Queer Representation: Beyond White and Cisgender

High-school student Aarush deconstructs the impacts of white-washed, cisnormative queer representation in media consumed by teenagers on BIPOC queer youth

The Five Ws: Who, what, where, when, and why.

This framework for analysis and problem-solving is inculcated into the impressionable minds of children from the moment they can comprehend it. Perhaps this is with good reason—assessing facts is the first step on the path to understanding. It’s the crux of investigative journalism; the essence of criminal investigation. Sifting through the olio, extracting the important information, reducing the complex to the manageable; in essence, answering who, what, where, when, and why. The issue with this approach to critical analysis is that it doesn’t afford the thing being analyzed any nuance or ambiguity. It assumes everything can be categorized, which isn’t always the case. 

Who is queerness?

What is queerness?

Where is queerness?

When is queerness?

Why is queerness?

These questions are, of course, rhetorical, and all of them are unanswerable. Queerness as a concept may be loosely defined academically, but as a label its definitive meaning is conferred on to it by the person who uses it (and, for some, including me, the label “queer” is a neat alternative to other labels precisely because of it’s inability to be defined). Queerness is as complex, dynamic, and multidimensional as the community it represents. 

When it comes to aspects of personal identity like queerness, the myopic Five Ws’ framework has negative consequences. In attempting to answer those five basic questions, stereotypes and inaccurate generalizations will inevitably be made. Moreover, these generalizations are based on a limited pool of information and real-life experience. This is why the media we consume is so very powerful in allowing us to form different perspectives and explore ourselves. At the heart of this power is representation, specifically the representation of marginalized voices and identities. 

Queer representation in media was very pivotal in allowing me to come into my identity as a gay and genderqueer person. Queer characters, even if they didn’t share my specific labels (Callie Torres and Arizona Robbins from Grey’s Anatomy come to mind), made me feel less alone during a time where loneliness was a constant presence. Looking back, I am so grateful for the characters who have made me who I am today. At the same time, however, I recognize how this representation was lacking: white and cisgender producers and writers were the ones doing the storytelling, and this translated into how they chose to portray queerness.

I crossed the threshold into the near-empty movie theater, unfazed by the sudden drop in temperature. This was during the era of my gray and white camo jacket, which I wore everywhere, not because I was perpetually cold, but because I wanted to hide my body behind the amorphousness of the thick fabric. My mom and I found our seats. The armrests of the large, glossy, pomegranate-red reclining chairs were cool against my elbows. 

I sat quietly through the trailers despite my nervous anticipation for what was to come. “Love, Simon” was my first gay movie as a very gay (albeit, closeted) pre-teen. The entire movie, I wanted to turn to my mom and say the words “I’m gay.” I would later use the car ride home from the movie theater as an opportunity to do just that, and my mom would pull into a supermarket parking lot to console me as I broke down in tears, partially because of the lingering internalized homophobia, but mostly because a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders.

“Love, Simon” gave me the opportunity to come out to my strongest ally, and it was most definitely revolutionary in its portrayal of a queer main character who finds love and has a happy ending (a rarity in queer film and television in 2018). But consider this: the movie had a total of two BIPOC queer characters, both of whom were used to propel the white main character’s storyline forward, and barely had any screentime. The main character himself was one-dimensional, constructed with his queerness at the center of his character. 

White. Cisgender. Passive. Digestible. 

This is the template that is seemingly employed by screenwriters when writing queer characters. Simon is a perfect example; he meets mockery and ridicule with passivity, and is written to cater to straight audiences. At the very beginning of the movie, Simon assures viewers via voiceover that he is just like them (“I’m just like you, except I have one huge ass secret: Nobody knows I’m gay.”). Just like who? Who was this assurance for? Simon was certainly nothing like me, save for the one label we had in common. 

BIPOC and non-cisgender queer youth are bombarded with Simons in most of the queer media targeted towards people our age. The effect, for me, was disorienting. If I didn’t fit in with the narrow definition of “queer” presented in media, did I really belong? This is one of the things that motivated my use of the label “genderqueer” as opposed to something like “nonbinary.” The nonbinary characters portrayed on television are overwhelmingly white and androgynous, whereas I am brown and masc-presenting. I only became comfortable with my identity after weeks of experimenting with different pronouns, and I am still working through reconciling who I am with the enby mold presented on television.

With all that said, there are some shows I think have queer representation that encapsulates the diversity and broadness of the queer community (although I don’t believe any piece of media is above criticism). In my view, good representation is when a character’s queerness isn’t their only contribution to a storyline. Queer people are multifaceted, with our own individual interests and passions beyond our queerness, and good representation acknowledges this. 

“One Day At a Time” is a sitcom set in Los Angeles which follows the Alvarezes, a Cuban-American family. In addition to having BIPOC queer representation, the show features nonbinary characters, including characters who use neopronouns. And discusses themes related to mental health (PTSD and anxiety), culture, microaggressions, and sexual assault. The first three seasons can be found on Netflix. The show was picked up for a fourth season by Pop TV after being cancelled by Netflix, but was not renewed for a fifth season. 

Another show is Netflix’s “Sex Education,” which is not a young adult show (sexual content features heavily throughout). The show has BIPOC queer representation including Southeast Asian rep, which is very uncommon. One of the characters, Jackson, has two moms, but their sexualities aren’t the focus of any storyline, they are just allowed to exist without their queerness being a topic of dispute. The show is extremely sex-positive, touching on topics like anal douching, masturbation, and safe sex. It also portrays disability and sexual assault. Although the first two seasons had a scarcity of trans and nonbinary characters, the show has cast Sudanese-American nonbinary actor Dua Saleh to play a recurrying nonbinary character in the show’s third season.

Representation is important, and good representation is even more so. With more shows being made featuring a diverse cast of LGBTQ+ characters, there is hope for a better future for BIPOC and trans queer youth who aren’t able to see themselves in the characters on TV. The prominence of white and cis queer characters in media parallels the centering of those identities in the real-life queer community. Ultimately, the goal is to get more BIPOC and trans queer writers and producers into executive offices, because only then will we get the authentic representation we so desperately need. 

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

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