By Logan Warrington
Sometimes, when presented with the ever-expanding LGBTQ acronym, people get confused – because there are just so many letters, now. They’re asking, do we need them? Do we still need ALL of them?
Now, we have come a long way since the major “gay rights movements” of the 70s and 80s but we still have a long way to go. There seems to be a common assumption that in the 21st century, “gay” rights are barely an issue anymore – after all, gay marriage has been legal in Canada since 2005 and is now legal in a lot of states, as well. While legal marriage rights for people of the same sex (although definitely progress) they are not the same as a totally inclusive and accepting society for people of all genders and sexualities. Really, it barely scratches the surface.
There are still so many imbalances and inequalities that LGBT people face. For example, leading up to the recent US presidential election, it was noted that up to 34,000 transgender people in the United States could face problems voting because their ID cards did not match their gender (Sebastien, 2016).
This is apparently not a big enough issue to have generated much debate even within the LGBT community, let alone the States at large. Sure, 34,000 people isn’t much compared to the US population, but the point is there are still people either having to fight for or being denied their civil rights in a country that is supposed to be equal.
So, back to that acronym for a minute – since I was old enough to realise that labelling oneself was necessary, I have always identified as something within the “gay community”. But as I grow older and my identity has undergone changes and fine-tuning, that just doesn’t work anymore. It’s too limiting – but I still need something, otherwise, since we do live in a heteronormative society, I will automatically be labeled as cisgender and straight, which I am definitely not.
Now, if you go online and search up all the labels one can put on themselves within the “gay community” – well, I’d be here all day listing them and I fully admit I don’t know what half of them mean. So, while I can see the importance of them, of needing to separate yourself from the cisgender and heterosexual “norm” I think these labels get a bit excessive, they are confusing, and the more labels you stick to yourself the more restricted you are. This is why I favor the term “queer” – it encompasses any gender or sexuality.
So although what I want to talk about is not strictly political, arguably anything to do with queer rights and visibility has an element of the political, but rather about these labels, why we still need them, about working towards a more inclusive world where eventually, we can transcend labels and just be people.
What I think we need is organizations that work towards in new kind of acceptance, places that are wholly inclusive and actually celebrate all forms of queer identity. Buddies in Bad Times, a queer theatre group in downtown Toronto, seems to have such a vision. I interviewed Leelee Davis, the director of Youth programming at Buddies. They say “Having inclusive spaces, and to go further, a space where people look/think/share experiences similar to yours is absolutely fundamental to understanding yourself in the world. It's the difference between walking alone, and walking knowing you have the support of others behind you. Having community makes THE DIFFERENCE in good times and bad.” (Davis, 2016)
Now, if you’re from Toronto, and you’re queer, there’s probably a decent chance you know what Buddies in Bad times is. If like me, you’re from anywhere else in Canada, you likely don’t even know that queer theatre is a thing. I feel like often marginalised groups are accustomed to the mentality that “this is just how it is”
Interestingly, out of 393 theatre companies in Canada, only 8 define themselves as “Queer” (Statistics Canada, 2015; Wikipedia, 2016). Only 8. Given the researched and documented importance of being involved in community and community events like this, basically what they’re saying is having 8 theatres for queer people to go to is enough? That’s not even one per province.
I want to look for a moment at the entertainment representation of queer characters. It’s very important, particularly in marginalized groups – but at the same time the wrong type of representation and labelling can be extremely damaging.
I looked the “Where we are on TV” report that GLAAD organization puts out each year. In total they found 271 LGBT characters, across primetime broadcast tv, cable programming, and streaming services like Netflix. Of these, 70% are white, 70 percent are strictly gay or lesbian, about 30 percent are bisexual - and 4% transgender. There is representation, yes, but it still comparable with the old trope of plunking in the “genius Asian” and pretending like this is the full picture (GLAAD, 2015).
Looking again at these numbers for a moment – from the 2015/16 year, none of the 7 transgender characters were on primetime TV, they were on cable or streaming services. Of these transgender characters, only ONE is a trans man (GLAAD, 2015). Now, according to an article in the New York Times in July, 1.4 million adults in the USA are transgender (Hoffman, 2016). So for arguments sake, half of these would be transgender men (keep in mind this estimate is of adults only they didn’t even count anyone under 18) so the point is, that leaves us with approximately 700, 000 transmen who are supposed to look to a single person for representation.
