We’re Not Here: LGBTQ Representation in My Childhood

Yesterday, in my blog post about the Bruce Springsteen concert, I wrote a lengthy footnote about how I no longer enjoyed the song “Glory Days.” I wrote that, as a gay man:

… it’s unsettling to look back at the cultural touchstones of my youth and discover I was invisible in them.

The Daily Dave

Today, I want to double-click on this idea, because invisibility is just one part of the story.

In the Beginning, There Was Nothing

When I think back on the TV shows, movies, and music I experienced as a very young kid, LGBTQ people were:

  1. Invisible

That’s it. End of list. There was no LGBTQ representation whatsoever in entertainment created for people my age.1

Then There Was Mockery

As I got a little older, the list grew a little longer. LGBTQ people were either:

  1. Invisible
  2. There to be laughed at

I really can’t recall the first time I saw an LGBTQ person or character on TV or in the movies, but I know it wasn’t a fair representation. They were mincing, effeminite, lisping men. This made a strong yet subconscious impact on me: For many years, that’s what I thought gay men were and how they should behave.

Some might say these people were in on the joke. But they were still the butt of the joke.

I shouldn’t even call these characters LGBTQ people. They’re queer-coded — they’re clearly lesbian, gay, bi, trans, or queer, but it’s not stated explicitly.2

It Gets Worse

Oh, the list gets longer. In my teens, there were three types of LGBTQ people:

  1. Invisible
  2. There to be laughed out
  3. Evil

Two examples of No. 2 and No. 3 immediately spring to mind. The first is Sean Young’s character in “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.” She’s trans, she’s the villain, and she’s there for us to ridicule. When other characters discover she is trans, they are disgusted.

”The second is ToneLōc’s “Funky Cold Medina,” which was a massive hit. From the lyrics:

So I took her to my crib, and everything went well as planned

But when she got undressed, it was a big old mess, Sheena was a man

So I threw him out, I don’t mess around with no Oscar Meyer wiener

You must be sure that your girl is pure for the Funky Cold Medina

“Funky Cold Medina”

The message: Sheena is disgusting, deceptive, and despicable.

And Even More Worse

As I grew up, the list grew longer. LGBTQ people were:

  1. Invisible
  2. There to be laughed at
  3. Evil
  4. Dying or dead

I’ve written at length about the Bury Your Gay and Dead Lesbian Syndrome tropes. LGBTQ people were wicked and always got their comeuppance. The AIDS crisis played out during my teenage years, and the message, in many cases, was that they were getting what they deserved. When people living with AIDS were treated with sympathy, they still died.

As I wrote in the aforementioned blog post:

Bury Your Gays and Dead Lesbian Syndrome are destructive in a way straight people might not realize. What would it do to your self-worth if the only images you saw of people like yourself on TV and in movies involved death and misery?

The Daily Dave, the world’s No. 1 source for Dave-centric news

We’re Making Progress, but I’m Still Worried

It makes me happy that things are getting better. You’ll find accurate, fair, and affirming representations of LGBTQ people in children’s programming, especially animated shows.

I’m worried that things will go backward quickly, thanks to an increasingly hostile political climate. But we’ve come too far to only come this far. While I didn’t grow up seeing myself in popular culture, I’ll do everything I can to ensure today’s kids do.

1 You might point to characters like Bugs Bunny, who would kiss men and dress in drag — but that was done to benefit straight audiences. Bugs didn’t kiss Elmer because he was attracted to the bumbling hunter; he did it because it was outré and, therefore, funny.3

2 Queer coding happens a lot. Ursula from “The Little Mermaid” is a Divine-like drag queen. Scar from “The Lion King” is campy. I’m hardly the first person to note that nearly every classic Disney villain is queer coded.

Beyond Disney, you’ll find quite a few queer-coded villains in old Bond films. Just look at butch lesbian Rosa Klebb from “From Russia With Love,” and femme lesbian Pussy Galore from “Goldfinger.” Pussy Galore is especially problematic because she switches from a villain to a hero when Bond sleeps with her. The not-too-subtle message: lesbians bad, heterosexuals good.

3 On the other hand, perhaps I shouldn’t dismiss Bugs Bunny so quickly. Here’s what the Supermodel of the World has to say about the wascally wabbit. Shantay, Bugs, you stay!