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  • Writer's picture The Vindicator

Someone Like Me

The importance of LGBTQ representation and why graphic novels are the right medium for the job

Written by Gabriella Kollar

Seeing yourself represented in the media is one of the fundamental components of belonging for people in the 21st century. Unfortunately for many LGBTQ people, this is not reality. Media representation is often rooted in stereotypical or harmful false depictions of LGBTQ people. A trope called “bury your gays” refers to the frequent, eventual death of LGBTQ characters across all forms of media. While society has made great strides in the past decade, it is still not where it should be. One of the mediums that has really spearheaded inclusivity is graphic novels. Countless examples of graphic novels feature LGBTQ characters in graphic novels, whether or not the story centers around the characters being LGBTQ. These characters and stories not only affirm LGBTQ identities, but also work to bridge the gap between cisgender/heterosexual and LGBTQ readers. While graphic novels are a great learning device, it is their impact on LGBTQ youth that is most paramount.

When LGBTQ characters get their happy endings, it creates hope that LGBTQ people can live fulfilling lives, too.

Seeing representation in popular culture can be the difference between life and death for some kids. According to an article from The Trevor Project, “LGBTQ youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide than their peers.” The CDC also notes that the prevalence for poor mental health is significantly higher in LGBTQ kids. This is not the result of being LGBTQ, but rather the discrimination and exclusion they face in today's society. In an article about LGBTQ representation in graphic novels, Dana Simpson, a transgender cartoonist, admits the heart-wrenching truth: “If you never see characters like yourself, or if you only see characters like yourself as bit players in some ‘normal’ character’s story, that sends a powerful message. If I had encountered characters in fiction who were anything like me in that way, I might have gotten to be happy a whole lot sooner than I did.” For many LGBTQ kids and young adults, seeing characters like them is the only solace they get. When LGBTQ characters get their happy endings, it creates hope that LGBTQ people can live fulfilling lives, too.

Graphic novels have spearheaded the movement towards diversity and representation. The stories not only feature gay and lesbian characters, but bisexual, transgender and nonbinary identities as well. Jacqueline Vega argues in “Making the Case for LGBTQ Graphic Novels” that this movement in support of LGBTQ graphic novels will help normalize and reduce alienation of LGBTQ people and their identities. Often children internalize their parents’ opinions, especially when it comes to LGBTQ topics. If their parents say it is wrong, they take that as fact, and never get the chance to form their own opinions. Literature especially has a way of making readers feel empathy for characters that come from backgrounds different than their own. Storytelling has the ability to transcend the most stubborn prejudices, which is crucial for LGBTQ people today.

But LGBTQ topics are about much more than sex, and not talking about it does not make it go away.

Not only can graphic novels help to destigmatize LGBTQ identities, but they can also be the perfect outlet for dispelling myths and misconceptions about gender identity and sexuality, specifically in English Language Arts (ELA) classrooms. From thinking LGBTQ+ people are predatory to thinking their identities are all for attention, to thinking queerness is unnatural, lots of myths remain to be dispelled. Currently, LGBTQ topics are not a component in primary education: not typically taught in health class, and even omitted from most history textbooks. Some schools have incorporated LGBTQ topics into their curriculum, but they are considered both progressive and rare. At its core, ELA is about learning to see the world from a different perspective. Avoiding topics and issues, especially ones increasingly relevant to society today, is counterintuitive to the goal of teaching literature. ELA has taken on this job of teaching diverse backgrounds many times, including issues relevant to women and people of color. It makes sense that ELA could take on LGBTQ issues as well, especially because libraries are full of educational and insightful LGBTQ stories.

Vega maintains that graphic novels have the unique ability to enhance understanding due to the visual and textual nature of the medium. Kids are more interested and engaged with graphic novels than chapter novels. Bright colors and illustrations are more appealing than the usual black words on a white page. Despite what some say, these features do not detract any educational value. In fact, they can even make it easier to talk about complex and difficult topics. Literature can show you an LGBTQ character’s life and then encourage you to reflect on the issues the LGBTQ community faces, rather than blatantly asking “what do you think about LGBTQ people?” Instead of LGBTQ topics being taboo, they can be discussed with empathy and educationally accurate statements. The first step to understanding is listening, and literature provides that in a noninvasive way.

But sometimes, when we take one step forward, we take two steps back. One of the issues the LGBTQ community faces is Florida’s HB1557, which has been dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The bill proposes a ban on teaching LGBTQ topics from grades K-3. While the ban refers to kindergarten through third grade, it also states that the state education department will decide what is appropriate for all grades above. The contradiction here is that kids are already thinking about gender and sexuality, and some of them are experiencing serious turmoil. The ban would only increase the stigma that makes LGBTQ children feel “different” or “wrong.” The reasoning for the bill is that teaching LGBTQ topics would mean teaching children about sex. But LGBTQ topics are about much more than sex, and not talking about it does not make it go away. Kids may be too young to be thinking about sex, but they are already thinking about gender and who they love. Some kids have had crushes since preschool, and others may already be questioning their gender. Children are already thinking about these topics and they could avoid so much grief if it were simply talked about.

The notion that LGBTQ identities and communities are only about sex is both false and ridiculous. People who are against including LGBTQ content hypocritically cite that “a person’s sex life should be private,” even though heterosexual content is ingrained in society. It does not take much to see the complete double standard. They do not want children to think about gender, but they color code them before they are even born. They do not want children to think about sexual orientation, but there is rarely a G-rated movie without a romance between a girl and a boy. Reducing the LGBTQ community to sex is dismissive and disdainful when the community is about so much more. It is their identity, it is how they love, it is how they dress, it is how they act, it is what they believe. Unfortunately, the infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill has already been passed in Florida, but there is still time to stop its spread and continue to provide LGBTQ kids with affirming content.

Despite being reduced to sex by many, graphic novel authors and illustrators write LGBTQ books specifically for kids that are G-rated and age-appropriate. Shannon Watters, co-creator of the “Lumberjanes” series (which features two young girls who are dating) states: “We thought about what is an age-appropriate crush or romance at that age. You hold hands and you tell each other secrets and you want to hang out with each other all the time and you put your head on each other’s shoulder and you give each other furtive looks. That’s a universal experience, whether you are straight or queer.” With the creators in the game right now, the future looks bright for LGBTQ representation in media despite the obstacles in the way. Watters puts it simply. “I want kids to see characters like Mal and Molly and say ‘I can be happy living my truth,’ and have that be once again just a fact. The fact of these characters’ happiness, of these characters being accepted for who they are, is so immensely important.” Change is a long process, but more people now than ever are on the side of the LGBTQ community.

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