The issue here is that even with this increased representation, it is not just about how many queer people are portrayed, but the way in which their stories are being told. Since many people outside of or within the queer community rely on media and entertainment for their knowledge of queer people and their lives, the way people are represented have serious consequences.
Some people are aware consciously or subconsciously of the problems in current representation . For example in a case study done in 2008 with thirteen queer youth in Alberta, they focused on the role of print such as magazines, and television shows on their queer identities (Flynn, 2008). They discuss how one magazine provides a safe place to explore these identities that are normally erased in a heterosexist world.
However, even a magazine marketed towards the queer community is not without problems. As one of the participants says, "If somebody... tried to learn about our culture from these magazines, they would think that everybody had good bodies; that were obsessed with fashion, interior decorating, and travel; that there were no families; that there were no children; and no obese people, no old people; that we're all living this high roller lifestyle. " (Flynn, 2008, p. 52)
A couple of the groups commonly misrepresented in very detrimental ways in television are bisexual, and transgender individuals.
Bisexuality is often used as a plot device, they are often portrayed as untrustworthy and immoral. In relationships they are shown to be using sex as manipulation, or have an inability to form meaningful relationships. According to the article from GLAAD, bisexual people are the majority of the LGBT community but least likely to be out since their identity is subject to these harmful ideas (GLAAD, 2015).
The way transgender stories are told is also somewhat alarming - and 84% of Americans say they learn about trans people through the media (GLAAD, 2015, p. 27). So what are they learning? In television, the stories usually told are based around the “transition narrative”. Transgender people are portrayed as damaged or mentally ill, they are usually tragic victims, or (in the case of trans women) usually sex workers – and the transition process is shown to be very medically dangerous.
Coming out is often portrayed as a magical moment that defines your life, the moment everything starts getting better. Let me tell you, this is not reality. After you come out, there is no classic ride off into the sunset or happily ever after, because you are now approaching the challenge of integration and acceptance. Self realization leading to coming out is often a terrifying moment more than a happy one – because no one tells you what to do after that or gives you an idea of how to behave.
There is a difference between coming out and bridging the gap it creates between you and the world in general. Here again, we need labels to help explain and define ourselves as separate from the heteronormative world. You can be true to yourself, and that’s great – but humans are fundamentally social beings, and most identities are social identities. Queerness is no exception.
For example, what is the point of as identifying non-binary if others do not help me validate it? How do I connect to others, both in the queer and non-queer communities in such a way that makes my self-definition feel valid, accepted, and celebrated?
I just want to clarify this idea of heteronormativity. This is the belief that heterosexuality and opposite sex relationships are normal and superior, a belief perpetuated by discrimination, bias, and attitudes favoring heterosexual norms.
In research marginalized people fall through the gaps – including subgroups within marginalized groups. In my research for this podcast, each source measuring or reporting on queer statistics measured 4 main categories – gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender. Even the people collecting data trying to help the queer community and raise awareness, usually only include those 4 options and the gender options are male or female. The bisexual option is new, as is the transgender one – and this barely scratches the surface of how one may identify. What about genders outside of male and female, such as non-binary or gender fluid, or sexualities like asexual, or pansexual?
Even GLAAD, in their reports on the scope of queer television, did not track a single character within such a category – probably because there were none to track. But the point is, so many people are falling through the gaps in even progressive research and advocacy projects, and this creates an inherent invisibility. People such as myself who fall outside these 4 categories end up with nowhere to belong on either side. As well, anyone learning from these reports or representation will probably assume those categories are the only ones there are. This again is why a degree of labels is still important – to give validation and visibility to groups that exist in this liminal in between space.
As Leelee Davis from Buddies in Bad Times reminds us, representation of marginalized identities is a legitimate problem. They say “Systemic oppression puts many people on the margins of society and has impacts on the affected communities that extend deep into adult years” (Davis, 2016).
A heteronormative society marginalizes those who do not fit into this model, and there is considerable research on the internalized homophobia that is a result of this. Internalised homophobia is just like it sounds – a queer person living in a heteronormative society is not immune to homophobia, but in addition they just turn it inward as well.
