There’s been a lot of talk lately about diversity in fiction (and if I were less lazy, I’d link to some articles and blog posts on the subject). This is something I’ve always been concerned about. For one thing, just because I’m a white man, it doesn’t mean I only like stories about white men. I’ve been inspired by stories about women, people of color, and so on. For another thing, I’ve always been aware that I’m not the only audience in the world and not every story is for me. While I’m inspired by different kinds of characters and stories, it’s also important to be able to see one’s self reflected in stories, to know that you’re not alone, to know that someone like you is worth telling stories about. And that leads me to another reason why I think diversity in fiction is crucial, a reason I’ve only recently fully recognized and accepted.
I grew up in the 1970s and ’80s. Diversity in novels, movies, and TV shows was…pretty unbalanced. When it came to LGBTQA characters, representation was jawclenchingly bad. From what I could gather, people were either gay or straight. There was no such thing as bisexuality, except for it being mentioned every once in a while about someone who was either sexually ravenous (“They’ll fuck anyone and everyone!”) or sexually confused (“You’re either gay or straight! Pick a side!”). Gay men were either limp-wristed Lamar from Revenge of the Nerds or the super butch Village People. Lesbians were all man-hating bulldykes. In the real world, my parents had gay friends and family who rarely fit those stereotypes. But they were adults, and adults were much farther removed from my imagination and identity than fictional characters. I could project myself into fiction. Real adults were barely-comprehensible aliens.
Here’s a thing: I never went through a phase of thinking girls were “icky.” I’ve always liked girls. A lot. In elementary school, I went over to girl’s houses to play. I had epic, painful crushes on girls. My friends teased me for liking girls, but I just didn’t understand why. Girls were pretty and getting attention from them felt great! At the same time, I also developed crushes on boys. But the way my friends talked, I knew voicing those crushes out loud was even worse than letting people know about my crushes on “icky” girls. I also knew that even though I was barely athletic and very sports-ignorant, I wasn’t the “girly fruit” that Jack Tripper pretended to be on Three’s Company. Even as I got older and realized that gay men and women weren’t easy to stereotype (any more than people of color were), I still never saw any fictional male characters who were like me. (Peter Tork of the Monkees–not the real person, but the character he played on the show–was the closest reflection. He was funny, not a manly man like the other three Monkees, interested in women but shy and awkward around them. I could definitely relate.) It wasn’t until the ’90s, with Johnny Galecki’s David on Roseanne and Matthew Perry’s Chandler on Friends that I started to see characters who were relatable to me. (Actually, now that I think about it, Ducky in Pretty in Pink was also pretty relatable. He was goofy, he dressed funny, he was far from macho, and he had a desperate crush on Molly Ringwald. Just like me!) But even those characters were firmly heterosexual. (In Chandler’s case, it’s stressed over and over that as gay as he may seem, he’s absolutely playing for Team Hetero.)
Here’s another thing: in high school, in the mid-to-late ’80s, I started being bullied and teased for being bad at sports, dressing “weird” (bow ties and suspenders), being bookish and dreamy. I got called “fag” a lot. Even as I got older and finally got the courage to ask girls out on dates, friends and family and complete strangers would question my sexuality–not by asking me if I was attracted to men as well as women, but by accusing me of being gay and either faking being into girls or not admitting it to myself. (Hey! I got teased in elementary school for liking girls, then got teased when I was older for appearing to be gay! Damn, was there any way to win?) (Nope.) This all made me very resistant to the idea that I could be anything but straight. “I like women a lot, and those people who think I’m gay are wrong, so I must be completely straight, right?” (Which is another reason why I related to Chandler on Friends, even though I did have romantic and physical feelings towards men.) I got so entrenched in this mindset, I really did stop admitting to myself that I was attracted to men, especially since I’d always been more attracted to women. The idea that you could be attracted to one gender a lot and another gender to a lesser degree but still have both attractions be valid, the idea that a guy could be bisexual without being gay-but-faking-it or a ravenous, omnisexual pervert, was not something I understood at all until very recently, more because of queer people posting on Tumblr and Twitter than because of characters I’ve seen in fiction. (Although we are finally seeing more diversity in sexuality in popular stories.)
This is one reason why diverse representation in fiction is so massively important. Figuring out your sexuality as you’re growing up can be awfully confusing, and it doesn’t help if all you see in the stories you consume are rigid examples of a binary sexuality that ignores and denies the true diverse, fluid nature of human romance and getting-it-on-ness. Stories aren’t just entertainment and diversions, they’re a part of the fabric of our society. They reflect our culture, and we reflect back at our stories, like the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. Stories help us figure out who we are and where we want to go. “Who I am” is not a simple, easy thing to sum up and it’s different for everyone. “Where I want to go” is open to a more directions and pathways than we can count. Even if you have yourself all figured out, how selfish must you be to deny the need of other people for representation? Why shouldn’t our fictional characters and stories be as diverse as we messy, awkward humans are?