film, and television. Like, a truly obnoxious amount of stuff to say. And I felt quite strongly about it.
I still feel quite strongly about it, and it’s been three weeks.
Being on the panel and thinking about being on the panel in the months leading up to it made me realize how much of any media involving queer folks that I saw as I grew up involved death and violence and sadness. The news when I was a 9 year old kid playing kissing games with the neighbor girls, it was full of information on the AIDS crisis and how Reagan wasn’t doing anything. When I was a teenager, popular straight comedy actor Tom Hanks was winning awards for his serious portrayal of a gay lawyer dying of AIDS in Philadelphia. He’d previously been known not only for his very funny movies, but also for the TV series Bosom Buddies, in which he played a straight man who dressed as a woman full time just to get an apartment in a building full of women.
When I was a teenager, trans man Brandon Teena had been assaulted and murdered and when I was a young adult, a movie was made about the horror story of how his life ended. Straight woman Hilary Swank won an Academy Award for her portrayal of Brandon, who’s buried in a Nebraska cemetery under his deadname.
When movies like Kissing Jessica Stein and But I’m A Cheerleader came out, they were revolutionary because they depicted queer characters (although… mostly again played by straight people) who not only didn’t die, they got relatively happy endings. And that should have been the start of a virtual avalanche of happy queer movies, shouldn’t it?
Except… now it is 2019, and we’re still struggling to see a gay superhero in a Marvel or DC Comics movie. If we squint during Avengers: Endgame, apparently we do get a canonically gay character… for a handful of lines, and again, played by a straight dude.
When Arizona Robbins and Callie Torres got together on Grey’s Anatomy, that should have led to lots and lots of wonderful queer stories on television, right? It should have erased the bad taste left in our collective queer mouths from the murder of Tara MacLay on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, yes?
But it’s 2019 and both Arizona and Callie have left the former Seattle Grace Mercy West Hospital, and they’ve been broken up for a while. A show called The Magicians just killed off their main character, a depressive fellow named Quentin who had recently begun to acknowledge that his attraction to another magician named Eliot was real – and the writers of the show have been nearly breaking their arms with how hard they pat themselves on the back for their “groundbreaking” character death.
“It’s not groundbreaking,” I yelled on Twitter as the news broke. “Torchwood did just about the same exact thing ten years ago, and we were pissed off then, too. We’re still pissed off.”
It’s been ten years since Ianto Jones, and we are still dying for the sake of entertainment. And we are still largely played by straight people. And oh my God, I don’t even watch The Magicians.
Or, oh wait. Even better, we’re getting outed for the sake of entertainment. Well, we’re not dead, I suppose, but queer teenagers are still watching the stuff of their nightmares play out in movies like Love, Simon (which I liked! I want to point out that I did like it, and at least Simon got a happy ending – and he is not dead). We’re getting speeches, now, our Hollywood avatars are getting to state explicitly how it isn’t okay, what is happening to them. But it is still happening to them.
Today, I watched a clip from a German television show called DRUCK. It’s the German remake of a Norwegian teen television drama called SKAM, which is presented in an unusual format: short video clips are dropped in “real time” as events in the show happen. At the end of a week, the clips are compiled into a single episode. The show is augmented by the presence of the characters on social media, with Instagram posts and WhatsApp chats. Each season of the show focuses on a different main character; in the original SKAM, the third season was the story of Isak, a closeted gay boy who falls in love for the first time, with a slightly older boy named Even. In DRUCK, the closeted gay boy is Matteo, and he has fallen in love with David… who is a transgender boy.
The fandom at large was fairly excited for the presence of David, who was not revealed to be trans for several weeks, but whose character is played by an openly trans actor. It would be revolutionary in what the fandoms jokingly call the “SKAM Cinematic Universe” (there are seven remakes in seven different countries all currently airing right now, and the various casts are as cheerfully intertwined as a pile of puppies) to have a transgender “Even” character. To have a newly out “Isak” fall in love with him on national television.
And it was revolutionary – not without some pacing missteps and odd happenings, but still revolutionary – up until today, when David was forcibly outed to his entire high school class via a video distributed by a classmate on WhatsApp. A video in which he was being loudly misgendered by his gym teacher, in an open hallway. As Matteo – to whom David had come out privately in a beautiful clip last week – stood stunned, watching everything unfold, David ran off, leaving sneering, snickering classmates in his wake.
The fandom exploded on Tumblr.
Many trans youths were furious at what they perceived to be “trauma porn”. Others stated that they had experienced panic attacks. Still others said they understood the decision to have a scene like this in the show, because maybe the show would really address exactly why this was such a problem and would make people think twice about casually outing others. And of course, a lot of cisgender people said that it was just a show, and anyway wasn’t this sort of thing very realistic? Wouldn’t it be inauthentic to have a trans character just be in the show and be happy and in love without any struggles?
(if you think I rolled my eyes at every instance of that last one, you are fully correct and should go reward yourself with a delicious cookie)
I struggle with how to identify – with not being cisgender, but not sure I should call myself transgender, even though the non-binary identity falls under the trans umbrella. It feels unearned to call myself trans, even if I have struggled with what I now know is dysphoria, because by and large (and much to my eternal irritation), even in “boy mode” I am still assumed to be female. So I don’t know that I can speak about this from a trans perspective, exactly (although I am definitely siding with the trans kids who are calling it “trauma porn”).
But I am a middle-aged queer person who has strong and definite opinions about how we need, we desperately need, undiluted, unmistakable happiness in our queer characters. I have been watching us die or be outed on screen for most of my life. It is 2019 and I still can’t believe this is still happening. I can speak about it from the perspective that anyone in the LGBTQ+ family should be able to see what could be on their televisions, in the movie theater. As an accidental queer historian of no fixed gender identity, I can say this: I am tired. I am sad. I feel horrible for the trans kids who had so much hope in seeing this character that was like them being part of a global phenomenon of a show, who had that hope ripped away, who had the stuff of their anxiety-fueled nightmares broadcast on German national television, with an additional worldwide audience on top of that. They got to see David and Matteo fall in love, and get to be happy for a little minute, and then… this.
(the trans folks who are saying they’re glad to see something like this on TV because they want the world to see their trauma, they want to see characters going through things they went through, the ones that say maybe it will bring awareness to the issue, maybe it will change people’s minds and develop understanding… I hope your hope in that pays off one day, honestly and truly I do, and I further hope that you come to understand that you deserve happy stories, too)
It’s 2019. I keep saying this to myself, it’s 2019, it’s 2019, it’s 2019. And we’re still dying for entertainment, and we’re also being outed in the name of “realism,” still for entertainment.
Books are… mostly better. We are writing so many wonderful queer books! But the books getting made into movies aren’t always the ones written by queer folks featuring happy queer characters; too often, in fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Many of us have happy lives. So why is it that by and large, it’s the sad, dark, grim and traumatic stories that get the TV and movie treatment? And why, oh why, is someone always out there bleating, BUT REALISM!!
(and why is the call sometimes coming from inside the house?)
Fuck, and let me say that once more with feeling, FUCK realism. Or what is passing for it in the minds of the people screaming it. I know a lot of happy queer people, cis and trans. That’s their reality, is happiness. Show that. We own pets, we cook dinner, we dance in the kitchen with our partners. Show that. We fall in love, we fuck, we go on vacations. Show that. We come out on our own timelines, yes, over and over and over, but of our own volition. Show that.
Reality can always, always be changed. The real power of queer joy in media is that if we show enough of it, it will become what everyone thinks of as reality, and it is extremely well past time for that.
(and for us to be played by many many more actual queer people, THANKS)