This can and does have serious consequences, for example in a study in 2006 done on lesbian domestic abuse, homophobia within queer relationships was cited as a major factor. It can manifest in ways such as queer people telling other queer people how to behave according to their identity, saying things like – “you’re not gay enough” or “that person is better at being trans than you” (Bornstein et al., 2006, p. 170-172). This is a good example of how these labels can be very problematic and restrictive.
Growing up, the only queer narratives I remember seeing where horribly offensive or hypersexualised or even traumatising. So what you’re being shown is that queer people are freaks, or that their lives are filled with trauma and danger. I was never shown that there are countless ways to be queer or that queer people can be “normal”.
This is something Leelee also touches upon, as a continued struggle even for those trying to help make queer spaces more progressive. They say that “If no one has ever given you space, told you that you are good enough, or encouraged your passions, it can be really hard to even show up and start taking up more space” (Davis, 2016).
So, essentially that is what Buddies is trying to do – be that space where queer people are celebrated. They were not always what they are today and they have encountered a certain amount of challenges. They started out as a very modest theatre in 1979, and over time underwent several expansions in the formation of their own identity. In 1994 they were subject to considerable criticism and threats to cut funding by the Toronto Sun. Through overwhelming community support and a protest march led by Buddies’ founder Sky Gilbert they did manage to retain the funding. Today what they have become is the world’s largest and longest running queer theatre (Buddies, n.d.).
They are more than that as well. In addition to world class plays, they have various programs that are making a world of difference to the queer community of Toronto and beyond. Through their own evolving identity they have gathered a family like following around them.
Now, Buddies helps queer people tell their stories, they help the performers and writers, and the audience navigate this challenge of connection and acceptance and figure out how to bridge the gap between coming out and figuring out how to integrate your new self, as well as the gap between the queer and heterosexual communities.
It is essentially providing an area for people to have that conversation that helps people explore this colorful inbetween area, to step outside the social isolation that “traditional” gay communities are usually known for and the aim here is to connect to the world at large.
I think Buddies is a perfect example of the direction the future of queer representation should be going in. They are simultaneously using labels and transcending them. They are not just a “gay” theatre, they are queer and alternative, inclusive of any label or no label, and through their inclusive model they are also able to make connections to the wider world. In order for the wider world to accept and celebrate queer identities, communication and understanding between both groups is so vital. So I believe more people should follow in Buddies’ example. They are teaching everyone, queer or not, to do more than just tolerate differences, but to celebrate them, because at the end of the day they make us all who we are – which is diverse human beings.
Bornstein, D. R., Fawcett, J., Sullivan, M., Senturia, K. D., & Shiu-Thornton, S. (2006). Understanding the experiences of lesbian, bisexual and trans survivors of domestic violence. Journal of Homosexuality, Vol. 51, No. 1, (pp. 159-181). doi:10.1300J082v51n01_08
Buddies in Bad Times, (N.D.) Our history. Retrieved from http://buddiesinbadtimes.com/about/history/
Davis, Leelee. (November 2016) Personal Email Communication.
Flynn, S. J. (2008). Informing queer identities: Media and youth (Order No. MR45729). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304415346). Retrieved from http://ezproxy.library.yorku.ca/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/304415346 ?acc
GLAAD, (2015). Where we are on TV. [Annual report on LGBTQ characters across in television]; retrieved from http://www.glaad.org/files/GLAAD-2015-WWAT.pdf
Hoffman, Jan. (30 June 2016) Estimate of U.S. Transgender Population Doubles to 1.4 Million Adults. The New York Times, Retrieved from www.nytimes.com/2016/07/01/health/transgender-population.html.
Malo, Sebastien. (4 Oct. 2016) Transgender Voters May Face Problems Voting in U.S. Election, Activists Say. Reuters. Retrieved from www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-lgbt- idUSKCN1242JG.
Statistics Canada (2015, March 18) World theatre day… by the numbers. [Statistics on numbersand types of live entertainment spaces in Canada]; Retrieved from http://www.statcangc.ca/eng/dai/smr08/2015/smr08_198_2015
Wikipedia (2016, January 25). LGBT theatre in Canada. [List of LGBT theatre groups]; Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:LGBT_theatre_in_Canada