Now You See Me: How diversifying LGBT representation helps us progress

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By Rachel Brooks

The image of a champion is subjective. How image is built in the eye of the public can decide the ultimate fate of a person, or even an entire movement; after all, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” In the case of the American LGBTI rights movement, positive narratives have been the primary vehicle for progress. When constructed properly, a favorable public representation can humanize a movement in a way that sows the seeds of acceptance in the public opinion. This summer was groundbreaking: the Oberfell v. Hodges decision resulted in the legalization of same-sex marriage in all 50 states, and the U.S. Department of Defense announced that they would move towards allowing trans service members to openly serve in addition to extending the military Equal Opportunity policy to gay and lesbian service members. We even followed Caitlyn Jenner’s controversial journey through the public sphere. So “Love Wins” and the LGBTI community has everything they could want, right? Not quite. Despite the progress made recently in the United States, there is a difference between the supposedly supportive public opinion and the realization of the goals of the movement across the United States. Legislation explicitly providing and protecting rights for LGBTI Americans is notoriously lacking at the state and federal level, and perhaps the most damaging void left so far by the rights movement in the U.S. is the lack of non-homogenous queer representation, both in the media and in official data collection. The LGBT community is not and never will be comprised exclusively of Americans who are white, cis-gendered, strictly homosexual, (upper) middle class, or any combination of the four, so why is it so often represented as such?

At the 2015 Social Good Summit, a panel hosted by actress and trans rights activist Laverne Cox called “To Be Counted” discussed the urgency of data collection, especially surrounding trans rights. While the lack of diversity in data collection (i.e., inclusion of more racial and ethnic minorities as well as a greater variety of sexual orientations and gender identities) is a widespread problem in the LGBTI community, the damaging effects that this void has on the trans community is often disregarded. In the U.S. and across the world, there is little to no official data on trans citizens, which leads to greater difficulties addressing issues from healthcare to hate crimes.

While trans visibility is on the rise in the media, 89% of Americans feel they do not know someone who is trans; trans Americans are less likely to be afforded protections and rights under the law in the states where they live; and people who identify as trans face an exponentially higher risk of violence and suicide attempts. Cox was a dynamic moderator of her panel, and one of the most striking points she made was when she turned to the audience and asked: “What message are we sending to transgender young people when we don’t count them? We’re telling them they don’t matter.” After a day and a half of panels and speakers full of pleasant commentary on the importance of youth and our power moving towards 2030, this thought was shocking to me, but it rang true. At times in my life I have felt disenfranchised, but to not have my identity counted or considered to the extent that trans people face worldwide would be truly devastating.

In many ways, building a stronger, more inclusive cultural narrative surrounding the queer movement could be the key to cementing a comprehensively accepting society for LGBTI people. Already we have seen the beginnings of visible queer representation in popular culture through popular shows such as Modern Family and Orange is the New Black. However, even with the growing list of shows including LGBTI characters, the number of representations that aren’t stereotypical cisgender (typically white) gay males is still fairly small. While this may not seem to be a point to complain about—cue  the cries of “at least you have something”—take into consideration that queer people of color, and particularly young queer POC, are affected disproportionately by the violence and discrimination that LGBTI people struggle against. I as well as my Social Good Summit colleagues are aware of the power of media, so it shouldn’t be difficult for us to understand the importance of including genderqueer and queer people of color in the media we present. Even if we don’t actively work to make others aware of this importance and power dynamic, there is no excuse for not acting upon it ourselves.  Seeing positive portrayals of someone who is black and genderqueer on the TV or computer may not change everyone’s opinion, but simply acknowledging that someone like that exists could change a few opinion, if not a life.

Being seen is the first step to progress, but simply seeing a problem doesn’t create a solution. For the LGBTI community, it may be difficult to proceed with hope or determine the “next steps” in the face of aggressive, high-profile transphobia and homophobia both at home and abroad. Luckily the United States and countries worldwide have been presented with not only an opportunity, but also a channel to pursue LGBTI rights and visibility through their involvement in the UN. Two years ago the United Nations launched the Free and Equal Campaign, focused on international education on LGBTI issues, as well as promoting visibility and rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons. Additionally, while there may not be a specific goal introduced with the new Sustainable Development Goals that focuses specifically on LGBTI progress, the implicit broadness of the agenda leaves openings for LGBTI issues to be brought to the forefront. After all, as a marginalized community LGBTI people are affected to a higher degree by the issues the Goals set out to tackle. Greater visibility and data collection for the LGBTI community is only one of many steps to that goal of a world where everyone is truly free and equal. However, while the LGBTI community must still push to have their rights fulfilled, there are now others pushing with us. 

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