Long Reads

"Why gay representation in film and TV would have changed my life"

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Emily Reynolds
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Fans are angry that Dumbledore’s sexuality won’t be referenced in Fantastic Beasts 2 – and freelance journalist Emily Reynolds can see why. 

If you’re a lesbian, bisexual or queer woman of a certain age, there’s a good chance you’ll have a pretty strong reaction when I say the name “Jenny Schecter” – and not just because The L Word’s polarising main character was so love/hateable. No: the real reason the show – and its characters – are iconic for so many of us is simply because it was the first time we ever saw ourselves on screen.

Growing up as a bisexual woman, stumbling across The L Word online was my first exposure to outright representation in film or TV. Even coming from an open, liberal family who didn’t care what my orientation was, my teen years were largely characterised by shame when it came to my sexuality. I felt guilty, in short, any time I was attracted to a woman, and I certainly never saw myself in a relationship with one – largely because there were no models for healthy relationships between two women. I had no idea what it would look like. This undoubtedly impacted my early, tentative relationships with women. I absolutely devoured too-rare shows like Lip Service and Sugar Rush: a sweet, brief taste of recognition, of understanding. I loved them.

In the 10 years since I (first) came out, things haven’t improved much. Brilliant films like Moonlight and Call Me By Your Name are depicting gay men’s lives in all their beautiful, nuanced, complicated glory – and are rightfully being lauded for doing so. But where are the films about gay women? Brokeback Mountain regularly tops ‘best LGBT films ever’ lists – and while it’s obviously a brilliant and heartbreaking film, it’s somewhat depressing that there’s simply no equivalent film for gay women. Blue is the Warmest Colour and Carol are pretty much all we’ve got. 

Netflix’s selection of lesbian films, for example, is laughably woeful: mostly shot in Vaseline-smear soft focus, they all have breathless titles like Below Her Mouth and Elena Undone, and nine times out of 10 feature a plot-line where an out lesbian seduces a repressed, bored housewife. Academy Award winners they are not. Talking to a bisexual friend while writing this article, she asked me to rate Lip Service out of 10 – my response was “crap…but lesbian”. She got it.

And, more to the point, why are films about gay men and women alike compartmentalised to such an extent? The fact that ‘gay cinema’ is a category all of its own is a double-edged sword: while sometimes there’s nothing better than watching a full representation of your life for 90 glorious minutes, it would be nice if we weren’t erased almost everywhere else in film and TV. Gay men are often pigeonholed as “sassy best friend” figures – explicitly gay women are pretty much nowhere to be seen. 

It’s as if we play no part in the lives of straight people – a fact that is patently untrue, considering we live, work and socialise with them on a daily basis. The fact that lesbians meet largely tragic ends in TV and film is now so common a trope that it’s a joke in the LGBT community – but sometimes our lives aren’t totally marred by tragedy. Sometimes we just sit next to straight people at work or serve straight people their coffee. My best friend from school recently reminded us of a flabbergastingly insensitive comment a classmate made when a friend came out as gay: “I thought knowing gay people was something that happened to other people”. Both bisexual, we laughed at his ignorance at the time – but, getting older, his horrifying lack of knowledge seems less and less funny. 

So it’s obvious to me why fans are upset that Dumbledore isn’t going to be depicted as gay in Fantastic Beasts 2. Gay people are so rarely sensitively represented in cinema that isn’t classed as specifically “LGBT” – making the straight-washing of Dumbledore’s (retroactively tacked on) homosexuality a real disappointment. It wouldn’t change his character; it wouldn’t really change the storyline in any significant way. But it would have been a vital acknowledgement that sometimes people – people who are complex, good, kind, interesting, successful, powerful, unstereotype-able or, sometimes, wizards – are gay, without that negatively changing or ruining their lives. 

Ten years ago, ex-editor of DIVA magazine Jane Czyzselska wrote for The Guardian of the lack of lesbian representation in the media – a year in which only 29 seconds of 39 hours of BBC1 shows cared to mention lesbians, half of which was a joke about Jeremy Clarkson being the subject of lesbian hatred.

It’s depressing how little has changed since the article was written. I can’t imagine how different my teen years would have been if I’d grown up seeing proudly bisexual or gay people in film and TV, if I hadn’t had to gulp down any morsels of LGBT representation, no matter how paltry they were. I have no doubt that my early relationships with women would have been very different if I had, and no doubt that my relationship with myself would have been utterly transformed.

LGBT people don’t always have tragic lives; we don’t die at the end of every story. Our lives are as mundane, complicated and ripe for comedic value as straight people’s – and it’s time the media started to reflect that, too. 

Images: Netflix / Rex Features