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Through the Rainbow Lens: Queerness in Media and the Prism of Perception


"Every time someone steps up and says who they are, the world becomes a better, more interesting place. So, thank you."

Brooklyn Nine Nine fanatics might recognize this quote by captain Raymond Holt , in response to Rosa Diaz coming out as bi sexual . When Holt gives Diaz a reassuring hug at the end of the scene, somewhere in the world, a queer child watching it on screen feels held, seen, and validated.  

This sent me down a rabbit hole regarding queer representation in the media. How it has changed over time, influencing how the general public views the LGBTQ community 



Queer spaces in pop culture 

There's a revolution brewing on our screens, a kaleidoscope of stories where identities once relegated to the margins are now center stage. Queerness, a spectrum rich with vibrant hues, is finding its way into mainstream media, painting narratives that were once whispers in the dark with bold, unashamed strokes. But like any artistic movement, the portrayal of queerness comes with its own brushstrokes of hope and struggle, its triumphs and stumbles, as it grapples with shaping public perception and impacting the lives of queer kids navigating their own personal canvases.


Gone are the days when the sole depiction of a gay man was flamboyant sidekick to a straight protagonist.  Shows like "Heartstopper" '" Love Victor" and "Schitt's Creek" weave coming-of-age narratives where queerness is interwoven with humor, friendship, and self-discovery. Lesbian and bisexual women reclaim their stories in series like "The L Word Generation Q" and "Sex Education," shattering stereotypes and exploring the complexities of desire beyond the binary. Trans and non-binary characters, no longer relegated to sensationalized documentaries, grace the fictional landscapes of "Pose" and "Euphoria," offering nuanced portraits of resilience and self-acceptance.

TV shows featuring regular LGBTQ+ series characters have increased over the past ten years.  

Based on statistics provided by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD).

Out of 882 TV characters, 90 members of the LGBTQ+ community were represented, according to their yearly "Where We Are On TV 2019" report. The inclusivity target set by GLAAD was surpassed by 10.2%. 38 of the characters being trans, mostly trans women . 

Compared to the early 20th century, when there was almost no media representation of the LGBTQ+ community, this level of representation is a significant departure. The media chose and produced their representations in order to perpetuate negative stereotypes. In the past, there was a prevalent cultural belief that individuals who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender were abnormal. This belief was reinforced when these individuals were portrayed as acting or looking differently from others.

History of queer representation in media 

Strangely,  earlier "representations" defying gender and sexuality norms were unintentional. Songwriters in the twenties and thirties forbade alterations to lyrics. The same pronouns (he, she, him, her, etc.) as in the original song would have to be used if a man wanted to cover a song originally performed by a woman, and vice versa. Cross-vocals are a result of this phenomenon. 

Not to mention the cross dressed actors of old Shakespearean plays . None of these were intend to represent queerness but have accidentally contributed to it 

Early in the 1930s, there were some encouraging indications of development. The "Pansy Craze" started in Los Angeles and quickly expanded across the nation. As a result, transgender women gained more recognition. Subsequently, the US Production Code was revised in 1934, and media corporations made a commitment to lessen the derogatory representation of the LGBTQ+ community. 


After the stonewall riots significant changes were made in the NAB brodcasting code .Broadcasters agreed to represent LGBT people fairly in the media and, whenever feasible, to consult the community. In the 1970s, representation was more inclusive even though it was still quite low. The 1972 movie "That Certain Summer," which was ABC Movie of the Week, is a prime example. A gay man rearing his family was the main subject.

© Fandango 

The media's portrayal of LGBT people has been impacted by the AIDS epidemic in a number of ways. On the one hand, groups like the 'Coalition for Better Television' and the' American Family Association' revived their negative portrayal of gay men by linking them to a horrifying illness. Conversely, more interactions with members of the LGBTQ+ community contributed to greater representation and the dismantling of stereotypes.

When LGBTQ+ representation made its Broadway debut in 1983, a significant milestone was accomplished.  La Cage aux Folles was the first musical with an overtly homosexual central plot featuring The song "I Am What I Am". 

To put it briefly, from "pansy craze" to "RuPaul's Drag race" we see how far we've come. 


This surge in representation undeniably holds the power to change public opinion. Studies show that exposure to positive portrayals of LGBTQ+ individuals fosters empathy and understanding, chipping away at the mountains of prejudice built on ignorance. For allies, it's a window into lived experiences, a chance to step into someone else's shoes and walk a mile in their rainbow-colored boots. But for queer kids, it's a mirror, reflecting back experiences they may have hidden in the shadows, validating their identities and whispering a comforting, "You're not alone."


Yet, the revolution is far from finished. Tokenism lurks, where rainbow sprinkles are tossed onto familiar narratives without truly delving into the depths of queer experience. Harmful stereotypes still flicker on the screen, perpetuating harmful myths about flamboyant gay men, hypersexual lesbians, and trans characters burdened with tragedy. The fight for intersectionality continues, with narratives often failing to adequately capture the experiences of queer people of color, those living in poverty, or with disabilities.


And for young viewers, media can be a double-edged sword. While seeing themselves reflected offers affirmation, the pressure to fit into media-constructed boxes can be suffocating. The quest for authenticity can become a game of mirrors, forcing kids to reconcile their lived experiences with curated onscreen narratives. Moreover, the lack of nuance, the binary presentation of "good" and "bad" queer narratives, can leave room for anxiety and confusion, further complicating the already messy journey of self-discovery.


So, where does this leave us? In a space of cautious optimism. With every nuanced portrayal, every diverse character that shatters stereotypes, the media mosaic becomes richer, offering a more complete picture of the queer experience. For allies, it's a call to action, an invitation to actively seek out these stories, to listen to voices beyond the echo chamber of their own experiences. For queer kids, it's a beacon of hope, a testament to the fact that their stories are being told, that they are seen, and that they are not alone.


The true impact lies not just in the representation itself, but in the conversations it sparks. It's in the classroom discussions, the late-night chats with parents, the online communities where shared experiences weave tapestries of understanding. It's in the courage it gives a young girl to tell her mother she likes girls, or a trans boy to wear his favorite dress to school. It's in the power of storytelling to chip away at ignorance, to build bridges of empathy, and to paint a future where every color on the queer spectrum shines bright and unapologetic.


The revolution may be flickering, but its spark has ignited a fire that refuses to be extinguished. The media landscape is changing, and with it, so too is the public perception of queerness. For once, the paintbrush is in our hands, and it's time to paint a world where every shade of the rainbow finds its place on the canvas.


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